Hermann Zapf is considered one of the great lettering artists of modern times. Born in Nuremberg in 1918, Zapf was interested in technology and science early in his youth. He read voraciously to learn about inventions that changed the world.
Zapfs first foray into the world of typeface design was an experiment in the 1930s when he developed a secret writing system so that he and his brother could exchange private information. It was some kind of cross between Germanic runes and Cyrillic and could only be deciphered if you knew the code, Zapf says. That’s over 70 years ago now, and I suppose this secret writing system constituted my first alphabetic creations.
Zapf had wanted to become an electrical engineer, but the oppressive political climate in the early 1930s in Germany did not allow him to study engineering. He had to start an apprenticeship in a photo retoucher. His search for an apprenticeship led him to training as a photo retoucher in 1934.
In 1935, a memorial exhibition was held for Nuremberger Rudolf Koch, who had recently died in 1934. Kochs work heightened Zapfs interest in lettering. He bought books by Koch and the British lettering artist Edward Johnston. Using the books for reference, Zapf taught himself calligraphy using a broad-edged pen.
When his apprentice master discovered Zapfs gift for calligraphy, he put the young artist to work retouching lettering. He was also asked to improve the work of his less able colleagues, often toiling late into the evening.
After completing his apprenticeship, Zapf went to Frankfurt and spent time at a workshop run by Paul Koch (son of Rudolf Koch). Printing historian Gustav Mori introduced Zapf to Stempel and Linotype, where he designed his first printed typeface for the companies in 1938, the Gilgengart.fraktur design.