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The man behind Zapf Dingbats

The first ever biography of calligrapher and type designer Hermann Zapf is a handsome book, designed by the biographer, Jerry Kelly, himself. His overarching personal collection of Zapf material is virtually an archive, prompting even Zapf to say once, “You know my work better than I do.” Kelly demurred modestly, but his Hermann Zapf and the World He Designed shows how spot-on Zapf was. This heavily illustrated biography explores Zapf’s prodigious work intimately, while warmly evoking his life.

For those not familiar with Zapf, he was the greatest type designer the modern world has ever known, and an equally elegant calligrapher and book designer. Kelly first met this towering lettering artist in July 1979 when he signed up for a summer course in calligraphy that Zapf had initiated at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Reflecting over this in the biography, Kelly comments that if you had told him then, as he waited outside that first day of class for an early glimpse of the Master, that he would go on one day to become Zapf’s friend, colleague and finally his biographer, he “would have thought you truly mad.”

Kelly and his wife, Nancy, would become lifelong friends with Zapf and his wife, Gudrun, who is also a fine calligrapher, type-designer and bookbinder. One of my favourite illustrations in the book is a personal holiday card of the Zapfs: the greeting is printed in Gudrun’s Ariadne initials and Diotima italic (which Kelly feels is “one of the most beautiful italic typefaces” out there) and typographically arranged by Zapf. It was their own personal favourite among the things they designed.

Zapf’s story properly begins in 1935 when he was 16 and chanced on a calligraphic exhibition in Nuremberg of the German master, Rudolf Koch. Then and there, Zapf decided to become a calligrapher. He came from a poor family, but with the meagre pocket money he had, he bought lettering manuals and taught himself calligraphy. Soon, he was writing out calligraphic manuscripts; one of the most striking was written in gold and silver ink on a Japanese paper dyed purple. His stellar career in type design began when he was just in his 20s, for the Stempel type foundry in Frankfurt. One of them was Palatino, a widely used and admired typeface today. Kelly says Zapf loved arranging specimens of type in inventive ways, and in 1954 came his masterpiece, Manuale Typographicum, a gorgeous display of the complete alphabet in various typographic arrangements. Published as an oblong 12”x9” folio, it was an entirely new kind of type specimen book, says Kelly.

Printer’s art

Zapf set some rules for himself: each page had to show a complete alphabet (A to Z) and it would be only in two colours, red and black, and the text used would be evocative quotations related to the felicity and beauty of letters. It was printed on a paper that had “a sensuous, textured surface”. Kelly hails Manuale Typographicum as “a masterpiece of the printer’s art. It will forever rank among the greatest works of typography and printing.”

Typophiles, and even Zapf scholars, will find the biography of immense value for the intricate details Kelly provides for every form of lettering and bookmaking created by him: several key Zapf typefaces, for instance (whether metal, photo-set or digital), get a blow-by-blow account of how they were accomplished, from trial drawings to their commercial release. He designed more than 200 exceptional typefaces, and everyone has her favourites; mine are Zapf Civilite, an enchanting calligraphic typeface cut in metal, and Zapf Renaissance, a digital face with flourished swash characters.

The biography also devotes chapters to the great companionship and working life Zapf and Gudrun shared in their marriage. Over the decades, Kelly and Nancy often made trips to their beautiful book-lined home in Darmstadt, Germany, right up to a few months before Zapf’s death in 2015. (Gudrun is 101, and released her first digital font last year). Rather than a dense, overwrought biography, Hermann Zapf and the World He Designed is a deft, affectionate, and finely drawn portrait of a magnificent, gentle artist who devoted his life to making letterforms as beautiful, useful and legible as they could possibly be.

The writer is a bibliophile, columnist and critic.

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