Gotham and Moderne Sans Serifs

Science Building, Hollywood High School (Hollywood, California)

The letters that inspired Gotham are not unique to Manhattan or New York City. Similar, though not entirely identical, capitals can be found in cities across America and Europe. Beginning in the mid-1920s, they appeared first in posters (see the work of A.M. Cassandre, E. McKnight Kauffer, and Austin Cooper) and then in signage—from movie theater marquees to all manner of commercial storefronts—as part of the Art Deco aesthetic. Futura and its would-be rivals were a symptom of this lettering zeitgeist.

After the Second World War these geometically-based Art Deco sans serifs were supplanted in print by Futura (and/or Spartan, its ATF and Mergenthaler Linotype clone), but signage continued to employ them. They appeared, as Tobias Frere-Jones discovered, not only on commercial buildings but also on governmental and institutional ones such as bus terminals, elementary schools, public health departments, and even Catholic churches. These letters were the symbol of modernism throughout Europe and the United States before Helvetica elbowed them aside at the end of the 1960s.


In Italy in the inter-war years, these geometric sans serifs were visually linked with Fascism through the work of architects who worked for the regime—willingly or not—carrying out everything from monuments and buildings for the party to train stations, post offices, and churches. Fascist architects, whether members of MIAR (the Movimento Italiano per l’Architettura Razionale) or adherents of romanità, became enthralled by Futura in the wake of its use in the German section of the 1933 Triennale di Milano. They created similar letters—using graph paper, compasses, and rulers—for their own works. Sans serifs continued to be popular even after the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1936 led to a renewed interest in classical Roman capitals on buildings and monuments, evident from the 1940 inscription commemorating the recovery of the Mausoleum of Augustus (above).

These Futura-like letters were not unique to Italian Fascism and there is no imputation that Gotham is Fascist in any manner, only that its roots extend much deeper than lettering on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey bus terminal or other postwar buildings in Manhattan. And, of course, this discussion is limited to Gotham’s capitals since the Art Deco era letters I have cited rarely included lowercase forms. Gotham’s lowercase owes more to the typefaces that sought to capture some of the Futura magic, especially Nobel (designed in 1929 and digitized by Tobias Frere-Jones in 1993), than to signage. However, the tall x-height of Gotham separates it from its interwar years predecessors.

The differences between Gotham and the letters (and typefaces) of the past are small but telling. The typeface is still an original conception, even if it has many ancestors. But I am still not willing to include it in this particular list of typefaces. If I start a list of the most popular typefaces of the past decade or something similar, Gotham will be duly considered.

Clinica Ostetrica e Ginecologica at the Città Universitaria (Rome)

Senior Recreation Center (Santa Monica, California)

Riunione Adriatica di Sicurtà (Parma)


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2 COMMENTS

  1. I am not sure when the term got “hijacked” (if it ever did). Contemporary American writers on printing and graphic arts in the late 1920s used Art Moderne not Art Deco to describe the new style that was emerging. The term Art Deco was coined decades later by Bevis Hillier who wrote Art Deco of the 20s and 30s (London: Studio Vista., 1968) and edited The World of Art Deco: catalogue of an exhibition organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, July-September 1971 (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1971). I chose the term “moderne” because it is often associated more closely today with the second decade of Art Deco (the 1930s), the era of streamlining, which is when these new sans serifs became popular.

  2. This is only peripherally related, but for a while I’ve been a little curious as to when the term “moderne” got hijacked. At least in the word of antiques and decorative arts, art moderne was a style related to but distinct from art deco. Art deco utilized machine-age motifs and geometry, whereas moderne’s motifs were stylized naturalistic forms that still had hints of its predecessor, art nouveau. I’ve seen this in the vintage jewelry business as well.