On Christmas Eve 1997 North American bookbinding lost one of its cornerstones with the passing of Fritz Eberhardt, following a prolonged struggle with cancer. His was a vital, if not always appreciated, voice for the constant improvement of our field. In addition to his achievements as an acknowledged master binder, he was an inter-nationally recognized calligrapher, type designer, woodcut artist, graphic designer, and teacher.
Born in Silesia (originally part of Germany; now part of Poland) in 1917, he suffered from polio at an early age, which resulted in a permanent limp. After an apprenticeship he studied bookbinding formally under Ignatz Wiemeler at the Leipzig Academy for Graphic Arts. He also studied calligraphy under the prodigy Rudo Spemann, and later, in Offenbach, with Hermann Zapf. Following the end of the war, he walked out of the Russian occupied zone and into West Germany. There he met his future wife, Trudi Luffert, who was also a binder. They were later married in Sweden.
In the early 1950's the Eberhardts came to Philadelphia, where Fritz was employed by the Library Company. Within a few years they were able to move to the farm on Old Sumneytown Pike where they would spend almost three decades, raising their three children and establishing their reputations as two of the finest American hand binders. It was also there that many of us made the Eberhardts' acquaintance. There was always work to be looked at; shop talk, some of it highly opinionated; coffee, tea and cake (often homemade) on the patio. Those of us of lesser stature were nonetheless treated as colleagues; one's level of achievement was less important than one's serious approach to the craft.
During these years, in addition to the normal work of conservation, restoration, and the occasional limited edition, Fritz continued to refine his approach to design binding: a full binding, usually of mid-colored goat; unusual placement of raised bands as design elements; blind tooling, utilizing tools fabricated by Fritz, played off against large areas of the covering leather; a little gold tooling for accent. Fritz produced some very successful bindings utilizing onlays and inlays, but with time these techniques assumed less importance. Two other aspects of the bindings merit notice. First is the importance of tactility in Fritz's work: these are books which demand to be touched as much as to be looked at. Second is the use of lettering, well spaced and integrated into the overall design. In the final analysis, however, for all their technical and formal excellence, Fritz's bindings are never mechanical or contrived. They exhibit that quality of disciplined freedom which is the touchstone of craft and art.
Fritz's calligraphy is as distinctive as his binding. To those of us whose only exposure to blackletter was through mediocre "Olde English" type and calligraphy, Fritz's supple and vibrant Fraktur came like a bolt from the blue. His lettering needed no other decoration, though Fritz would sometimes use an embellishment of gold tooling, and often worked with one or two colors in addition to the rich black of the text. As with the bindings, his design sense was impeccable. His forays into type design resulted in the faces of Markus and Ingrid, the latter being used for the logo of The Bombay Company. And at least once Fritz cast his own letters into metal. These were used to title the binding for his calligraphic text of the Lord's Prayer.
In addition to his artistic skills, Fritz was a talented raconteur and writer. His English vocabulary was extensive, and his use of the language was sophisticated and thoughtful. He was a charismatic speaker, both in public and at the dinner table. His writings exhibit the same gifts. Some can be found in Guild of Book Workers' Journals, and in the first installment of his memoirs as a calligrapher, in Vol 14 No. 1 of the Letter Arts Review. There is also a poem about bookbinding which has yet to be published.
Perhaps Fritz's most enduring legacy was his commitment to improving the artistic and technical standards of American hand binding. Coming as he did from the very structured European apprentice/journeyman/master system, the catch-as-catch-can situation in the US cannot have been encouraging. But Fritz made his views known, and supported them with examples of his own work. His was a continuing voice for the artistic and cultural value of bookbinding and book works, from his early dealings with the Philadelphia book world through the debates on standards and the beginnings of institutional book arts instruction. He was a proponent of a more professional approach for our book arts organizations. And he and Trudi both shared their expertise through teaching. They were perhaps hampered by their insistence on a thorough, professional course of study, which kept them from offering short-term classes and workshops which would have appeal for hobby binders. In spite of this, there were a number of students who went on to practice professionally; and others who, as serious amateurs, honed their skills and sensibilities under the Eberhardts' tutelage. Those of us who had the privilege of studying with Fritz and Trudi know how fortunate we are.
In the late 1980's Fritz's legs began to increasingly trouble him. So the Eberhardts, at an age when most of their contemporaries were retiring, moved to a ranch-style house, added a bindery/garage, and continued to work. By 1997 Fritz's physical problems had increased to the point where he was effectively retired. Even so, by his 80th birthday he had completed his final binding: a design commissioned from his friend and colleague Tony Haverstick. A free floral pattern tooled in blind on his favorite brick red goat, it was a superbly executed coda to a rich career and life.
In addition to Trudi, Fritz left behind his children, Dorly, Mark, and Ralph, their respective spouses, six grandchildren, a major body of work in several media and a legacy of excellence which most of us would be hard pressed to even approach. His was a significant and original presence in the book arts, and will be remembered as such.