A life in letters
As Israel gets used to life sans Zvi Narkis, who died Sunday, artists reflect on how the fonts he designed shaped the way we see the world
The sharp-eyed might have caught a death notice that was different from the other death notices published yesterday (in Hebrew ) on page 10 of Haaretz.
The size of the death notice, the thickness of its frame or the details it included were all boilerplate, but the kind of letter used for the information about the identity of the deceased, the names of the mourners and the time of the funeral stood out.
This announcement was printed in the Narkis Block and Narkisim fonts in deference to the deceased, Zvi Narkis, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 89. He designed the letters that announced his death.
Narkis, 2006 recipient of the Emet Prize awarded by the Prime Minister's Office for excellence in academic and professional achievements, is considered one of the most important and prolific designers of Hebrew typefaces. The Narkis font that bears his name is the most popular Hebrew sans-serif font and is part of a larger family of typefaces comprised of the Narkiss, Narkis Block, New Narkis, Narkis Tam and Narkisim fonts.
The Emet jury said he was awarded the prize for "a major contribution to Israeli culture, of inestimable value, and not only in its visual dimensions."
At the funeral at Kibbutz Nahshon, Adi Stern, the head of the department of visual communications department at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design eulogized that most people don't know the name Zvi Narkis.
"Nevertheless, most of us 'consume' Narkis' work on a daily basis, at nearly every moment," he said. "Zvi's letters, the Hebrew letters Zvi designed over many years during his long career, appear and are in use everywhere. Nearly any material printed in Hebrew bears at least one of the typefaces Narkis designed, be it a best-selling novel, a daily newspaper, packaging for cheese, the opening of a television program, a road sign or paper currency. Narkis' work is outstanding and very unusual. He nurtured and enriched the appearance of the Hebrew letter in a variety of new shapes - Zvi's work has become the standard relative to which everything is designed."
Shekels and bibles
Narkis was born in Romania in 1921. In 1944 he immigrated to Jerusalem, where he studied painting with Jacob Steinhardt and Mordechai Ardon and then graphics at Bezalel. From 1950 to 1955 he was the chief designer of instructional materials in the Israel Defense Forces and headed the textbook design unit in the air force.
In 1955 he opened a graphic design and typography studio, where he worked for more than 50 years designing books, exhibitions, stamps, paper currency, coins, posters and symbols. Among other things he designed two Bibles, for which he created unique typefaces - the Horev Bible and the Hebrew University - Keter Jerusalem Bible. He designed the state of Israel's first tourism poster, the IDF pavilion at the Decade Exhibition (1958 ), the Victory Medal (1967 ), the Peace Medal (1977 ) and several of the Bank of Israel's currency bills.
Designer David Tartakover, an Israel Prize laureate for design, says he met Narkis for the first time after completing his studies and was working on the establishment of Israel Television. Narkis was working on creating Israel Television's first symbol.
"He was a very special person in his conduct - serious, modest and noble. The modesty was the thing that most stood out with his. He was a man of small gestures," Tartakover said.
In 1985 prof. Shimon (Jogol ) Sandhaus began working as the designer at the mass-circulation daily newspaper Ma'ariv. Two years later the newspaper came out in a new design, which included a change in the paper's font from FrankRuehl to Narkis.
"[He was] the last remnant of the last generation of typeface designers who learned their letters by writing in pen," Sandhaus said. "In contrast to the designers of today, what is interesting in his case is that he very quickly concentrated on designing letters. Designing a font has to take several years, not a month and not one year. I don't know any designer today who concentrates for three years on designing a font."
In an interview published in Haaretz (in Hebrew ) in 2006 on the occasion of his winning the Emet Prize, Narkis too expressed his regret at the decline of the art of calligraphy and the damage caused to the world of fonts.
"For a large number of years now they haven't been teaching calligraphy at Bezalel at all, whereas when I was studying the number of hours of calligraphy was the same as for graphics. I know explicitly that in classes on letter design it has happened that students were told, 'You can take an existing font and change it in your direction.' In this way they only distort other shapes. There has to be prior baggage, because in order to design a worthy letter you have to begin at the beginning."
Designer, typographer and typography scholar Yehuda Hofshi, who has been researching and documenting the works of Zvi Narkis, intends to publish a book about his work next year.
"Narkis was not aware of the implications of his work, of the fact he had created significance for things that had been done before him and things created by members of our generation. He did not really understand the greatness of the hour and as I progressed in my research this became more and more obvious to me."
The period when Narkis began to work was also an important element in Hoafshi's interest in him.
"Most of Narkis' work began after the establishment of the state when he took upon himself works of an official character that created a connection between him and the establishment," he said. "This work also gave rise to a rare opportunity to create items that from the visual perspective are part of our national definition as a society. Narkis is an important part of the evolution of the visual language. In this respect, there is no one like him."