Futura: Past, Present, Future

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Can you ever have too much Futura in your life? Some designers say NO! Some designers say YES! Last year I interviewed Petra Eisele, Annette Ludwig and Isabel Naegele, typographic scholars who adore Futura (designed by Paul Renner) in all its historical iterations and uses. In turn they edited Futura: The Typeface, a stunning examination in German of one of the most popular typefaces ever created,

then celebrating its 90th anniversary as the Typeface of the Future. Charting its Bauhaus origins to its use as the first font on the moon in 1969, this book tells the story of how the typeface went from representing radicalism in design to dependability. It is durable and timeless, and is worthy of being rediscovered and celebrated. This year, along with essays by Erik Spiekermann, Christopher Burke (author of Paul Renner) and me, the book has been published in English.


Among the essays I wrote was one on Paul Rand’s usage of the face:

Paul Rand’s typeface preferences included a limited number of san-serifs, including Trade Gothic and Helvetica—and once he even tried out A.M. Cassandre’s Peignot, the first time it appeared in the United States. He frequently used Futura Bold for advertisements and books designed during the 1940s, including a typographical ad for Benzedrine that featured a Futura Bold lower-case ‘b’ enlarged to fill the page. Owing to its near perfect geometry, this sculptural Futura letterform was very effective as an identifying mark, particularly at such huge proportions.


Other essays include “Futura Around the World” (e.g., Frankfurt, Berlin, Vienna and Prague, among them), Futura on the “Moon” and a wealth of valuable information about the details of Futura’s varied iterations and applications.


This year also marks the publication of Never Use Futura Unless You Are … by Douglas Thomas, with a foreword by Ellen Lupton (Princeton Architectural Press), which traces Futura from its Bauhaus-inspired 1924 design to its current role as the go-to choice for corporate work, logos, motion pictures and advertisements. It is not just for type nerds, but for anyone interested in how typefaces are used, take on meaning and become a language of their own.

Thomas appears to have built his book on a pedagogical warning reflected in the title. So he asks: “Why would my teachers tell me to avoid one of the most successful and iconic typefaces of the 20th century?” This question of typeface use “enticed” him enough to spend a year in history research at the University of Chicago seeking the cultural, political and social meanings and rationales for using and not using Futura. The result is a contemporary lens upon the face, showing its application in film titles and interior motifs for Wes Andersen, campaign buttons for Richard Nixon and artwork by Barbara Kruger.

Both books add greatly to type nerdism, but also to linguistic, printing and social history. Must reads, both.

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