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Ismar David papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: CSC-0004

Collection Scope and Content Note

The Ismar David papers contain correspondence, personal papers, photographs, writings, artwork, and publications that document the life and career of the graphic artist and architectural designer. The collection spans the dates of 1939-1995, with the bulk of the material covering the years 1952-1990.

Series I. Papers, (Boxes 1-12), begins with Correspondence, which contains mixed personal and professional correspondence. Personal correspondence includes letters and cards to and from personal friends, colleagues, and students. Of these the most extensive files are those for Rollo and Alice Silver, Beatrice Ward, Lili Cassel and Erich Wronker, and Jeanyee Wong. Professional correspondence includes letters to and from publishers, art directors , authors, corporate clients, publications, associations, institutions, and other professional acquaintances. Many letters pertain to project arrangements or production. The artwork and samples for the commissioned projects is arranged in Series III. Professional ephemera is filed here as well. Correspondence is arranged in alphabetical order, then chronologically within the folders.

Personal Papers and Memorabilia contains assorted records and memorabilia of Ismar David’s life, and ephemera related to association memberships and awards, typography, and calligraphy, among other subjects. David’s immigration papers are filed in this section, as is a rendering of David’s initials by Herman Zapf (1974). It is unknown why David owned the two Type Directors Club Annual Award medallions (1975) bearing the name of Edward Ronthaler, who was associated with Houghton Mifflin Company. Likewise no explanation exists for David’s ownership of the Kaiser-Frazer automobile nameplate, identified using a photograph in the catalog for Israel Exposition for State of Israel Bonds (1952), for which David designed displays. Personal Papers & Memorabilia is filed alphabetically by subject.

Writings and Teaching Materials is divided into two sections— Workshops and Miscellaneous—and includes David’s handwritten and typewritten notes for workshops and lectures about alphabets and letterforms, as well as writing about his work and artistic style. Writings also includes a book review of Ben Shahn (ca. 1972). A set of lecture slides is filed here, as are large sheets of kraft paper covered with Hebrew and Roman lettering which David is known to have used in workshops and lectures. All handwritten and typed writings which were included in the archive are attributed to Ismar David, unless another author is known. Both sections of are arranged chronologically, with undated miscellaneous entries filed after dated ones.

Photographs is composed of images of Ismar David in personal and professional settings. The mix of snapshots and professional photographs shows David on vacation, in lecture and workshop settings, on project sites, and working in his studio, among other places. Also filed here is a studio portrait of Hortense Mendel David, Ismar’s first wife, taken by A. Newmann. Photographs in this segment are arranged alphabetically by principal subject. Pictures of commissioned and personal works are filed in their respective project folders in Series III and IV.

Series II. Publicity, (Boxes 13–14), begins with Articles, which holds clippings and photocopies of biographical sketches, profiles, mentions, and brief articles about Ismar David and his work. They are arranged chronologically by publication date. The Ismar David Number of Italix (1978) provides one of the best overviews of David’s career as an artist.

Book Reviews contains clippings or photocopies of reviews of Ismar David’s instructional work, Our Calligraphic Heritage: The Geyer Studio Writing Book. The reviews appeared in publications including Fine Print and Communication Arts, and are offered by noted figures including Herman Zapf, Herb Lubalin, Paul Standard, and Donald Jackson.

Exhibitions contains announcements for solo and group exhibitions in which Ismar David’s work appeared. The subseries also contains correspondence related to exhibitions, as well as press releases, catalogs, and clippings or photocopies of media coverage. David’s first exhibition in the United States was a one-man show in 1953 at the Jewish Museum in New York, NY, under the auspices of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America. In 1970, he had a solo exhibit of his 58 drawings for The Psalms sponsored by B’nai B’rith in Washington, D.C. In addition, David had work in three American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) shows, including the 1973 Fifty Books of the Year show (The Psalms). Entries in this subseries are arranged chronologically to provide an overview of Ismar David’s exhibit history.

Films contains one entry,“The Work of Ismar David.” Filed here is a photocopy of the script for the 30-minute documentary film produced in 1983 by Harold Yardlan of the Geyer Studio. This version of the script reveals handwritten edits made by Ismar David. A large portion of the documentary focuses on his work at Pinelawn Memorial Park.

Series III. Commissioned Works, (Boxes 15–71), begins with Corporate, which holds original sketches, drawings, and mechanical artwork; films; photo-engraved printing blocks; two and three-dimensional samples and printed pieces; models; and photographic documentation of work created for corporate clients. Correspondence pertaining to commissioned works is filed in the respective client folders in Series I Correspondence.

