The master of beautiful letters

The biography of Hermann Zapf, that giant of type design, is here

October 27, 2018 04:00 pm | Updated October 29, 2018 11:19 am IST

Real thing: Zapf's calligraphic lettering

Real thing: Zapf's calligraphic lettering

I was thrilled to finally find myself inside the private library of Jerry Kelly, the accomplished calligrapher and book designer. I had dreamt of this day for years, and on a Saturday this September I found my way to his house which was snuggled inside a thickly wooded neighbourhood in Connecticut.

The sprawling house was, wall to wall, lined with bookcases of all sizes containing illuminated manuscripts, incunabular books from the 15th century, and masterpieces of modern fine printing. However, I was there primarily to look at something only Kelly’s collection could offer: the calligraphic and typographic work of Hermann Zapf, that giant of type design whose calling was “to create beautiful letters.”

Decades of conversations

It was indeed Kelly, Zapf’s long-time student whom I was now standing before, who had famously said, “What Michelangelo was to sculpture and Beethoven was to music, that’s what Hermann Zapf is to type design and calligraphy.” Kelly, himself a renowned book designer, fine press printer, calligrapher and typographic scholar, is deeply invested in the life and work of Zapf.

No one I can think of today has done more to bring Zapf’s work to the world than Kelly, having organised pioneering exhibitions of Zapf’s calligraphic work, lectured extensively on his work in type design, and written several books on various aspects of this German master’s lettering art. And now, coming just around the corner, will be Kelly’s greatest contribution to his master and friend: a biography titled Hermann Zapf & the World He Designed.

The manuscript is ready, and a campaign to raise support to publish it in various fine editions will be launched on Kickstarter on November 8, Zapf’s 100th birthday. Zapf was arguably the finest type designer the modern world has known. Some of the most admired typefaces — metal and digital — that we see today, and use on a daily basis, have come from the hand of Zapf: Palatino, Optima, Melior, Michelangelo, Zapfino (as close to a calligraphic digital font as you will ever get) and those Zapf Dingbats.

“My biography,” Kelly told me, as he showed me an advance copy of the manuscript, “is enriched by decades of conversations with Zapf and 50 of his associates. It features rarities and never-before-seen works and photos, it will include definitive lists of Zapf’s type designs and major calligraphic works. The book will be over 350 pages with more than 400 illustrations, over 90 of which have never been reproduced in a book before.”

Join the campaign

After Kelly put away his Zapf manuscript, we got to the highlight of my visit: a tour of his gorgeous books, with an emphasis on Zapf’s original calligraphic work in his collection. The calligraphic and lettering work I saw that afternoon took my breath away — I had only seen these exquisite examples of lettering in images reproduced in books, and seeing the original, mounted and framed, is not unlike the difference between seeing a reproduction of an iconic painting and then encountering the real thing: you are struck down by its beauty, grace and power. Along with the many calligraphic Zapf pieces Kelly had bought from private collections and auctions paying steep prices, there were also on the wall, hung proudly, original calligraphic broadsides Zapf had gifted to Kelly, inscribed and signed to him personally with a calligraphic flourish.

As I prepared to leave, Kelly’s wife, Nancy, a senior designer at Penguin, handed me their guest book to leave a comment in. And as an instance or model of what previous guests had written for me to follow, she pointed to a page. I looked at it, gasped, and then looked up to see Nancy and Jerry grinning.

The page had been filled by Zapf who had been their weekend guest once, and his entry was written with his familiar and masterly calligraphic strokes: a calligraphic alphabet design followed by an inscription that spoke of the pleasure of being in a house filled with the warmth of true bibliophiles and fine books.

It was Kelly’s many books on modern fine printing that first made me want to collect fine press books, and it was his devotion to Zapf that made me a devotee of this modern master of type design. And now, like typophiles everywhere, I can’t wait for his Zapf biography to come out.

If you are a typophile or a Zapf fan, get behind the Kickstarter campaign — for too long we have gone without a biography of Zapf, and now that it’s finally here, we can all be grateful, thankful and excited that his biographer has turned out to be none other than his most illustrious disciple and friend.

The writer is a bibliophile, columnist and critic.

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