Paul Renner and Futura: The Effects of Culture, Technology, and Social Continuity On the Design of Type for Printing

Charles Leonard's picture

I have recently completed a master's thesis dealing with Paul Renner and Futura. It is available as a PDF down load from http://etd.gsu.edu/theses/available/etd-07222005-152053/. If that is too much to remember use etd. gsu.edu and browse by author (leonard).

I appreciate any serious commentary and input. The abstract follows:

This thesis reviews the circumstances that led to what Paul Renner called �the inflation of historicism,� places his response to that problem in the context of the Weimar Republic, details how the German attributes with which he began the project were displaced from the typeface that emerged in 1927, demonstrates that Futura belongs to a new category of serif-less roman fonts rooted in Arts and Crafts lettering, and considers why the specifically German aspects of the project have gone unrecognized for over seventy years. Renner�s writing is compared to ideas prevalent in early twentieth-century German cultural discourse, and Futura�s design process is placed in the context of Renner�s personal experience of Weimar�s social and economic crises. Objective measurements are employed to establish the relationship between drawings attributed to Renner and are used to compare features of Futura with other fonts of the period.

canderson's picture

I appreciate any serious commentary and input.

Unfortunately this isn't serious commentary or input. But I have to ask, did you investigate the possibility of setting the thesis itself in Futura? Do you have another version set in Futura?

This isn't entirely crazy, because it would be nice to be able to meditate on the font intermitantly while reading your thesis. A cynical take on this might change your title to: "Paul Renner and Futura: Times New Roman Is The Only Acceptable Typeface, So Why Bother Discussing Others?"

Recently, a Typophile made some T-shirts reviving an old advertisement for Garamond consisting of the word "Helvetica" set in Garamond. Seeing page after page of information on Futura set in Times New Roman makes me feel the same way as seeing that ad.
http://www.cafepress.com/teapotthecat.44022032

Also: I don't necessarily agree with my own arguments. I truely appreciate the work of scholars like yourself who provide freely available, verifiable historical documentation. Thanks.

Charles Leonard's picture

I wish I could have used Futura. As I worked on the thesis, I produced a version of Futura that used the glyphs developed by Renner and the Bauer Foundry in the period up to the Summer of 1925, and had hoped to use that for setting the thesis. However, Times Roman is the standard for GSU electronic theses.

To a certain extent the phrase "The Only Acceptable Typeface," in your pastisch on the title, expresses one of the critical points made in the concluding chapter of the thesis, e.g. fonts like Times Roman disguise their modernist premise through appropriation of authority accrued to historic models. Further, such appropriation has become such a standard feature of 20th century typefounding that its implications frequently go unnoticed. Worse, appropriation of obvious historical authority obscures the true nature of fonts that, like Futura, have their own clearly discernable historical antecedants but access them in ways not in agreement with the "official party line."

canderson's picture

I appologize for my snarky comment. This is really an incredible resource; if it were a book I would have likely purchased it.

Futura's "clearly discernable historical antecedants" have had an effect on me when I've used Futura in the past. More than some other fonts, I feel like I've gotten away with something when I've used it in a document. Sometimes when I see it used by large companies like HP, I wonder if they take it's history into consideration.

dan_reynolds's picture

Charles, I downloaded your thesis, printed it out, and have read about half of it.

I like it very much. It could use a little editing, but so can just about everything, even works already in print ;-)

Do you have any publishing plans for it?

I see from your text that you can read German. Can you write German as well? Perhaps more publishing opportunities would be available if you published the text in German, especially because of your writing's direction. Also, there is no book on the German market that really covers Renner well, except for his own books of course… Die Kunst der Typographie was just reissued about two years ago.

dan_reynolds's picture

Regarding the typeface the text is set in, I don't think that that is an issue. Pieces of writing should be judges as texts in and of themselves. Masters' theses are just works of writing, not designed objects. Were the text to be published in a journal, or a book, then one could go in several different design directions. I personally think that it would be sort of ironic to set the whole thing in Renner Antiqua ;-)

Futura is a legible face, at least the metal version popular in the 30s was. The reissue of Die Kunst der Typographie is just a reproduction of all the old pages. The small Futura holds up well even to this sort of abuse.

