Zvi Narkis, credited with reinventing the Hebrew letter, left a huge archive after his death. A new book will document this treasure, which is integral to the history of Israeli design.
TEL AVIV — Twenty years after discovering Hebrew letters and a talent for writing them, Zvi Narkis arrived from Romania to what would officially become Israel.
The country’s first years were quite modest, as were the letters of Hebrew. At that time, there were only four fonts and each one had just one or two versions (bold or italics, for example), and Narkis’ talent was exactly what the country needed.
In 1958, he completed the design of his first font, Narkis Block. In the following decades he made even more, including Narkis Tam, Narkisim, Narkis New and Narkis Chen. By his death in 2010, Narkis had become the most prominent typographer and designer in Israel.
The fonts Narkis designed are Hebrew’s most common, and like the rest of his work, they are ubiquitous, even if most people have no idea where they came from. Every Israeli has read books, official forms, newspapers or posters in his fonts. His designs appear on Israeli coins, on currency notes he designed for The Israeli Bank, even guidebooks for the Israeli Defense Force.
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His amazing contributions have earned him several domestica and international awards, yet there has never been extensive documentation of his work. Even after his death, no public or academic entity published a collection. Until now.
Nearly a decade in the making
Yehuda Hofshi, a designer and researcher of Hebrew typography, launched an independent project April 2 on the Israeli crowd-funding website Headstart. The project’s goal is to fund a book about Narkis’ extensive archive. The project immediately became the subject of the day among designers. It took only a few days for hi to collect half of the amount he needed, and the project has since surpassed its goal.
The idea for the book was born nine years ago during a meeting between Narkis and Hofshi. “I drove to Jerusalem to see him, and I was introduced to the amazing variety of things he had done over the past five decades,” Hofshi says. “After we had talked, we agreed that it would be good to publish a book to cover his entire work. It is a tribute to him and a valuable book for many audiences.”
Hofshi began visiting Narkis once a week for more than a year. During every meeting, they went through Narkis’ archives and reproduced his work processes on various projects through videotaped interviews. “Meeting him was fascinating, and it was very moving to go through his drawers,” Hofshi says. “Nobody has seen most of his archive. For example, we found his first pencil sketches for the Narkis Block. It is a simple font, with no gimmicks, and that’s why it’s so good. He is not trendy at all.”
Hofshi discovered projects that Narkis had done about which he had no prior knowledge. “These projects are masterpieces he worked on for years, days and nights from a feeling of vocation,” Hofshi says. “He did not do to sell. He did it for the symbolism of connecting an 18th century European design to the Hebrew letters. It was important for him to connect history to the Israeli modern identity. It was in his blood.”
By the end, they amassed 3,500 pictures of Narkis’ archives and 120 hours of videotaped interviews. All the material was sorted and categorized, then Hofshi raised the money to complete the project.
The book itself is supposed to expose the different fonts the designer created, and the book will also show other designs such as posters, stamps, coins, bills and documentation of a two-year research project on writing styles around the world.
Hofshi is considering publishing the book in English too. “I am not raising money for myself or for my work assignments,” he says. “I am doing it because I think it is a very important project. This project excites people because it is unimaginable that there isn’t a documentation of the work of such a master. ... Letters that are properly made have massive power, beyond the words written with them.”