In 1963 Hermann Zapf walked into an American design school, snapped a piece of chalk in half and, with its side edge, drew a perfect lowercase g on the blackboard. He went on to give an inspired lecture on the different angles that a calligrapher uses when holding a pen, and how strokes differ between calligraphy and typography – all illustrated, not with slides, but with impeccably executed chalk drawings.
Zapf, who has died aged 96, showed off these sumptuous drawing skills on many occasions over his long life, not always with the calligrapher’s usual tools of nibbed pen or fine brush. He could draw a faultless line just as easily with chalk on a board or with a ballpoint on a school pad, and in 1960 was chosen to write out the Preamble of the Charter of the United Nations, held at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. He also brought his calligraphic talent to the design of a string of typefaces over seven decades, a period in which the industry moved rapidly from hot metal typesetting through photocomposition to digitisation. Zapf is one of the few people who designed letters for all three methods.
Immediately after the second world war, Frankfurt became the centre of West Germany’s book trade. Its type foundries needed new Roman types since blackletter, the traditional script once regarded by the Nazis as quintessentially German, had been replaced by the Roman alphabet as the standard in 1941. Zapf worked for the Stempel foundry and in 1949 he designed the Palatino typeface for it.