A large portion of David’s corporate work is book jacket and cover design, and often includes identity-mark design for client publishers. Book illustration comprises another considerable portion of corporate commissions. Some projects filed here include the design of interior and exterior elements of a book. The dust jackets and illustrations that David created in the 1960s for a series of small volumes on religious themes for the Fleming H. Revell Company provide an example of this type of commission.

Lettering and calligraphy—with illustration, or without—account for another large share of David’s corporate commissions. The subseries holds lettering work for both two and three-dimensional objects from certificates, greeting cards, and advertisements to commemorative medals, stone monuments, and crystal goblets. Files for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations hold work for a large volume of certificate projects; and entries for the United Jewish Appeal present the design of several commemorative medallions.

Corporate Commissions also contains identity mark projects that Ismar David undertook for entities other than publishing houses, including Bell Telephone Laboratories, the Brotherhood Synagogue, Continental Forest Industries, the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, and the World Trade Institute.A selection of nine trademarks was combined for presentation by David, and the item resides in the World Trade Institute folder. Files for the trademark projects usually contain sketches, drawings and mechanical art, but not printed exemplars. The Museum of Modern Art is one exception to this trend.

The subseries also includes architectural design for memorial parks and synagogues. Work for long-term client Pinelawn Memorial Park is represented by a wide range of materials, including small-scale plan drawings, large-scale lettering for stone inscriptions on rolled pieces of kraft paper, renderings, and hand-built models of architectural features, as well as photographs of completed features.

Corporate Commissions is arranged in alphabetical order by client. Within client listings, projects may be classified by intent, such as Book Projects, Broadsides or Corporate Identity.Within Book Projects, entries are arranged in alphabetical order by author.

A Government Commissions subseries follows that for Corporate Commissions. It contains work commissioned by the State of Israel and represents a small segment of the total commissioned works. The work is classified by intent—Citations, Currency, Painting, Postage Stamps, and Posters—and the materials filed here include original artwork, proofs, printed samples, and photographic documentation of completed projects. Only snap shots of the painting and posters—created to address issues from national security to resource conservation in the new nation of Israel—are filed here. Samples are housed at Yeshiva University, New York,NY.

Private Commissions is the final subseries of Series III and holds works created by Ismar David for private clients. Original and mechanical artwork, proofs, photo-engraved printing blocks, blueprints, and printed samples are filed here for projects including bookplates, broadsides, greeting cards, maps,memorial markers, and wedding invitations. The subseries contains the work for Ismar David’s contribution to Donald E. Knuth’s book 3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated. Entries in Private Commissions are arranged in alphabetical order by client.

Series IV. Personal and Unidentified Works, (Boxes 72–81), begins with the subseries Personal Work, which contains Ismar David’s personal, non-commissioned work.Materials include original and mechanical artwork, film, photo-engraved printing blocks, printed samples, and photographic documentation. The bulk of his personal work falls into the following classifications: broadsides; business items; greeting cards; keepsakes; three-dimensional objects; travel sketches; and type design. Greeting cards, by far the largest category with over 42 entries, are arranged chronologically. Undated cards fall before dated ones, and they are arranged in a rough chronological order based on circumstantial evidence. The cards, which almost exclusively offer season’s and new year greetings, vary widely in lettering and illustration style as well as format. Only artwork and photographs are filed here for three-dimensional object projects, such as the Elijah bowl and Judaica and Jewish ritual objects.

Unidentified Work concludes Series IV. Excluding four finished products, this subseries contains principally artwork for projects of unknown origin. Files are classified by intent that was determined using either information provided with the archive or other knowledge and evidence.

Series V. Financial Records (Boxes 86–88), contains Ismar David’s unprocessed financial records.


  • Creation: 1938 - 1996
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1952 - 1990


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open to researchers.

Biographical Note

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 and 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 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 his Hebrew 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 and 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 illustrations.

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. David 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 1990's, 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.


