Robert Bringhurst, a type historian whose books are on every type designer and typographer’s shelf, has written and designed an exceptional “natural history” of Hermann Zapf’s most enduring design project, Palatino. I asked him to talk about how he chronicles through word and image the many adaptations of what Bringhurst calls more than a family, but rather a “tribe.”
Palatino: The Natural History of a Typeface includes 200 illustrations, sketches, drawings, proofs, matrices and more. Published by The Book Club of California (firstname.lastname@example.org), 300 numbered copies are for sale at $195 each by calling (800)869-7656.
What inspired you to select Palatino as the subject of an entire volume?
As you know, this is a book about the whole Palatino tribe: the extended family. A book about Baskerville or Caslon would be a study of basically one design that’s passed through a lot of iterations. The Palatino tribe is much more varied. There are many different ideas to deal with—and so there is also the interesting question, What do all these different designs have to do with one another?
A second reason is, all these designs are the work of a single man—and a very extraordinary man, profoundly talented and devoted to his work. Zapf is the Picasso or the Mozart or the Michelangelo or the Shakespeare of type design: an artist whose work really repays close attention. The Palatino family is only one of many things he produced, but it occupied 60 years of his life. By following this one thread, I get a tour of his whole career.
Third, those 60 years were very eventful years, in which all the technological borders were crossed: foundry metal to linecasting machines to phototype to primitive digital to highly sophisticated digital type. Nearly the whole range of typographic history is compressed into those six decades.
In short, the Palatino family is a remarkable mountain range, and it affords remarkable views of the whole surrounding landscape.
There have, of course, been celebrations and in-depth studies of Helvetica, Futura, Bodoni and other typefaces. Why do you feel Palatino is uniquely important enough to sustain your rigorous history?
Each of the faces you mention—Helvetica, Futura and Bodoni—is a singular case, and so is Palatino. Bodoni, like Zapf, was a designer with remarkable range. Most people think of him in terms of a single design, but he worked across a much broader field. He too deserves a book, but I don’t believe it could be a book about a single extended family that he worked on all his life—and Bodoni himself didn’t live through any revolutions in typographic technology. The fonts he cut in his late 60s and early 70s were produced in the same way as the fonts he cut in his early 20s.
Futura is a very powerful design, but it’s basically one idea, not many different related ideas. And while Renner spent a lot of time on it, he didn’t pursue it for 60 years. Futura, like Bodoni, has been adapted after the fact to phototype and digital technology, but the original designer was not involved in those adaptations. Zapf was very actively involved in the transformation of Palatino from a foundry face to a Linotype face to a phototype face to a digital face.
Helvetica, like Palatino, has spread all over the world and been imitated and plagiarized more times than anyone could count. It’s also been stretched, compressed, lightened, darkened and otherwise adapted to the maximum possible extent—but the extended Helvetica family is not one person’s work. It gives us a cross-section or core sample of the typographic industry during some turbulent, interesting years, but it doesn’t give us any picture at all of a single artist’s work.
Did you spend much time with Mr. Zapf during your research?
I first met Zapf in the early 1980s. We had an active correspondence for many years, and I visited him on occasion. I saw him last in 2009, six years before his death. He was a delightful human being, interested in everything and deeply nourished by his work. But the book is not really based on our conversations—nor on our correspondence either. It’s based on a close study of the things he made. I spent a lot more time in the Zapf archive in Wolfenbüttel, and in the Stempel archive in Darmstadt, than I did with Zapf himself.
You refer to this as a “natural history.” How do you define that term regarding a typeface?
I’m not a big fan of the colonial-industrial mindset: the view that human beings are masters of the universe, children of God and pretty much unrelated and unbeholden to anything else. Humans are animals, and we are, like all animals, good at some things, lousy at others. We can run, for instance, but not as well as deer, and we can swim, but not as well as trout. We can climb trees, but not as well as monkeys. Compared with most other creatures, however, we can talk and draw pretty good.
In fact, making art appears to be part of our nature. Humans do it wherever you find them. If art is a natural activity, then the history of art is really and truly a branch of natural history. Maybe this is easier for people to think about if we focus first on calligraphy and typography rather than representational art.
Where do you place Palatino compared to his other highly visible, well-worn typefaces?
I don’t think it’s my job as a typographic historian to rank typefaces against one another or try to say which one is “the best.” Various forms of Helvetica are good for some things, various forms of Palatino are good for others. But if I didn’t think Palatino was a really remarkable group of related designs, I wouldn’t have written a book about it.
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