y father was born in Chicago in 1914, the youngest of three sons of a butcher. Both parents had emigrated from Germany around 1900, and the father, George, maintained a butcher shop on Northwest Ave. in Chicago, where the family lived above the store. As far as I am aware, education beyond a trade was not something that was emphasized in the family. My father’s older brothers John and George did not attend college. However, as my father used to recount, a high school teacher stimulated in him an interest in further education; he graduated from the University of Chicago with a B.A. in history, and an M.A.T., to prepare him for a high school teaching career. World War II intervened, however, and my father was drafted into the army in his late twenties. With a college degree in hand, he soon found himself in Officer Candidate School, and after that an assignment to army personnel. He spent some of his army time working in personnel on Guam. His army experience developed his interest in personnel work, and after a few years working in this field in Chicago, he was hired in 1951 by the Kansas City Power and Light Co. as a middle manager. He retired from KCPL at age 55 as Vice President of Personnel. During the war, he married my mother Louise, also born in 1914 and a high school classmate, although their relationship did not develop until after graduation. They had two children, my younger brother Joel and me.
None of this explains my father’s subsequent interest in the craft of hand printing; my father attributed this to an uncle Leonard (his middle initial L), who was a bookbinder. At any rate, by 1957 he must have felt secure enough in his life and career to pursue his dream of learning to print. That year a Chandler & Price treadle-operated platen press and a few cases of type — mostly of the Caslon-derivative sort — showed up in our basement. Over the next years, he and his sons developed their skills without the help of outside instruction. Although the press, which was given the name “Crabgrass Press,” was not intended as a commercial enterprise, it did not hurt that there was a steady local market for job printing of all types, which helped to provide money to expand the shop, and give my brother and me some cash in our pockets. One of the money-making opportunities came from the plethora of swim and country clubs in the suburb of Kansas City called Prairie Village where we lived. They all had swim meets throughout the summer and they all needed award ribbons, sometimes to sixth or seventh place. Over the years we went through a lot of rolls of colored ribbon and cans of gold ink supplying this demand.
An explanation for the press’s rather eccentric name is in order. According to my father, the name came from the fact that the lawn was thoroughly neglected as a result of his printing activities — although since there was never anyone less interested in puttering in the lawn than my father, printing activity would not at all have been necessary to achieve this end. At one time he suggested that the press’s commercial motto should be “If you crab about our product you can go to grass,” but this was never implemented.
I should interject here that in the 1950s and 1960s, letterpress printing was still a viable commercial enterprise. Type and associated equipment for hand setting were readily available new, or used when shops went out of business or converted to offset. This was true also of European type, and my father began to develop what I expect was the most extensive collection of European and American display faces anywhere. As may be gathered, my father enjoyed acquiring the best typefaces from founders around the world, in addition to using them to print. From the used Caslon, the Crabgrass Press gradually moved to Bulmer, and then under Zapf’s influence, to full sets of Palatino, Optima, and also a beautiful face designed by Zapf’s wife Gudrun, Diotima. Display faces came from such foundries as Enschedé, Fournier, Stempel, Bauer, and Nebiolo.
So it went for a number of years. My father’s connection to typographer Hermann Zapf came about after I left for college in 1962, so I was not present to see most of what I will report, but for the initial stages I was still at home. Hallmark Cards is a Kansas City company, and employed graphic designers for some of its products. One of these was Harald Peter, who had been a student of Zapf’s. I do not know the specifics of how my father met Peter, and how this connected to Zapf, but the process, based on mutual interest, is easy to imagine. At any rate, Zapf and my father became close friends, and visited between Germany and the United States regularly.
Now, to turn to Orbis Typographicus and its genesis. I was not party to the discussions between Zapf and my father on this subject, but I can imagine the project suited both parties to a tee. Zapf is one of the great typographers of this age or any other. A man of unbounded imagination and possessor of a typographic eye keen beyond comprehension, he must have felt the limitations of commercial work. The chance to design the pages of Orbis allowed him to expand his vision as far as it could go. At the same time, the challenge of bringing the products of Zapf’s imagination to fruition must have been a joy to my father, of the sort few people are rewarded with in life. Not that the task was always easy. My father used to grumble sometimes about how long it took for proofs to come back from Germany. He would also sometimes comment on the technical challenges of realizing Zapf’s designs in handset type on a hand operated press. Anyone with any knowledge of letterpress printing will recognize these challenges as they present themselves on the sheets of Orbis. I should emphasize that all the type used in Orbis was in my father’s shop. In fact, Zapf had agreed to use only what my father owned.
Let me report one anecdote that I remember vividly. Zapf had sent back a proof on which he asked for a line of type to be moved to the right or left by half a point. A point is a typographic measurement that equals about 1/72 of an inch, so half of that is not much at all, somewhere around .007 of an inch. After feeling some incredulity, my father moved the line by that amount, and had to admit that it did result in an improvement.
After the completion of Orbis Typographicus, there was discussion of a further collaboration, but my father died rather suddenly of a heart attack in the fall of 1981.
Perhaps it’s just as well that they never attempted a sequel. Orbis Typographicus is a very personal creation, and it’s hard to imagine how it could have been surpassed. It seems to have given Zapf a chance to explore typography far beyond the presentation of text. Indeed, the texts, some of Zapf’s favorite quotations, were really only excuses to create sometimes rather abstract graphic images. For my father, it was certainly the culmination of the development of his skill as a printer. One might say that Orbis Typographicus represents a pinnacle in the combination of art and craft.
Bethlehem, PA · 2013