David leaves school to apprentice as a house painter
Begins study of decorative painting at Arts and Crafts Schoolof Berlin-Charlottenberg
Father dies
Wins Jewish National Fund competition for thedesign of honorary Golden Book
Travels to Jerusalem to execute Golden Book project
Emigrates to Jerusalem and opens a studio for interior and graphic design
Mother and sister go from Germany to Shanghai, where theyremain until World War II ends, then re-unite with David inJerusalem
Visits United States to study printing methods
Goes to New York City to design and install industrial exhibitions for Bonds for Israel
Travels to New York City to finalize arrangements for David Hebrew with Intertype Corporation
Emigrates to America and opens design studio in New York City
Begins 16-year stint as instructor of Latin alphabet calligraphy at Cooper Union
Begins 3-year stint as instructor of Latin alphabet calligraphy at Pratt Institute
03 June 1953
Marries Hortense Mendel
Intertype Corporation issues David Hebrew for machinecomposition
The Jewish Museum (New York, NY) exhibits David’s designwork
Represents the United States in the internationaldesign project Liber Librorum
09 October 1960
Hortense Mendel David dies
Publication of S.Y.Agnon’s A Stray Dog marks first booklengthuse of David Hebrew
17 October 1962
Marries Dorothy Hoffman
Begins 30-year association with Pinelawn Memorial Park(Farmingdale, NY) as architectural designer
Attends Type Directors Club meeting in London
May 1967
Completes John Donne inscription for mausoleum atPinelawn Memorial Park
Begins to do contract work for the Geyer Studio, an arrangementthat would last for about fifteen years
September 1970
B’nai B’rith Klotznik Gallery (Washington, D.C.) exhibitsDavid’s drawings for The Psalms
Pascal’s Les Pensées published
Selected Drawings by Tully Filmus is highest scorer in Philadelphia Book Show
The Psalms published
The Psalms chosen for “Fifty Books of the Year” by American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA)
06 March 1974
Typophiles celebrate “Ismar David Day”
October 1974
Visits Israel with Typophiles
December 1974
AIGA Gallery (New York, NY) exhibits David’s work
Winter 1978
Italix publishes “The Ismar David Number”
Our Calligraphic Heritage published
June 1981
Conducts workshops at The Calligraphy Connection
June 1982
Conducts workshops at Philadelphia Conference on theCalligraphic Arts
Conducts workshops at Philadelphia Conference on the Calligraphic Arts
Calligraphy Idea Exchange publishes the "Ismar David Portfolio"
Stempel commissions David to re-render David Hebrewwith diacritical marks for digital composition
June 1984
Conducts workshops at The Calligraphy Connection
07 November 1986
Dorothy David dies
Establishes ABCD Architectural and Graphic Studiowith Helen Brandshaft
The Hebrew Letter: Calligraphic Variations published
The Book of Jonah published
26 February 1996
Ismar David dies in New York, NY


146 Linear Feet (13 manuscript boxes, 69 oversize boxes, 3 map drawers, 13 oversize rolls)






Collection of materials from the calligrapher, type designer, graphic and architectural designer, illustrator, and educator Ismar David, including correspondence, photographs, teaching materials, and commisioned works.

System of Arrangement

Series I. Papers

Series II. Publicity and Writings about David

Series III. Commissioned Works

Series IV. Personal and Unidentified Works

Series V. Financial Records

Physical Location

Cary Graphic Arts Collection

Other Finding Aids

In addition to this finding aid, an inventory is available below. For more information, please contact the Cary Graphic Arts Collection.

Ismar David papers

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The collection came to the Cary Graphic Arts Collection from Helen Brandshaft, through a series of deposits over a two-year period, beginning in 1997.

Related Materials

H. Lawrence Hoffman papers, CSC 0160

Separated Materials

Books that came to the Cary Graphic Arts Collection with the David papers were removed and are housed separately; they include copies of books to which Ismar David contributed during his career, many of his reference books, and volumes that David collected for pleasure. The bibliography at the end of the finding aid lists books in the archive with Ismar David contributions, and it should be consulted in conjunction with other visual materials in the archive to gain a more complete sense of the artist’s work.

Processing Information

Collection processed by Susan Colodny, 2000.

Finding aid encoded by Megan Moltrup, February 2012.

Ismar David papers
In Progress
Cary Special Collections
Susan Colodny, Shani Avni
29 February 2012
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Edition statement
First edition by Susan Colodny, 2000. Second edition encoded by Megan Moltrup, 29 February 2012. Third edition encoded by Arianna McQuillen, 30 October 2023; incomplete. Fourth edition encoded and edited by Shani Avni, [final date].

Repository Details

Part of the Cary Graphic Arts Collection Repository

Rochester NY 14623 US
(585) 475-2408