Hermann Zapf

Hermann Zapf was born in Nuremberg during turbulent times marked by the German Revolution of 1918–1919 in Munich and Berlin, the end of World War I, the exile of Kaiser Wilhelm, and the establishment of Bavaria as a free state by Kurt Eisner. In addition, the Spanish Flu Pandemic took hold of Europe in 1918 and 1919 and killed two of Zapf's siblings. Famine later struck Germany, and Zapf's mother was grateful to send him to school in 1925, where he received daily meals in a program organized by Herbert Hoover. In school, Zapf was mainly interested in technical subjects. One of his favorite books was the annual science journal Das neue Universum ("The New Universe"). He and his older brother experimented with electricity, building a crystal radio and an alarm system for his house. Even at his early age, Zapf was already getting involved with type, inventing ciphertext alphabets to exchange secret messages with his brother.

 Hermann Zapf

Hermann Zapf

Zapf left school in 1933 with the ambition to pursue a career in electrical engineering. Unfortunately, his father had become unemployed. Zapf's father experienced trouble with the newly established Third Reich, having been involved with trade unions, and was sent to the Dachau concentration camp for a short time.

Introduction to typography

Zapf was not able to attend the Ohm Technical Institute in Nuremberg, due to the new political regime. Therefore, he needed to find an apprenticeship. His teachers, aware of the new political difficulties, noticed Zapf's skill in drawing and suggested that he become a lithographer. Each company that interviewed him for an apprenticeship would ask him political questions, and every time he was interviewed, he was complimented on his work but was rejected. Ten months later, in 1934, he was interviewed by the last company in the telephone directory, and the company did not ask any political questions. They also complimented Zapf's work, but did not do lithography and did not need an apprentice lithographer. However, they allowed him to become a retoucher, and Zapf began his four-year apprenticeship in February 1934.

In 1935, Zapf attended an exhibition in Nuremberg in honor of the late typographer Rudolf Koch. This exhibition gave him his first interest in lettering. Zapf bought two books there, using them to teach himself calligraphy. He also studied examples of calligraphy in the Nuremberg city library. Soon, his master noticed his expertise in calligraphy, and Zapf's work shifted to lettering retouching and improvement of his colleagues' retouching work.

Hermann Zapf



A few days after finishing his apprenticeship, Zapf left for Frankfurt. He did not bear a journeyman's certificate and thus would not be able to get a work permit at another company in Nuremberg, as they would not have been able to check on his qualifications. Zapf went to the "Werkstatt Haus zum Fürsteneck", a building run by Paul Koch, son of Rudolf Koch. He spent most of his time there working in typography and writing songbooks.

Through print historian Gustav Mori, Zapf came into contact with the type foundries D. Stempel AG and Linotype GmbH of Frankfurt. In 1938, he designed his first printed typeface for them, a fraktur type called Gilgengart.

Hermann Zapf


War career

On April 1, 1939, Zapf was conscripted and sent to Pirmasens to help reinforce the Siegfried Line against France. Not used to the hard labor, he developed heart trouble in a few weeks and was given a desk job, writing camp records and sports certificates in Fraktur.

World War II broke out in September, and Zapf's unit was to be taken into the Wehrmacht. However, due to his heart trouble, Zapf was not transferred to the Wehrmacht but was instead dismissed. But on April 1, 1942, he was summoned again for the war effort. Zapf had been chosen for the Luftwaffe, but instead was sent to the artillery in Weimar. He did not perform well, confusing left and right during training and being too cautious and clumsy with his gun. His officers soon brought an unusually early end to his career in the artillery.

Zapf was sent back to the office, and then to Jüterbog to train as a cartographer. After that, he went to Dijon and then Bordeaux, joining the staff of the First Army. In the cartography unit at Bordeaux, Zapf drew maps of Spain, especially the railway system, which could have been used to transport artillery had Francisco Franco not used narrow-gauge tracks to repair bridges after the Spanish Civil War. Zapf was happy in the cartography unit. His eyesight was so excellent that he could write letters 1 millimeter in size without using a magnifying glass, and this skill probably prevented him from being commissioned back into the army.

After the war had ended, Zapf was held by the French as a prisoner of war at a field hospital in Tübingen. He was treated with respect because of his artwork and, due to his poor health, was sent home only four weeks after the end of the war. He went back to Nuremberg, which had suffered great damage because of the air raids.


Hermann Zapf


Zapf taught calligraphy in Nuremberg in 1946. He went back to Frankfurt in 1947, where the type foundry Stempel offered him a position as artistic head of their printshop. They did not ask for qualifications, certificates, or references, but instead only required him to show them his sketchbooks from the war, and a calligraphic piece he did in 1944 of Hans von Weber's "Junggesellentext".

One of Zapf's products was a publication named "Feder und Stichel" ("Pen and Graver"), printed from metal plates designed by Zapf and cut by punch cutter August Rosenberger during the war. It was printed at the Stempel printshop in 1949.

