Unashamedly, and for all it’s perceived flaws, I love Futura. It’s one of those typefaces I often end up returning to. Designed in the 1920’s by Paul Renner, it was one of the first geometric typefaces commercially produced. Renner was a modernist, and shared the principles of the Bauhaus school – Futura was Renners attempt to create a wholly modern typeface.
I often hear and read disparaging things about Futura – It’s the face of the student, its lowercase flawed and cumbersome, the bold and heavy varieties overused, the condensed versions horrific… I have to admit to agreeing with some of these accusations.
I certainly agree with the overuse of the bold varieties. Futura has been around for a while now and unlike the neutral and uniform Helvetica Futura’s shapes are recognisable and distinct. Because of this Futura, from my (subjective) point of view, carries with it a certain amount of cultural baggage. I was an art student in the early nineties and I cannot look at Futura bold oblique without thinking of the conceptual images of Barbra Kruger. Similarly the bold varieties remind me of Absolut Vodka and Stanley Kubrick’s many title sequences and poster art. In the 1980’s the overuse of Futura Extra Bold Condensed even prompted a print campaign against it.
Although other geometric or sans faces have been just as overused, it seems to me that faces such as Frutiger and Helvetica, for all their hegemony melt into the overall visual noise that surrounds us. I guess this is what makes these typefaces so popular. They are versatile, and can be used in volume and for different purposes while staying discreet. They are an element in a design rather than the hero. I have a similar ‘cultural baggage’ problem with Avant Garde, another distinctive geometric face, and for me, another example of a typeface that suffers from a myriad of associations.
Despite all this I still often turn to Futura. I agree that the lowercase can appear disjointed but the capitals are beautiful and considered. And although Renner had nothing to do with the condensed version, and these versions seem to wind up designers the most, I still have a soft spot for them.
I also have to get over my own associations. Typefaces come in and out of style and new generations of designers discover faces discarded by their predecessors – again, Avant Garde is a great example of a face discovering a new life. (in fact there seems to be a whole Herb Lubalin revival going on – you don’t get a £65 monograph published if you are not in fashion.)
The inspiration for this post is a Futura variety which is possibly a little less know. Futura Display, designed by Renner in the mid thirties, was Renner’s attempt at making a sans based on nineteenth century sans serifs rather than the geometric shapes his original Futura was based on. Futura Display has little in common with the original versions of Futura – I would imagine naming this sans face ‘Futura’ nearly a decade on from the release of the original geometric version was as much to do with marketing than anything else.
I had hardly seen any examples of Futura Display apart from the odd gig poster I would come across pasted up around Brighton. After moving into a new flat a few years ago I discovered signage on a nearby office building that used Futura Display. In classic 1970’s styling the signage is brushed metal mounted on a brick facade, hardly doing it justice, but nevertheless, it is nice to see an example so near were I live, and a nice addition to the other variations of Futura I have discovered in near proximity to my home.
The other night I was up late watching the telly, Death Wish came on, and as I made my decision to turn in the titles came up. Death Wish. Rendered in Futura Display.
Christopher Burke’s biography of Renner, Paul Renner: the art of typography is a great read and contains all you would want to know about the life of Renner. As well as documenting the creation of Futura which for anyone with a passion for typography is interesting in itself, The book also goes into Renner’s run-in with the Nazi party – Renner was imprisoned by the Nazis for a short time for writing a paper criticizing the National socialists promotion of Blackletter (“Kultur-bolschewismus?” (Cultural Bolshevism?)). Renner saw the promotion of Blackletter as propaganda, promoting a cultural aesthetic that was not only a myth but one that went against Renner’s modernist beliefs.