Futura Turns Ninety

Posted inCulturally-Related Design

Paul Renner composed his initial designs for Futura in 1924 and he was not so different than his Bauhaus-inspired contemporaries and their preoccupations with the mechanical precision of circles, squares, and triangles. It was the new age of machine art and in the summer of 1924, Siegfried Buchenau and Jakob Hegner challenged Renner, already an established and respected type expert, to design the “typeface of our time.” As Petra Eisele, a professor of design history and design theory, writes of Renner’s brief: “The aim was to discard the weight of history by concentrating on abstract forms and rethinking design from the ground up.”

Renner reached out to Heinrich Jost, one of his former students who had been appointed artistic director of the Bauer Type Foundry, establishing a legendary partnership in which Renner’s artistic inspiration was refined in order to cast legible type. Jost credited Renner for being wise enough “not to sacrifice the knowledge gained from tradition for the sake of new dogma.” And so, in 1927, Futura was released.

Two new books have been published on the occasion of this momentous 90th anniversary. Ostensibly both books are about the same thing—Futura. But they couldn’t be any different, which is a testament to the typeface’s legacy.

Futura: The Typeface is a staggeringly impressive catalog that shares a name with an exhibition at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz. If you want to understand this typeface, this book cannot be better, from its inspirational roman capital origins to its vital role in introducing the Bauhaus to America during the 1938 Katalog Bauhaus show at MoMA, not to mention facsimile proofs of Renner’s typefaces dating between 1927 and 1941. This is the comprehensive history of Futura; with punch-cutter precision it reveals the typeface’s evolution and features hundreds of images of Futura being used on all matter of printed material, from book covers to Nazi propaganda and Otto Neurath’s Isotype charts. (Neurath viewed his designs of simplified pictograms akin to Renner’s distilling of roman letters to their geometrical foundations.)

Of course, Never Use Futura by Douglas Thomas also covers some of these topics, but it is more of a cultural evaluation of Futura (“and its clones,” in Thomas’s words). The book’s full title is Never Use Futura: Unless You Are … , followed by a litany of high-profile serial users of the typeface, including Nike, Paul Rand, Stanley Kubrick, Volkswagen, etc. As Ellen Lupton writes in her Foreword, “Futura is a specific historical artifact … but it is also an idea, a concept about geometric construction.” Here is Thomas’s appraisal of Futura: the “balance of tradition and experiment made it revolutionary, pragmatic, and ultimately, popular.” And it’s exploring the increasing popularity of the typeface that is the real focus of this book. As Thomas explains, when, in 1924, the State Department pumped eight hundred million marks into the German economy to financially stabilize postwar Europe, a number of German and other European type foundries formed a consortium and set up shop in New York, which allowed them to sell their designs directly into the U.S. market. In 1927, Bauer opened an office in New York, ready to push Futura.

Futura made its first big splash in the U.S. in 1929 when Mehemed Agha led a controversial redesign of Vanity Fair. As Thomas details, both American publishers and advertisers quickly came to appreciate the modern look of Futura. So the American type industry started imitating it—Linotype commissioned W.A. Dwiggins to design a Futura-esque sans serif typeface, Metro, which was soon forgotten after Linotype launched Spartan. The imitation did not stop, and neither did the demand. The look of Futura, the marriage of “the avant-garde concern with line, shape, and form, to millennia-old typographic traditions” became so popular by the 1950s that companies selling knock-off versions of the typeface actually licensed the name “Futura” from Bauer, “completing the hegemony of idea over true product.”

In contextualizing the filmmaker Wes Anderson’s use of Futura, Thomas writes that typefaces “are referential and just specific enough to place the story in a time frame without crowding the narrative with explicit dates or values.” This is an astute point, and a fitting way to think about the 90-year-old Futura. As both of these books make clear by peeling away the design layers of the typeface, Futura did come to life on the verve of aesthetic values, which were embraced in Europe and North America, even during World War II. But those values just as quickly became product, “a bureaucratic vernacular,” according to Thomas.

Both Futura and Never Use Futura are fascinating stand-alone reads that pay tribute to a truly iconic typeface. But when considered together the pair makes for an invaluable lesson about how the process of design can become confused with the business of design.

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