Karl-Heinz Lange Passes Away At Age 80

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News | Ivo Gabrowitsch | July 6, 2010

I learned to know Karl-Heinz Lange in 2007 at one of our first “Typostammtische“. Shortly afterwards he invited me to his home, to discuss the first presentation he planned to give at one of the upcoming instalments – “Körper und Stimme leiht die Schrift dem stummen Gedanken” (“Type lends body and voice to mute thought”, a quote by Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805) whose use of “Schrift” originally meant “writing”). The occasion for this presentation was an anniversary of a special kind. Indeed, Lange looked back on 60 years of professional activity; 60 successful years of graphic and type design.


My favourite work of his: poster for the ballet “Le Papillon” (“The Butterfly”).
Photo by Florian Hardwig

In his home in Berlin-Mitte – decorated with countless pieces of artwork – he showed me drawings, which he started from quite a young age, and which revealed his talent from very early on. He went through fascinating examples of his creative work, played the piano, and told delightful anecdotes from an exciting life. One of these recounted the time when his employer VEB Typoart had given him the assignment to design a typeface similar to Hermann Zapf‘s Optima, which was very popular in the West.

He undertook the assignment hoping he would be able to sufficiently infuse his personal style into the characteristic letter shapes – after all he was a type designer in his own right, not merely a plagiarist. At the occasion of a family celebration Karl-Heinz Lange was permitted to travel to Frankfurt/Main. There he secretly met with Zapf himself, to discuss his design with him. It is not without pride that Lange remembered his West-German colleague giving him his blessing for the project, and showing considerable respect for his work so far. Publica had become a design independent from its source material.


Karl-Heinz Lange at the piano. Photo by Leslie Kuo, Pingmag

On his laptop Lange showed me the slides he had prepared, and wouldn’t remiss to tell even more anecdotes. However he didn’t only relive the past, but obviously was very active in the here and now, taking particular interest in the contemporary typography scene as well as in his guest. Lange endeavoured passionately – with the help of younger colleagues like Ole Schäfer for example – to safeguard his type designs for the future.

That day I came in contact for the first time with his deep and genuine passion for design – both of and with type. It made a lasting impression on me. There wasn’t the tender glimmer in the eyes of a man who had reached a certain age; what I saw in his eyes was the bright flicker of someone who deep within had remained a child, eagerly continuing to discover the world. The planned hour-long visit turned into a whole afternoon, which stayed with me for weeks. Eventually at Typostammtisch his presentation magically enthralled the audience.


Karl-Heinz Lange and Erik Spiekermann at Typostammtisch Berlin in October 2007.
Photo by Andreas Seidel

Whenever the friendly designer was able to, he honoured our meetings with his presence, which was not always easy due to health issues. For long he engaged in an intensive discourse and enjoyed the company of like-minded people, regardless what age. He always approached them with respect and genuine interest.


Zirkus. Photo by Florian Hardwig

Last year Karl-Heinz Lange approached me with an unusual request: at the occasion of his 80th birthday, and after decades of visiting auditoriums and conferences, he wished to hold his last-ever lecture in the context of our typographic tour of the capital. Realising the exceptional nature of the event, for the first time more than 50 people attended Typostammtisch. Not even those covering a long distance regretted coming. Starting with his cumbersome childhood in West Prussia, Lange narrated the entirety of his exciting life. He did so in a cheerful manner, telling how for years he recovered from grave tuberculosis, and how his artistic activities and never-ending love for type and typography were sparked there.


Spread from Lange’s book “Schrift: schreiben, zeichnen, konstruieren, schneiden, malen.” (“Type/writing: writing, drafting, constructing, curtting, drawing.”) 1965, VEB E.A. Seeman Verlag Leipzig. Photo by Dan Reynolds

Karl-Heinz Lange helped shape the visual language of everyday life in the German Democratic republic – from the telephone directory over numerous literary editions to many graphic identities of enterprises. Without a doubt the former pupil of Herbert Tannhäuser ranks among the most important type designers of the GDR. Case in point, his type designs have also been adopted by a new generation of designers:


Lange’s redrawing of Super Grotesk by Arno Drescher for photocomposition. Photo by Florian Hardwig

Karl-Heinz Lange passed away Tuesday last week, shortly before his 81st birthday, after living – dixit himself – life to the fullest.

What then is life after death? It only works through others. Through the grandchildren. All five of them had piano hour with me. Now the youngest plays flute and piano. Every Monday she sits here at my concert piano. That is my inheritance, that is how I live on.

His inheritance is much more encompassing though. He taught us that passion never goes into retirement. He taught us to unlock new challenges and to meet new interests. Last year in the run-up to his lecture he wrote me in an e-mail: “I am still in the middle of preparations, and I am happy to say this gives me the occasion to learn a lot from reading good literature.” His passion and his interest are an inspiration for all of us in our work.

Thank you, Karl-Heinz. We will miss you.

Header image: Karl-Heinz Lange at Typostammtisch Berlin XV. Photo by Florian Hardwig

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1 Comment:

  1. This is a very moving obituary, Ivo. Thanks for letting me publish the translation on The FontFeed. I was very happy to discover Karl-Heinz Lange’s type designs through it. PTL Publicala (the digital version of Publica) is a fascinating alternative for Optima.

    Posted by Yves Peters on Jul. 8, 2010

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