Ismar David, German/Israeli/American (1910 - 1996)

Ismar David, considered one of the few graphic designers, illustrators, and calligraphers of international reputation, was a
German-born graphic artist who practiced the first third of his
professional career in Jerusalem and the remainder in New
York City. He is noted for his brilliant work in Hebrew and
Latin calligraphy, lettering, and type design, as well as for his
distinctive linear style of illustration.David liked to say that the
hand is the most marvelous tool if properly trained, and his
own handwork supports this conviction.

Ismar David was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw,
Poland) on August 27, 1910. At the age of fourteen, he left
school to apprentice as a house painter and varnisher. After
receiving his journeyman papers, however, he returned to
study decorative painting at the Arts & Crafts School of Berlin-
Charlottenberg, where many of the finest book craftsmen of
the first part of the century taught and studied.Hans Orlowski
and Johannes Boeland were among his teachers.

In 1932, at the age of twenty-one, Ismar David entered and won
an international competition sponsored by the Jewish National
Fund for the design of its honorary Golden Book. He traveled
to Jerusalem to supervise the execution of the project, and he
settled there for the next twenty years and established a studio
for interior and graphic design. In addition to receiving a
broad range of commissions from private industry, David
accepted commissions from national institutions and the state
government for design projects including posters, postage
stamps, and currency.

During his residence in Jerusalem, Ismar David made one of
his most important contributions to twentieth century graphic
design with the conception and development of an innovative
family of Hebrew typefaces. His interest in developing Hebrew
types that would be in harmony with the modern spirit and
that would help to transform Hebrew into an everyday
language eventually lead to David Hebrew. This unshaded and
unserifed type design was cast for machine composition in
1954 by the Intertype Corporation and was later available on
the Photon machine. In 1984 the Stempel type foundry
commissioned David to rerender David Hebrew with diacritical
marks for digital composition. To this day David Hebrew is
widely used and much copied. The light appearance of David
Hebrew makes it well suited for setting poetry. It is also favored
for use in exhibition catalogs, finely printed books, and Israeli
newspaper supplements.

Before moving permanently to the United States, Ismar David
made several visits to New York City.His first trip, in 1939, was
to work on the Palestine Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair.
In 1947, he traveled to New York to study printing methods.
With the help of Dr. Robert Leslie, he returned in 1951 to make
arrangements with the Intertype Corporation for the casting of
David Hebrew. And finally in 1952, David visited New York to
design and install an industrial exhibition for Bonds for Israel.
Ismar David emigrated to the United States in 1953, and on
June 3rd of that year, married Hortense Mendel. Ismar had met
Hortense, an associate of Robert Leslie at the Composing
Room, during his 1951 trip to New York to show Intertype hisHebrew alphabets. The two spent six years together before
Hortense died on October 9, 1960.

Upon his arrival in New York City in 1953, Ismar David established
a design studio and began teaching Latin calligraphy at
Cooper Union and Pratt Institute. He had expected the bulk of
his commissions to come from designing decorative elements
for synagogues, however, he found his mainstay work in the
1950’s, 60’s, and early 70’s in the publishing industry. David
worked steadily as a designer for leading American publishers
including Alfred A. Knopf; Atlantic, Little Brown; Ballantine
Books; Fleming H. Revell; Harper & Row; Harry Abrams;
Houghton Mifflin Company; J.B. Lippincott Company; McGraw-
Hill; Pocket Books; Random House; Thomas Y. Crowell; and
Viking Press, among others. In a short span, he designed book
jackets or covers for more than 200 books.

Ismar David remained a free-lance artist throughout his career.
In addition to steady work in cover design, calligraphy, and
lettering, Ismar David earned commissions for book illustration
and developed the style of illustration for which he is best
remembered—a style characterized by striking patterns of
lines. This distinctive linear style was particularly well suited
for the Limited Edition Club’s 1971 publication of Pascal’s Les
Pensées, for which David created a dozen full-page, hypnotic
color-illustrations—pre-separated in the tradition of printmaking—
as well as ornamental tailpieces, and text frames. As
would become his custom, Ismar’s conceptions in vivid
oranges, greens, purples, blues, and golds were meant to
accompany the thoughts of the author, not to illustrate them literally.His 58 illustrations for the Union of American Hebrew
Congregation’s 1973 bilingual edition of The Psalms followed
the same non-literal approach. For this project, which David
considered his most personal work, he combined his ideas
about illustration and type and book design, and his efforts
were recognized by The American Institute of Graphic Arts
(AIGA) with a 1973 “Fifty Books of the Year”distinction. Both
Les Pensées and The Psalms proved to be very popular among
collectors, and they stand as two of his best efforts in book

Though he never lost interest in graphics, much of David’s
energy in the latter part of his career was devoted to architectural
design and decoration. Perhaps his most important work
in this field was produced during a thirty-year association with
Pinelawn Memorial Park in Farmingdale, NY. Beginning in
1965, he planned the layout of the park, including fountains and
other features; he also designed mausoleums and other
building complexes, and their interiors. He also lettered
numerous inscriptions for wall decorations and architectural
features in the park.

Proof of Ismar David’s uninterrupted
connection with graphics came in 1991, when in collaboration
with calligrapher and partner Helen Brandshaft, he designed
and illustrated a bilingual version of The Book of Jonah,
published by the Chiswick Press in a limited edition.
Teaching was another constant element in Ismar David’s career.
In addition to instructing at the Cooper Union and Pratt
Institute, he gave lectures and conducted workshops on Latin
and Hebrew calligraphy over the years. Eventually he distilled his well-tested teaching materials and summarized his views on the historical, aesthetic, and technical aspects of the Latin alphabet into Our Calligraphic Heritage: The Geyer Studio Writing Book. The three-part work of text, alphabet folders, and
compositions, encased in a box designed to function as an
easel, was published in a limited edition in 1979 by the Geyer
Studio—a professional calligraphy studio for whom David
worked as a contractor from the late 1960’s through the early
1980’s. Ismar produced the Hebrew counterpart to Our
Calligraphic Heritage with the 1990 publication of The Hebrew
Letter: Calligraphic Variations. This instructional work
includes a text and alphabet charts, and is a writing book in the
tradition of European writing books. In both works, David
fuses the rich historical background of the calligraphic arts
with practical and aesthetic aspects of the art of writing in the
twentieth century.

In the early 1990s, Ismar David continued to take on select
commissions for graphic design; however, he also expressed his
personal interest in three-dimensional form with the creation
of such objects as a folding baby cradle and a paper Elijah’s cup
and folding seder plate. Before he died on February 26, 1996, in
New York City, Ismar David produced his 1996 greeting card—
the last in a forty-odd-year series that traces the evolution of
his lettering and illustration styles, and the constant influence
of biblical themes.

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