An Untimely Loss, a Timely Memorial

The great German type designer Hermann Zapf died at age 96, weeks before the 70th anniversary of the UN Charter—whose preamble he hand-lettered more than half a century ago.

Courtesy of Jerry Kelly

June 26 marked the 70th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter, which the current Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called a compass for “the hope and home of all humankind.” In part to commemorate the event, New York’s Morgan Library and Museum is currently exhibiting an original calligraphic manuscript of the preamble of the UN Charter, precisely hand-lettered in French, English, Spanish, and Russian by Hermann Zapf. The master type designer, who was also a typographer and calligrapher, died a few weeks earlier on June 4 at the age of 96. Even those unfamiliar with Zapf’s name have likely seen his typefaces—including Palatino and Optima—in books, newspapers, and logos.

The preamble manuscript was personally commissioned in 1960 by Fred Adams, then the director of the Morgan, who greatly admired Zapf and wanted the library's impressive collection of books and typographic material to include the work of “the foremost calligrapher and type designer practicing in Germany today.” The Morgan’s Christine Nelson, who curated the current show, noted the “soaring language” Adams used to announce the acquisition of Zapf’s manuscript: “If typography is basically two-dimensional architecture, and calligraphy contains elements of both music and poetry, it might be said that none of the arts is alien to Mr. Zapf, though he would never say so himself.”

Courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum

The Zapf manuscript, normally stored in the Morgan Library collections vault, has only been exhibited a few times since it was painstakingly lettered, most recently in 2000 in the Grolier Club exhibition. And yet the work meant so much to Zapf that he always kept a full-scale imitation of it in his studio.

As for exactly why the UN Charter’s preamble was chosen for the Morgan’s Zapf commission, it’s unclear. Nelson speculates that it might have something to do with the Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev’s famous appearance at the UN in 1960, or with a special event some UN visitors attended at the Morgan at about that time. But regardless of the actual reason, Nelson says, “Words matter, and the way we experience them matters, and in Zapf’s version of the UN’s founding document I find the words and their form to be, quite simply, worthy of each other.”

The timing of this exhibit is bittersweet since it both celebrates an institution and memorializes an individual. The Morgan had been planning on showing the manuscript a few years from now as part of a permanent collection cycle. Since most of the items in the Morgan's collection are works on paper or vellum that are damaged by prolonged exposure to light they are therefore exhibited sparingly. But then Nelson learned of Zapf’s death. “I found myself overwhelmed with emotion and I wanted to show it immediately,” she says. After further examining the manuscript, Nelson realized that the 70th anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter itself was, by coincidence, just weeks away.

The Zapf UN preamble went on view on June 26 and will be open to the public until October 25, the weekend of UN Day, which marks the date that the Charter went into effect.