From 1948 to 1950, Zapf taught calligraphy at the Arts and Crafts School in Offenbach, giving lettering lessons twice a week to two classes of graphics students. In 1951 he married Gudrun von Hesse, who taught at the school of Städel in Frankfurt.

Most of Zapf's work as a graphic artist was in book design. He worked for various publishing houses, including Suhrkamp Verlag, Insel Verlag, Büchergilde Gutenberg, Hanser Verlag, Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, and Verlag Philipp von Zabern.

Type design

Zapf designed types for various stages of printing technology, including hot metal composition, phototypesetting (also called "cold type"), and finally digital typography for use in desktop publishing. His two most famous typefaces, Palatino and Optima, were designed in 1948 and 1952, respectively. Palatino was designed in conjunction with August Rosenberger, with careful attention to detail. It was named after 16th century Italian writing master Giambattista Palatino. Optima, a flared sans-serif, was released by Stempel in 1958. Zapf disliked its name, which was invented by the marketers at Stempel.

Though his calligraphy is considered superb by calligraphers, Zapf has not been asked to do much in that field. His largest calligraphic project was to write out the Preamble to the United Nations Charter in four languages, commissioned by the Pierpont Morgan Library in 1960, for which he received $1000.

Hermann Zapf


Computer typography

Zapf has been working on typography in computer programs since the 1960s. His ideas were considered radical, not taken seriously in Germany, and rejected by the Darmstadt University of Technology, where Zapf lectured between 1972 and 1981. Because he had no success in Germany, Zapf went to the United States. He lectured about his ideas in computerized typesetting, and was invited to speak at Harvard University in 1964. The University of Texas at Austin was also interested in Zapf, and offered him a professorship, which he did not take, because his wife opposed a move to that state.

Because Zapf's plans for the United States had come to nothing, and because their house in Frankfurt had become too small, Zapf and his wife moved to Darmstadt in 1972.

In 1976, the Rochester Institute of Technology offered Zapf a professorship in typographic computer programming, the first of its type in the world. He taught there from 1977 to 1987, flying between Darmstadt and Rochester. There he developed his ideas further, with the help of his connections in companies such as IBM and Xerox, and his discussions with the computer specialists at Rochester. A number of Zapf's students from this time at RIT went on to become influential type designers, including Charles Bigelow and Kris Holmes, who together created the Lucida type family. Other prominent students include calligrapher/font designer Julian Waters and book designer Jerry Kelly.

Hermann Zapf

In 1977, Zapf and his friends Aaron Burns and Herb Lubalin founded a company called "Design Processing International, Inc." in New York and developed typographical computer software. It existed until 1986 with the death of Lubalin, and Zapf and Burns founded "Zapf, Burns & Company" in 1987. Burns, also an expert in typeface design and in typography, was in charge of marketing until his death in 1992. Shortly before, two of their employees had stolen Zapf's ideas and founded a company of their own.

Zapf knew that he could not run an American company from Darmstadt, and did not want to move to New York. Instead, he used his experience to begin development of a typesetting program called the "hz-program", building on the H&J system in TeX.

During financial problems and bankruptcy of URW (Type foundry, article in German) in the mid-1990s, Adobe Systems acquired the Hz patent(s), and later made some use of the concepts in their InDesign program.


In 1983, Zapf had completed the typeface AMS Euler with Donald Knuth and David Siegel of Stanford University for the American Mathematical Society, a typeface for mathematical composition including fraktur and Greek letters. David Siegel had recently finished his studies at Stanford and was interested in entering the field of typography. He told Zapf his idea of making a typeface with a large number of glyph variations, and wanted to start with an example of Zapf's calligraphy, that was reproduced in a publication by the Society of Typographic Arts in Chicago.

Zapf was concerned that this was the wrong way to go, and while he was interested in creating a complicated program, he was worried about starting something new. However, Zapf remembered a page of calligraphy from his sketchbook from 1944, and considered the possibility of making a typeface from it. He had previously tried to create a calligraphic typeface for Stempel in 1948, but hot metal composition placed too many limits on the freedom of swash characters. Such a pleasing result could only be achieved using modern digital technology, and so Zapf and Siegel began work on the complicated software necessary. Siegel also hired Gino Lee, a programmer from Boston, Massachusetts, to help work on the project.

Unfortunately, just before the project was completed, Siegel wrote a letter to Zapf, saying that his girlfriend had left him, and that he had lost all interest in anything. Thus Siegel abandoned the project and started a new life, working on bringing color to Macintosh computers, and later becoming an Internet design expert.

Zapfino's development had become seriously delayed, until Zapf found the courage to present the project to Linotype. They were prepared to complete it and reorganized the project. Zapf worked with Linotype to create four alphabets and various ornaments, flourishes, and other dingbats. Zapfino was released in 1998.

Later versions of Zapfino using the Apple Advanced Typography and OpenType technologies were able to make automatic ligatures and glyph substitutions (especially contextual ones in which the nature of ligatures and substituted glyphs is determined by other glyphs nearby or even in different words) that more accurately reflected the fluid and dynamic nature of Zapf's calligraphy.

2017 History of Graphic Design

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