Ermann Zapf was a German designer and calligrapher. It sounds a bit strange to say that he was. Zapf was properly considered a living myth when I, let’s say, “conceived” this tribute to Optima typeface, more than a year ago. He influenced typeface design in such an effective way that he can be easily compared to Charles Schulz (the creator of “Peanuts”, in case you don’t know him) in illustration.
However, the reasons why I decided to start my column talking about Optima Typeface go well beyond its popular creator. To cut a long story short, when I designed “Florence & Optima” I was looking for an “F” to complete my visual alphabet that had to be neither a serif nor a sans serif typeface. Usually, all the sans “F” look the same. That’s all. The interesting part of the story starts when the designer felt that flash of inspiration which was to be “Optima” during a stay in our beautiful Italy a few years later, back in the not so distant 1950.
At a certain point this tale becomes even mystic for me. While I was doing my research you can only imagine how surprised I was realising that the Italian town where Hermann stayed was Florence, the very same place where I moved to more than 15 years ago. And guess what: the place where the famous eureka took place is the Basilica of Santa Croce, which is only about 200 yards from my studio.
The accidental tourist Hermann randomly noted, precisely in the Basilica, an unusual gravestone that is usually ignored by real tourists. The peculiar style of the inscription captured his attention; it was a classical Roman Type, but without any serif at the ends of the pipes. That is what inspired the creation of a mixed typeface, in which the classical style of a serif typeface blended with the more “up-to-date” (for the time) sans serif. He didn’t have anything he could use to sketch some outlines not to forget the brilliant idea. Hence he decided to sketch on a 1000 lira banknote because that was the only piece of paper he could make use of. He drew some really astonishing sketches of letters. I think that between the drawings prevail the two capital letters “SM” that happen to be my name initials.
That was more than enough for me to make up a story. I created a visual effect whose details were refined with the colours used in the Basilica’s marbles, the geometric patterns typically utilised in the churches of Florence and with the grey sky above me when I rushed to take absurd pictures to the corners of the huge portals of the church. And, moreover, improved by a style in clothes inspired by the ‘50s and, finally, by a mischievous tourist named, of course, Florence.