dot-font: Zapfest

Editor’s Note: This weekend an exhibit and lecture series focusing on the contributions of Hermann Zapf and Gudrun Zapf von Hesse kicks off in San Francisco. John D. Berry will be back next week to fill us in on the festivities, but in the meantime this preview, which originally appeared on April 6, puts it all into perspective. For an event schedule and location information, click here.


Underlying all of the pixelized letterforms we see on the screen or the page is a long tradition of handwritten letters. Some of our digital fonts are more directly influenced by calligraphy than others; in many cases, it’s the liveliness imbued by the traces of the pen that gives a typeface its distinctive sparkle.

Two of the finest practitioners of both traditional calligraphy and modern digital type design are Hermann Zapf and Gudrun Zapf von Hesse. They have consistently embraced new technology and turned it to the service of enduring quality. Beginning this September in San Francisco, an exhibition and series of ancillary events will highlight the considerable contributions of the Zapfs. Officially, the exhibition will be called “Calligraphic Type Design in the Digital Age: An Exhibition in Honor of the Contributions of Hermann and Gudrun Zapf”; informally, it’s being referred to as Zapfest.


The “Zapfest” exhibit and lectures will begin in September.

Calligraphy & Typography
As the organizers put it in the opening of their first press release: “Formal writing with the edged pen — all but dead a century ago — now enlivens much of the text we read. It is assumed that the written word has been supplanted by keystrokes, yet this resurgence and interest in calligraphy and typefaces derived from the hand is flourishing. How did this happen? In no small part it is a result of the efforts of two designers: Hermann Zapf and Gudrun Zapf von Hesse. For more than half a century, they have been creating typefaces while educating designers and technologists about letterforms. This is clearly cause for celebration.”

Virtually everyone who works on a computer is familiar with some of Hermann Zapf’s work, whether they know it or not. His 1949 typeface Palatino has become one of the common default fonts on laser printers, although it has undergone some modification in the passage from metal to PostScript. And of course the eponymous Zapf Chancery — or at least one of its several variants — is on pretty much everybody’s machine. Although Gudrun Zapf has been a less prolific type designer than her husband, her Nofret type family and its predecessor Diotima have been widely used by discerning designers.


Herman Zapf designed Palatino in 1949.

Who, What, Where
There is a large and flourishing community of calligraphers and lovers of the calligraphic hand in Northern California (as elsewhere); Zapfest grew out of the enthusiasm of a local society called the Friends of Calligraphy, though it involves quite a few other groups besides the hard-core community of scribes. The three curators of the exhibition, which will be on view in the Skylight Gallery of the San Francisco Public Library throughout September and October, are Sumner Stone, the noted American type designer; Susie Taylor, curator of the Harrison Collection at the San Francisco Public Library; and Linnea Lundquist, typographer, calligrapher, type designer, and former student of Hermann Zapf.


Gudrun Zapf von Hesse’s Nofret, designed in 1987.

The exhibition will feature the work of both Zapfs, including several of the typefaces they have designed — especially the more calligraphic ones — along with their calligraphic work itself (from which some of the typefaces derived) and “special books and posters designed using their typefaces.” The exhibition will expand from there to show the work of fourteen other designers of calligraphic typefaces, and the wide variety that’s possible in this field: Alan Blackman, Erik van Blokland, Rick Cusick, Timothy Donaldson, Jean Evans, Phill Grimshaw, Cynthia Hollandsworth, Akira Kobayashi, Richard Lipton, Jacqueline Sakwa, Robert Slimbach, Viktor Solt, Jovica Veljovic, and Julian Waters.


Herman Zapf designed the now-ubiquitous ITC Zapf Chancery in 1979.

Talkin’ Typography
The Zapfs themselves, whom the press release describes as “energetic octogenarians,” will be there for the opening, over Labor Day weekend, and the Friends of Calligraphy plans to present them both with “Lifetime Achievement Awards for Excellence in Calligraphy & Type Design.” Over the course of the two-month-long exhibition, a series of lectures will be given by significant typographers, calligraphers, printers, and educators. The speakers are expected to include Sumner Stone; Charles Bigelow, designer with Kris Holmes of the Lucida family of typefaces; Robert Bringhurst, who wrote the influential “Elements of Typographic Style“; Cynthia Hollandsworth, designer of the distinctive typeface Hiroshige and former director of typographic development for Agfa Compugraphic; and Jack Stauffacher, the legendary San Francisco fine printer. (Full disclosure: I am helping to organize the lecture series. There will be additional speakers.)


Columbine, by Gudrun Zapf von Hesse, designed in 1991.

Transcending the Medium
As I’ve mentioned before, it takes a great deal of skill and painstaking work to turn written letters — whether casual handwriting or formal calligraphy — into a typeface. The subtle modulations that you’d make each time you write a letter have to be generalized into something that will work when repeated hundreds of times in dozens of combinations. Both Hermann and Gudrun Zapf are masters of this.

Perhaps the most ambitious attempt to translate calligraphic exuberance into typographic form is Hermann Zapf’s most recent typeface, Zapfino, which he produced with Gino Lee. Zapfino features an amazing variety of swashes, combinations, and alternate forms, which a sensitive typographer can use to re-create some of the hand-drawn effect of original calligraphy. (Of course, if original calligraphy is what you need, you should hire a calligrapher.)


Introduced in 1998, Zapfino reproduces much of the effect of calligraphy.

Any typeface that tries to reproduce calligraphy is a compromise; the question is whether it works well on its own terms. But ordinary type that retains the movement of the pen in its strokes and curves — that has been a goal of type designers for centuries. Both Hermann and Gudrun Zapf have given us more than their share of calligraphic typefaces that are both beautiful and extremely functional. They have set standards that have challenged other type designers — many of them included in this exhibition. When Zapfest opens in September, we’ll have a chance to see the interaction of traditional skills, contemporary creativity, and ever-evolving digital technology, taking the enduring form of the letters we read.

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Posted on: August 31, 2001

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