Hans Eduard Meier died last week, July 15, 2014, age 91.
Through his teaching, books, and type designs, the Swiss lettering artist Hans Eduard Meier enriched the realm of letters for over 60 years.
In his person, he was humble, thoughtful, kind, and generous. In his art, he was visionary yet disciplined; in his craftsmanship, meticulous yet sensual. His understanding of letters spanned two millennia; through long practice, he taught himself to write the forms of Latin letters from their earliest beginnings, through medieval and Renaissance scripts, up to the design of metal, photo, and digital fonts. Yet, he did not limit himself to a single style, fashion, or movement in the design of letters. Instead, he sought the visual truth of forms.
His elegant book, The Development of Writing first appeared in a three language edition from Graphis Press - also entitled “Die Schriftentwicklung” and “Le développement de l’écriture). In 1966, as a calligraphy student of Lloyd Reynolds, I bought a copy because of its impressive display of script specimens, all written by hand by Hans (except specimens of typefaces). A few years later, Kris Holmes also bought a copy of the book. We still have them.
Perhaps his greatest, most influential, and most enduring achievement in letter design is the Syntax typeface family, a distillation of his deep understanding of letterforms together with his creative imagination — to see that sans-serif “linear” types need not be limited to the “grotesque” and “gothic” styles. Released as “Syntax-Antiqua” by the Stempel Foundry in 1968, it was, I believe, the first sans-serif to explicitly be named “humanist” (the German typographic term “Antiqua” denotes seriffed Renaissance typefaces like those of Aldus and Garamond).*
Syntax was the product of more than ten years of study, experiment, and painstaking re-drawing, but those years of countless tests and refinements vanish away, leaving only the pure image. Syntax on first look seems simple, clear, and self-evident, so much so that its intrinsic concept — the “humanist sans-serif” — has become part of modern design vocabulary. A few years after its release by Stempel and Linotype, Syntax began to be used to elegant effect by consummate American graphic designers like Malcolm Grear, Carl Zahn, and Noel Martin.
For 36 years, Hans Ed. Meier taught lettering to generations of students at the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts (Kunstgewerbeschule). I do not know if any of his former students have carried on his dedication to teaching, but in the 1980s, Syntax itself became a kind of master class in type design, inspiring successions of younger designers to work on the concept of the “humanist sans”. As a typography teacher, I found that recent design students seem to think that “humanist sans” has always been around, along with the “grotesque” and “geometric” styles of sans-serif, though they all had distinct origins.
Despite many subsequent efforts by later designers to develop humanist sans-serifs, when it comes to choosing a humanist sans that is a true pleasure to read in continuous text, Syntax has always been a great improvement on its successors.
In 1978, I organized a U.S. lecture tour for Hans Ed. Meier. He came first to the Rhode Island School of Design, where I was teaching, and where my senior colleague, the folksy, consummate graphic designer Malcolm Grear, was already a big admirer of Syntax. At RISD, to a packed audience of design students, teachers and professionals, Hans gave an illuminating lecture on how he taught lettering design, and on how and why he designed Syntax. At the end, he quoted what a Swiss poet friend of his had written comparing Syntax to Helvetica:
"Reading a page in Syntax is like walking through a field of flowers.
Reading a page in Helvetica is like walking through a field of stones."
After speaking at RISD, Hans traveled to Portland, Oregon, to San Francisco and environs in northern California, and to Los Angeles in southern California, giving talks on Syntax, on his teaching of lettering, and conducting workshops in calligraphy and lettering.
Despite his deep knowledge of the great works of the history of writing, and his own search for pure, distilled forms, Hans was hardly a design snob. He enjoyed most forms of design if they were well done. Just before he returned to Switzerland from his tour, he called me to say he had had a wonderful time on the West Coast, where calligraphy societies and designers welcomed and treated him like an important visiting dignitary. In his humble way, he said he was unaccustomed to such lavish treatment. His hosts had even taken him to Disneyland. “Wonderful,” he exclaimed, “Have you been there? “Everything is so well-designed.” The signage, so different in each part of the park; the rides, so precise and crafted; everything so carefully conceived and well-proportioned. “In design,” he said, “It is perfect! All Kitsch, of course, but perfect Kitsch!”
