Gotham and Moderne Sans Serifs

Posted inPaul Shaw
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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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