The Book Club of California celebrated its 235th publication with a lecture tour, of sorts, for members and friends up and down the Golden State during the month of May. Robert Bringhurst’s Palatino: The Natural History of a Typeface is an important and elegantly produced book that is as much about the typographer as it is about the typeface. Hosted at the new Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography at Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design, Bringhurst gave an illustrated talk about his book, Hermann Zapf and the typographer’s sixty-year devotion to the Palatino typeface. Spanning the major eras in printing history, Zapf’s compulsion, dictated by his uncompromising attention to detail, resulted in Palatino being designed for foundry type, redesigned for film, and redesigned again for digital typography. Bringhurst’s exploration of these modifications was the impetus for the book and he shared some of the highlights during his lecture. As he explained, he wrote a natural history of a typeface through the life of Hermann Zapf.
Bringhurst and Zapf became friends when he sent his manuscript of the now classic, Elements of Typographic Style for input and critique. Zapf complimented him on his effort and shared his opinion that typography is a work of art meant to be used to create other works of art. In the lecture, Bringhurst provided a biographical sketch of Zapf’s early years, conscription into the German army during World War II, and how a love of sketching the natural world led to a job drawing letterforms for the type founder D. Stempel AG, in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. (From 1900 to 1983, Stempel had an exclusive relationship with the Mergenthaler Linotype Company, and they employed numerous designers such as Herbert Thannehauser, Victor Hammer, and of course, Hermann Zapf.) Palatino was one of the first typefaces Zapf designed for Stempel, a face then called Medici. 1949 saw the first roman casting of Palatino and by 1953 there were twenty metal faces within its family. When film composition came along, Zapf felt the metal matrices weren’t correct since the printing technique had changed, so he redesigned the entire font. Then he redesigned it again for wood type. When Stempel began selling in North America, Palatino was tweaked to reflect the preferences and expectations of that marketplace.
Zapf lived long enough (only passing away last year at the age of 97) to see the nearly complete domination of digital typography. Although he was able to convince a reluctant Microsoft to allow him to redesign the range and character set of one of their most popular faces, he was never paid for it, even though Palatino’s non-roman faces needed to be designed from scratch.
Bringhurst explained a bit about his thoughts and design process behind the production of this book. It includes letterpress plates set by the author and printed by New York-based book designer Jerry Kelly. Locating the Palatino fonts necessary for the book required a bit of searching. The foundry type came from all over the world, and the linotype from various sources. The Greek character set was cast by Richard Seibert, who incidentally designed his own type case for the Greek alphabet. As an added challenge they chose the 1822 edition of the Metamorphosis (which was edited as part of Ovid’s complete works by Nisard) for a specimen in book. As he hoped, Bringhurst was able to find the original matrices for the edition. Physically, it is a wonderfully designed book with numerous illustrations and folding plates. Sadly, for many of our bookshelves, the book is already sold out.