Charles Leonard's picture

I didn't think it "snarky" at all, and I appreciate your attention to the work.

speter's picture

FWIW, Christopher Burke's work on Renner wasn't set in Futura or any of Renner's typefaces, either. It was set it the author's Celeste.

dezcom's picture

Charles,
I fully understand the standards for presentation universities use for a graduate thesis--even if the typography they require is less than stellar. I would hope that you would approach a publisher who could help tidy up the editing and allow you to design the pages in keeping with the material you are presenting
I have a ways to go before I finish reading it but I have read enough to appreciate your work and your love of the subject. I have always felt that Futura was a landmark face that took on the modern world squarely as an idea. I look forward to finishing the reading.

ChrisL

Charles Leonard's picture

RE: publishing plans. Yes, I am seeking a printed outlet, perhaps as an adjunct to an English edition of Der Künstler in der mechanisierten Welt. I am also pursuing submission of segments of the thesis in several typographic and design history/aesthetics journals.

Unfortunately, I am just a reader of German.

Sebastian Nagel's picture

As far as I could read, this is very interesting. I'd buy it if it was published.

I think it's not that bad that this is a thesis and not a "design piece" (yet).
I've done a similar work on Syntax by Hans Eduard Meier and Rialto DF by Lui Karner and Giovanni de Faccio. You could translate it into "The Effects of Culture, Technology, and Social Continuity On the Design of Type for Printing, shown by the examples Syntax and Rialto DF".
Unfortunately, I only had 4 months to do that, and it had to be written and designed. Today, I think the content has suffered a bit from that fact, I'd like to revise some parts of it somewhen.

Designing it afterwards gives you the time to do both well, and I'd be happy to see it published somewhen (in german or in englisch, i don't carej.

Christoph Coen's picture

Thanks for this interesting read, Charles. I spent more than a week ruminating over your thesis, and it has actually motivated me to register for Typophile after a year of merely listening in to discussions, so this is in fact my very first post and I apologize for posting so late.

You deal with a fascinating subject in an almost exhaustive manner - the wealth of material that has gone into your dissertation is amazing. I particularly like your approach of situating the design process of Futura in its wider social, political and economic context; I think this is very effective in this case.

There are just a few points where your thesis puzzles me, probably because I am too mired in an insular German perspective. You stress the "specifically German aspects" of Futura and the peculiarities of "German typographic practice in the first half of the twentieth century". I am not always sure what exactly you mean by this, or how it relates to the design of Futura. You sometimes sounds as if, typographically speaking, Germany and the rest of the world, or Britain and the United States at least, were on different planets in those years. I think that is to some extent contradicted by your own account how people like Johnston or Gill were hired by German publishers to do work in Germany. Of course, there was the prevalence of blackletter, which was clearly a significant as well as highly visible difference. But this was never as all-dominating as you tend to make out - I think there was more of a typographical bilingualism than you give credit for, and the acceptance of roman type developed much earlier than "in the five years between Typographie als Kunst and the issuance of Futura".

