The legacy of Zapf and Frutiger

In the summer of 2015 the world has lost two of the most important type designers of the second half of the twentieth century: Hermann Zapf and Adrian Frutiger. Both have had a tremendous visual impact on the world, each having designed at least two or three absolutely ubiquitous typefaces and many others besides. Frutiger’s Univers, the first modern large type family in the sense of constituting a system of weights and widths, was a darling of the later modernist movement (its condensed widths living on a bit longer into certain kinds of postmodernism), and his eponymous face continues to have a solid career in the world of signage and wayfinding, for which it was designed, and to exert a strong influence on more or less humanist sanserif type design. The bundling of Palatino with desktop laser printers and computer operating systems has ensured its heavy use to this day. Both Frutiger and Palatino, as well as Méridien, Aldus, and Optima, also underwent some evolution late in their designers’ lives, and with their collaboration, at the hands of Linotype, with debatable results.

In addition to his prolific output as a type designer, Zapf was a superlative calligrapher (as well as an active typographer), and there was a lively interplay between his calligraphy and type designs: the cluster of related faces Orion, Comenius, Marconi, Hunt Roman, Zapf Book, and Zapf International (to which might be added Melior) have their counterparts in his calligraphic and lettering work, as do, obviously, Zapfino and Zapf Chancery, the Palatino and Aldus italics, Optima, and Zapf Renaissance. The hand-written counterparts to Palatino and Aldus romans and their related titling faces are not as much in evidence, but these faces, while strongly glyphic, obviously owe much to the broad nib as well.

I do not know whether, beyond his student years, Frutiger practiced calligraphy or lettering to speak of; his work lay rather in the fields of corporate design, teaching, writing, and the study of signs and symbols. To my knowledge, perhaps only three faces of his – Ondine, Méridien Italic, and Breughel – really refer very strongly to the broad nib, though Iridium represents a sort of humanization of the Didone paradigm. On the other hand, Frutiger’s student project Schrift / Écriture / Lettering featured many kinds of historical lettering engraved in wood, and I have read that as a young man he had wished to be a sculptor, that his favorite artist was Brancusi, and that he worked with cut paper as much as with pencil. Just as Zapf’s broad-nib writing informed so much of his type design, this sculptural quality seems to underlie much, if not all, of Frutiger’s, from the aforementioned Méridien to Herculanum and Rusticana. I wonder, however, whether that is ultimately to their benefit and that of the reader. Much depends upon printing conditions, but in certain circumstances the strongly formed counters of many of his faces – clearly outlined in some of his type drawings – have such presence that they compete with the strokes themselves (which in most of these cases have a distinct taper), setting up a positive–negative vibration that can easily dazzle the eye (this same criticism can occasionally be made of Zapf’s work too; Zapf International and Melior come to mind in this connection).

Despite the very high quality, in the abstract, of much of both men’s output, it remains to be seen, I think, how much of either designer’s work will find continued use. To my eye many of their faces of the 1960s and 1970s, even when they have ‘good bones’, now appear dated due to exaggerated proportions, contrast, or terminals: Zapf’s work of the period often seems overweight and sometimes overwrought, and Frutiger’s Apollo, for example, is 1960s-French enough that it does not quite fit today’s often crisper, Dutch-influenced fashions, without being quirky enough like, say, Vendôme to be truly evocative when such is desired. (These faces are not the only strong work from the phototype era that nevertheless feel somewhat dated: Mendoza’s Photina comes to mind as another example.) Furthermore, most of these faces were issued (and perhaps designed) without text figures or a full set of f-ligatures, and in some cases with a poor italic or even a sloped roman. However much I might appreciate Méridien, Apollo, Breughel, or, in its own way, Zapf International, given how strongly they speak of their time and how much excellent type has been designed since, it’s difficult to imagine some of these faces ever being quite the right answer again.

To my eye the most successful and enduring of all these designs, at least for text work, are those that, in whatever way, reach back to the pen and to humanist proportions while retaining a glyphic or typographical sense: Aldus, the original versions of Palatino,* Heraklit, and their related titling faces Michelangelo, Sistina, and Phidias, as well as, for titling or inscriptional purposes, Optima; and, again for titling or inscriptional work, Méridien. I think it is no accident that these faces were all originally produced in metal; the advent of phototype and then digital design, along with the normalization of offset printing, changed type design considerably and, for a good while, much for the worse. Perhaps the greatest legacy of these two designers is that they, in the face of so much change and commercial pressure and in the midst of much truly grotesque work, upheld high standards of design informed by their experience with physical tools. There is no doubt still much to appreciate in, and to learn from, both men’s work.

Addendum: Bram de Does

The third major type designer to pass away in 2015 was Bram de Does. His contribution to type design was different, and markedly less prolific, than that of either Zapf or Frutiger; he spent much of his career as a typographer for Joh. Enschedé. Yet his two published typefaces, Trinité and Lexicon, have become ubiquitous in his native Netherlands and are beginning (despite their very high price) to find an audience in the Anglophone world as well.

Trinité was commissioned as a book face for Enschedé when De Does (wisely) opposed the digitization of Jan van Krimpen’s Romanée. Designed between 1979 and 1982 for photocomposition on the proprietary Autologic typesetting system, it was later reissued by The Enschedé Font Foundry (teff). Lexicon was designed a decade later as a compact workhorse for the Van Dale dictionary and was also released by teff. The two share certain similarities of form, especially in the roman styles, and they also share the unusual feature of multiple ascender and descender heights. Lexicon, though not as strictly as Renard, Verdigris, or Quarto, follows in the footsteps of Van den Keere’s Gros Canon Romain (this is not always noted in overviews of Lexicon), a large and large-eyed face cut for Plantin’s liturgical books; I am less certain, offhand, about a specific model for the italic. Trinité has a more pen-written appearance, due to its very slight slope and asymmetrical serifs. Both have crisp and fluent italics, Trinité’s again more delicate (and marked by the closed-descender-loop italic g and the optional tall forward-swept-ascender variants, the Italic No. 4). Lexicon, due to its compactness and wide range of weights, has found much use not only in reference works, but also in newspapers in and Bibles and other liturgical books, applications in which space is also at a premium. It is also, quite happily, used as a literary book face, as is the somewhat more delicate Trinité; on the other hand, I have also seen Trinité very successfully used in a Bible and for signage.

Both Trinité and Lexicon strike an enviably successful balance between the modern and the traditional that has no doubt contributed to their popularity. Though it is too early to tell whether they will achieve either the ubiquity or the longevity of Zapf’s or Fruitger’s work, they would be worthy of both and are a fitting tribute to the memory of their designer.

*  It will be interesting to see whether, now that Zapf is gone, any useable revival – authorized or otherwise – of his original series of Palatino designs will appear.