A longtime tenor in choirs from Kentucky to Boston, Carl Zahn took the lessons of music and applied them to the elegant exhibition catalogs he created for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
“I think he considered the books to be the melody and the content to be the lyrics,’’ said his friend Lance Hidy, a graphic artist and book designer. “He would try to make the contents come to life through the design, just the way a good composer does with familiar lyrics. Just like when he sang in the church choir, he wanted his music to be beautiful. He wanted his books to be that way, too. And he did it.’’
Mr. Zahn — a graphic designer, book typographer, and former director of publications at the MFA, where he worked for 41 years — died of congestive heart failure Feb. 27 at his Sarasota, Fla., home. He was 83 and had lived for many years in Jamaica Plain and Wellesley.
In a process that could take months to complete, Mr. Zahn decided the number of pages in exhibition catalogs, along with the size and type of print, and how to blend illustrations and text.
“Carl was certainly one of the best graphic and book designers I have ever known,’’ said John Benson, a lettering artist who knew Mr. Zahn through the Society of Printers in Boston and their collaborations at the MFA.
He called Mr. Zahn a superb manager who guided projects to completion “through his extraordinarily gracious people skills.’’
Joining the MFA staff in 1956 as a designer of exhibits and publications, Mr. Zahn produced two books his first year. He also brought a taste for Modernist design to his work.
“When he started in Boston, he really was unique,’’ said Hidy, who developed a close friendship with Mr. Zahn during the past decade. “He played a role in the history of 20th century graphic design because of his brilliance and what he brought to the Boston design scene.’’
Working with curators, Mr. Zahn designed presentations of exhibitions, lavishing attention on details including invitations and posters.
“His sense of design was innate and it applied to everything, including well-designed automobiles and his way of dress,’’ Hidy said. “Design was in his blood.’’
Carl Frederick Zahn was born and raised in Louisville, Ky., where his father was a pharmacist who led a dance band and his mother was an organist in a Baptist church who also played in theaters for silent movies.
As a boy, Mr. Zahn began singing in his mother’s church choir, and he graduated in 1945 from Louisville Male High School.
Three years later, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College, where he sang in the Glee Club. He began his career in the conservation department at the university’s Fogg Museum.
At Harvard, he met Betty Jane Woodrow, who was a Radcliffe College student. They married in 1950 and moved to New York City, where he worked in the art department of the Benton & Bowles advertising agency.
In the anniversary reports of his Harvard class, he called the advertising job uninspiring, though ultimately beneficial.
“I set out after graduation to find a place in society, a job to do,’’ he wrote in his 25th anniversary report. “I charged off in one false direction, but it later proved helpful in the work I chose.’’
The couple moved to Boston in 1951, when Mr. Zahn left advertising to work for the Institute of Contemporary Art. Five years later, the MFA hired him to design exhibits and publications.
Over the years, he created catalogs for shows featuring painters and photographers such as Claude Monet, Andrew Wyeth, and Edward Weston.
Encounters with artists could occasionally be strained. He told relatives that in one disagreement with Georgia O’Keeffe, he suggested: “Maybe you’d like to design the book yourself.’’
While at the MFA, Mr. Zahn also freelanced designs for the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University and the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover. Both also presented exhibitions and catalogs of his design work.
After Mr. Zahn began working for the MFA, he and his wife settled in Wellesley, where they raised their three children. Their marriage ended in divorce.
In 1979, he married Felicitas Fuhlrott. They bought a house in Jamaica Plain and divided their time among Boston, Martha’s Vineyard, and Spain.
He retired from the MFA in 1997, but after his wife died in 1999, he launched and ran Museum Publishing Partners for several years with Cynthia Purvis, a former MFA colleague. Their company’s clients included the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the National Heritage Museum in Lexington.
“The guy just kept going all the time,’’ said his daughter Lisa of Beverly. “He always had something he was doing.’’
That included at home. When his children misplaced school bus passes, Mr. Zahn forged replacement copies.
“It was a big thrill for us to see how long we could get away with it,’’ said his son, Richard, of Wellesley.
In 1964, Mr. Zahn became a member of the Society of Printers in Boston. He shared a Harvard Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies prize in the early 1990s for contributing to the exhibition and catalog designs for “The Lure of Italy: American Artists and the Italian Experience.’’
Mr. Zahn often told his family that during retirement, he missed creating and designing, and he channeled some of his restless imagination into designing birthday and Christmas cards for family and friends.
He sang regularly through the years, with the Chorus pro Musica in Boston and for 15 years with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.
Mr. Zahn also enjoyed photography and created a darkroom in the basement of his Wellesley home to develop black and white photos. He adapted to evolving technology, too, writing in 1994, “The Macintosh computer has revolutionized the way I work; I’m glad the opportunity came while I was still in harness.’’
Burial will be private for Mr. Zahn, who in addition to his daughter Lisa and son, Richard, leaves another daughter, Karen LeMonte, of Sarasota, and two grandchildren.
“He was the kind of person that managed always to look and convey a sense of calm accomplishment and cheerful camaraderie,’’ Benson said. “He was one of the most competent men I knew.’’