An Essential Calligraphic Facsimile

Here’s why I backed this Kickstarter project to reprint the sketchbooks of typeface designer Hermann Zapf. If you love letters, you should too.

If you know Zapf Chancery and Zapf Dingbats, you know the faintest shadow of the work of Hermann Zapf. If you know exquisite mid-century books printed in Palatino, you’re getting closer; I never did, having come of age with the brutish digitization of Palatino that shipped with my first laser printer (along with other notable Zapf faces such as Optima and Melior, both too subtle to survive the barbarity of toner at three hundred dots per inch.) People under the age of fifty likely know Zapf only as a typeface designer, and while a deeper study of his typefaces will lead to such treasures as Hunt Roman and Saphir, even this is only half the story. Zapf is a consummate calligrapher — he has been for eight decades — and he is about to share with the world one of his private treasures.

My introduction to Zapf the calligrapher was Feder und Stichel (Pen and Graver), a monograph of 1950 featuring twenty-five calligraphic studies cut in metal by August Rosenberger. They show not only Zapf’s mastery as a shaper of letters, words, and paragraphs, but a catholic taste for historical forms that live apart from his commercially-produced typefaces. There are rustic capitals that date to the third century, two interpretations of the 16th century Civilité, and a spectacular alphabet of inline Fraktur capitals. Zapf and I have a mutual close friend, who recently mentioned an even more exotic bit of Zapfiana, the sketchbooks that Zapf carried with him after his conscription into the German Army at the outbreak of World War II. Only reproduced in excerpt, and never seen outside of Zapf’s home, it is these that the Kelly-Winterton Press is undertaking to produce in facsimile.

Behind the Facsimile

The proper execution of such a project will require an editor with a deep knowledge of letters, a printer intimately familiar with the demands of reproducing complex artwork, someone with long-established relationships in the fine press community, and a designer up to the challenge of presenting this work in an appropriate typographic context. This project has all of these contributors in the form of Jerry Kelly, a designer, printer, and professional calligrapher, who studied under Zapf in 1979. Kelly is a lover of letters: he wrote the introduction to The Art of the Type Specimen in the Twentieth Century (and designed it beautifully using a typeface to which I’d never given a second thought); he designed The Practice of Letters, which presents The Hofer Collection of Writing Manuals from the Harvard College Library, still an indispensable reference on the evolution of letterforms. Books-on-books can sometimes, cruelly, be careless in their details; this will not be such a project. The facsimile edition will cost $65, though a range of deluxe options include such premiums as additional enclosures and fine bindings. I’ll be adding one of these to my bookshelf, and I’d encourage you to do the same, both to encourage the preservation of this important work, and to enjoy the fruits of this wonderful labor of love. —JH

All The News That’s Fit To Write

Photo: Scott Carney

The distance between handwriting and typography is at its greatest in the West. It’s been more than five centuries since the Latin alphabet, as we experience it in type, looked anything like letters made with a pen; the very anatomy of our alphabet, with its stonemason’s “serifs” and printer’s “cases,” has come a very long way from writing indeed. It can hardly be surprising that as type has come to represent the official, the sanctioned, and the eternal, handwriting has become an almost trivial appendix to our notion of what letters look like.

It’s especially easy for Westerners to forget what a minority opinion this is. Most of the world attaches special significance to the hand-written, and lives with an intimate knowledge of its forms and an appreciation of its cultural and social dimensions. A Chinese businessperson of stature can be expected not only to admire the calligraphy in a colleague’s office, but to correctly identify it as the work of Song Huizong, and to discuss its virtues with erudition. Contrast this with his American counterpart, who can go an entire career without needing to learn the name of his corporate typeface.

Both senses of the word “writing” remain united in the Arab world, where calligraphy and literacy are at times inseparable. Nowhere is this more evident than in the offices of The Musalman, a Chennai newspaper published since 1927, which has the extraordinary virtue of being the world’s last surviving newspaper written entirely by hand. “We somehow manage to make ends meet,” says one of the newspaper’s four calligraphers (or katibs) who every day devotes three hours to a single page. “There’s no monetary benefit for us, we are just here to learn Urdu.”

The handwritten newspaper gained wider attention last summer when Wired dispatched photojournalist Scott Carney to document The Musalman’s inner workings. Later this year, we may learn more about the paper’s inevitable entanglement with digital typography, when Premjit Ramachandran releases his documentary film The Last Calligraphers. —JH

I, Calligrapher

Robots have long been useful in completing challenging or hazardous tasks: dismantling explosives, assembling automobiles, winning chess tournaments, etc. Robotlab in Karlsruhe, Germany, is training them for another purpose: calligraphy. Above, an articulated limb renders the Luther Bible in a primitive but serviceable version of the schwabacher script.

This innovation can’t come a moment to soon. For thousands of years, human calligraphers have subjected themselves to years of difficult study, exposing themselves to demanding physical conditions in the service of the written word. Even with the advent of non-toxic ink and cruelty-free vellum, calligraphy is not without its hazards: in addition to carpal tunnel syndrome and asthenopic eye strain, careless practicioners often suffer the socially sclerotic effects of Renaissance Faire attendance or absorptive Tolkienism. Most chillingly, mounting evidence suggests that even in industrialized nations, calligraphy is becoming a popular pastime among children.

Thankfully, technology is coming to our rescue. As these photos suggest, robot calligraphers may soon be employed to create that common household object, the hand-lettered bible in roll form. And overhead, without any fuss, the stars are going out. —JH

The Voynich Manuscript

Only if Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, J. R. R. Tolkien and Will Shortz clubbed together in a moment of wickedness could humanity produce a more vexing object: behold the Voynich Manuscript, a puzzling artifact from the late fifteenth century written by an unknown author, in an unidentified script, in an unknown language. Since 1912, cryptographers, palaeographers, and others with time on their hands have failed to decipher this mysterious document; naturally one theory is that it’s a monstrous hoax, though its text seems to bear the hallmarks of a genuine language (note the cross-references on Zipf’s Law, information entropy, and the Cardan grille). Any theories? —JH

Oakleaf: Behind the Scenes

Kathy Willens, Associated Press

The typeface we designed for The Nature Conservancy is an extension of our Requiem font, which explores the work of sixteenth century scribe Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi (1480–1527). Arrighi is best remembered as an exemplar of the written italic, but his upright roman capitals capture an interesting balance of calligraphic and typographic traditions. The three variations of the capital T on the left offer different ways of reconciling the influences of the seriffed inscriptional letter and the swashed written one, and it was this kind of tension that we hoped to explore further. On the left screen is an enlargement from Arrighi’s 1523 writing manual Il Modo de Temperare le Penne, and on the right are two variations of the capital E in the font we designed. The cursive form on the left was one of the first digital drawings made by designer Andy Clymer, and we all thought it was immediately successful. In the final font, it’s almost perfectly preserved from this initial stage.


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