A Cruel June

This is proving to be a sad month.  Hermann Zapf passed away three weeks ago, on June 4th; he was a German calligrapher and type designer. Actually I haven’t known his name for long, but I have been in love with his creations for a long time.

When I was in graduate school in America I frequently made use of an underground tunnel connecting two libraries on campus. They were both old, historic buildings, and their ancient intestines were often baffling; this particular passageway too was not at all like the elegant exterior, with extruded pipeworks and strange angles. But unusually, it had a beautiful mural showcasing letterforms. Elegant, tall capitals. There were several typefaces featured, but the only one I recognized was Palatino: it was the name of a font I desperately wanted, unavailable to me because I wasn’t on a Mac but a Windows machine. It was classic and beautiful, the lines clean and well balanced. It was the first font I memorized the name of out of love, and I’m still excited to see it, be it a flyer, book or packaging.

It was only many, many years after that first encounter that I came across the name Hermann Zapf, in connection with my budding interest in calligraphy. I realized that the biggest reason I admired the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was because of the names composed in Optima, another Zapf creation. When I took a workshop with the calligrapher Luca Barcellona last year, he showed us a slender volume of Zapf’s work that is all but impossible to get hold of now. Serious calligraphers own it, and copies do not circulate; its possession confers status. It is extraordinary to be so revered among lettering professionals, but even among them, Zapf’s eminence is of a different order. He brought so much beauty into the lives of so many people.

The writer James Salter passed away last week as well. I discovered him late, with a profile in the New Yorker two years ago; I can’t say he is one of my favorite authors, but he does have a more interesting life story than most. He was a fighter pilot who wrote. He flew planes in the Korean War, although I was disappointed not to find any significant associations between him and my country; unlike surgeons like Richard Selzer, he did not mix with the civilian population at all, and Korea exists only as place names that he flew over. But he was such a romantic, and he wrote such beautiful prose. They keep leaving us, the stars.


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