Kris Holmes and I became friends with Hans Ed. Meier in 1977 and 1978, when we worked together by mail on developing phonetic characters in his Syntax typeface, for a native American language of the Pacific Northwest. Working with him was more than educational, it was inspirational.
In 1984, as professor of digital typography at Stanford University, I read a book by Niklaus Wirth, professor of computer science at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich, about his computer language Modula-2, and I also read about the Lilith workstation developed at ETH, modeled after the Alto workstations at Xerox PARC, where Wirth had spent a sabbatical in the 1970s.
The language, workstation and software used to compose the book were exemplary, but the fonts in the book were disappointing. Mere clones of common sans-serif and seriffed design, they did not exemplify the high level of technical accomplishment of the language and workstation. Therefore, I wrote to Prof. Wirth to suggest that the typographic quality of the ETH projects could be improved if he engaged the assistance of Hans Ed. Meier, working at the nearby Kunstgewerbeschule Zurich.
My letter was well received, and Prof. Wirth did hire Hans Ed. Meier to work with talented graduate students developing typographic software on workstations. Thus began a new phase of Meier’s career. One of the first computer science grad students Hans worked with was Eliyezer Kohen, who developed a font design system for personal workstations, with Hans Meier as consultant and designer. The first digital typeface created with the research software was Barbedor. Hans continued to use software to create more new, original digital typefaces, while also making improvements to other fonts used in the project, particularly in the creation of slightly shorter capitals for Times Roman, to give a more harmonious look to German text, for which the orthography specifies initial capitals for nouns. Hans also designed the typographic layout of Eliyezer’s 1988 Ph.D. thesis. Composed in Syntax, it is undoubtedly one of the more handsome technical theses of that time, or any time.
Hans retired from teaching in 1986 but continued working at ETH for some years. Later, he used other type design software to develop more new digital typefaces. In addition to Barbedor, he designed Syndor, Syntax Serif, Lapidar, and an updated version of Syntax for new technology, called “Syntax Next”, with new weights and styles. Continuing his interest in educating computer scientists and software engineers to the visual aspects of typography, he teamed with Kris Holmes to give a tutorial on the principles of letter design at RIDT ’91 (Raster Imaging and Digital Typography 1991), held in Boston on October 15, 1991.
In the early 2000s, he returned to the most basic writing tools - pencil and pen - to work out a new method for teaching handwriting to school children. As in all his work, he distilled the written forms to their simplest essentials, easily learnable by beginning writers, but he also provided a pathway to more cursive variants as students became more proficient in handwriting. His method has been taught in several Swiss school districts and continues today.
We will deeply miss our friend and guide, but his work will continue to enrich the realm of letters and inspire future generations of designers, for many years to come.
— Chuck Bigelow
For more information about the life and work of Hans Eduard Meier:
Roxane Jubert: “Hans Eduard Meier, a life dedicated to letter design”. https://www.typotheque.com/articles/hans_eduard_meier_a_life_dedicated_to_letter_design
Erich Alb: “Hans Eduard Meier”, http://www.atypi.org/news/hanseduardmeier
Erich Schulz-Anker: “Syntax-Antiqua, a Sans Serif on a New Basis”, Gebrauchsgraphik 7/1970.
Hans Ed. Meier, “On the design of Barbedor and Syndor”, in Visual and Technical Aspects of Type, Roger Hersch, ed. Cambridge U. Press, 1993.
* Edward Johnston's 1916 sans-serif face for the London Underground Railway is usually said to be the first humanist sans-serif, and Eric Gill's 1928 Gill Sans, which closely resembles Johnston Underground, may have been the first such to be released as a general typeface. Hermann Zapf's Optima was called "Neu Antiqua" during its design but was release as "Optima".
Hans Ed. Meier shows Kris Holmes his computer type design at ETH.
Hans Ed. Meier and Chuck Bigelow, Zurich 1989