rbis Typographicus (“The Typographic World”) is a set of twenty-nine 9 × 12 letterpress broadsides, designed by Hermann Zapf and printed by Philip Metzger of Crabgrass Press between 1970 and 1980. The broadsides feature quotations on art, science, nature, faith, and the human condition, from authors ancient and contemporary. The text includes poetry, prose, anagrams, and palindromes, in English, German, French, and Japanese. Typeset by hand by Philip Metzger, the set pays tribute to worthy “Thoughts, words and phrases on the Arts and Sciences” through Zapf’s unconventional and ingenious use of typography. Orbis Typographicus functions both as a work of literary wall art and as an elaborate type specimen, showcasing many of Zapf’s own faces, as well as those of his wife Gudrun Zapf von Hesse, and several others. The set includes a specially crafted Plexiglass frame, in which all the leaves may be stored and periodically shuffled so that a different leaf is visible at the front.
I first discovered Orbis Typographicus four years ago, when I was looking for a letterpress shop where I could typeset and print some invitations. I was introduced by a mutual friend, Dr. James Tyler, to Dr. Philip A. Metzger, who has inherited his father’s print shop and Crabgrass Press. Along with the printing equipment, he acquired proofs of Orbis Typographicus, which are left over from the edition of 99 that his father printed for Hermann Zapf between 1970 and 1980.
Upon first discovering these broadsides, I was struck by the visual ingenuity and captivating beauty of the set. The typography is remarkable for its expressive rendering of the various passages, for its entrancing playfulness, and also for the skill and cleverness it demanded of the printer.
As anyone who has ever set type can attest, some of Zapf’s layouts are bafflingly tricky. For instance, the verses from the Rubaiyat, printed diagonally so that the strokes of the italic are vertical, must surely puzzle any printer who looks at them — Were the lines actually locked up diagonally? Was the text printed horizontally and the paper trimmed on a slant? (As it turns out, the type actually was set diagonally, most likely with specially cut triangular furniture.)
Of course, Orbis Typographicus is beautiful even to anyone who has never held a composing stick. Hermann Zapf’s imaginative typography makes the captivating words of Shakespeare, Cervantes, and da Vinci even more compelling. Orbis Typographicus gives to beautiful words the beautiful form they deserve.
While trying to describe Orbis Typographicus to a friend, I looked it up online, only to find that there was virtually no mention of it on the internet, let alone any images. Books proved to be not much help either in this regard. One can find a leaf or two reproduced here or there, but the complete set had never been republished in any medium. It seemed unfortunate that such an ingeniously beautiful work of art was so undeservedly obscure. Surely many designers, printers, typographers, and historians — not to mention general lovers of art and literature — would be interested in Orbis Typographicus, and it could only benefit the typographic community to make it more widely available.
I therefore wrote to Professor Zapf and secured his kind permission to republish the entirety of Orbis in digital form. The scans are taken from the copy in Philip A. Metzger’s collection (#15).
Though it can never capture the tactile beauty of the original, a digital reproduction provides two benefits: First, putting Orbis Typographicus online makes it accessible to people who can’t easily get their hands on a physical copy — i.e., nearly everyone. Second, this facsimile includes a computer-searchable transcript to make it easy to find a specific page based on a search term. In addition to the web-quality images, I have also made the original 1200 dpi scans available for download for personal study and enjoyment. Philip A. Metzger, son of Philip (L.) Metzger of Crabgrass Press, has also written some reminiscences specifically for this web site.
I am very pleased to provide a home on the internet for this unique work of art. (If you should happen to be inspired to seek out a real copy of Orbis, a WorldCat search is a good place to start.) Let me know if you have any comments or questions, and enjoy Orbis Typographicus.
Allentown, PA · 2013