Where your thesis fails to hold water in my view, Charles, is in your claim that the "German aspects" of Futura, i.e. the connection to blackletter, were somehow toned down during the design process. While your account of that design process is admirable (my only quibble would be that the lecture on 3 July 1925 was obviously not in Munich but in Frankfurt), I do not think the characters a and g in Renner's original design would have struck any German at the time as particularly "German", any more than it would today, and in fact their replacements in the version of Futura as used today are actually closer to their Fraktur equivalents. The "ball and post" r is ambiguous: where you see Gothic, I see Bodoni. In any case, Renner's stated aim with r, as well as with m and n, was to make these characters more static, to eliminate any horizontal movement which Renner considered an obsolete remnant of writing by pen. While this worked to some extent with the t (although that character in Futura is still a bit of a show-stopper inside words), it did not work out with those other characters, so Renner grudgingly had to make them more conventional. The only thing that bugs me in this context is the h. It is clear from your account that, while Renner was experimenting with an angular m and n, the h had a rounded edge from the beginning. Maybe Renner thought that the long stem on the left made the h sufficiently static anyway. Or one might argue that Renner was thinking in blackletter, where the designs of h and n are not necessarily based on each other, which would of course be another argument in favour of your theory. Where I think you are right and where Renner may to some extent have sold out to international marketability was in the inclusion of an oblique, as an afterthought as it were. On the other hand, I don't think the fact that there was originally no plan for an italic necessarily had to do with German peculiarities - if you try to design from elementary principles of typography, as Renner did, you would not necessarily want to emulate the relationship between roman and italic, which is just an historical accident.

The spelling of your German quotations and book titles would, I'm afraid, require quite a bit of retouching, but the most grievous point is the fact that the name "Mergenthaler" is consistently misspelt "Merganthaler", even in a quotation where I suspect it might have been correct in the original. Of course, this stuff is trivial in itself but it tends to distract the reader. I confess that the occasional use of the word "Teutonic" as a synonym for "German" also grates a little on my nerves. I also stumbled over the term "Bruchschriften" for blackletter which sounds a little derogatory to me, similar to "Bruchbude" or "Bruchpilot". You've probably got it somewhere from the contemporary literature, I expect, but the more usual German term these days would be "gebrochene Schriften". "Wortbild" is not a play on "Wortbildung" but just the standard German term for word shape. Where I think you are seriously inaccurate is in some of your claims on Nazi Germany. It is an oversimplification to claim that "Futura was effectively banned from wide use in Germany" after 1933, or even that "on their accession to power in 1933, the Nazi party effectively banned roman type from German printing". It seems that Futura continued to be quite popular under the Nazis, particularly for technical applications. Only the other day, I saw one of those famous Enigma machines in a museum here in Berlin which had a printed sheet of instructions for use affixed to the inside of its wooden lid - no prizes for guessing what typeface those instructions were set in. I think other examples would be easy to find. The fact that Futura, presumably to Renner's chagrin, wasn't used much for books may have had other reasons than a boycott by the Nazis. Similarly, to talk of "the post World War II silence that surrounded anyone who remained in Nazi Germany by choice" is inaccurate. The people who had a hard time after the war generally were the emigrants who returned, not the vast majority who had stayed. Renner's book on colour, published after the war, was apparently quite popular and an English translation was published in the US - maybe his interests had to some extent shifted from typography to painting. I do not think that in Renner's case there was any serious suggestion that he was tainted by collaboration with the Nazis - quite the opposite. And to suggest that he somehow had problems after the war because he was a "handsome, blue-eyed 'Aryan' male" is simply inappropriate - I do not see how this description of Renner's physical features advances your argument.

But anyway, these are just minor quibbles with what is otherwise excellent work - so once again, well done, Charles, and I'm just looking forward to seeing your work in German!

Charles Leonard's picture

Christopher
Thank you for a thorough and just critique.
My overstatement of the separation of German and Latin typographic practice derives from my own discovery that I had presumed that German typographic practice was dependant on English practice. I remain very much struck by the assignment of particular forms–roman, fraktur, schwabacher–to particular roles in German book publishing, as well as by the lack of cross-mixture of roman and italic in German books of the era. The only occurrence of the oblique version of Futura in any of Renner's books on typography occurs in the setting of his name on the title page of Die Kunst der Typographie. The most stunning example is the difference in appearance between Typografie als Kunst and Mechanisierte Grafik. I am working on a revision that does a better job of demonstrating how Renner's selection of Unger fraktur as the font for the 1922 book provides an insight on Renner's perception that Unger's integration of German form and French neo-classic style provided an example for the emergence of a new kind of script for German book publishing, one that was just over 100 years old at the time of Typografie als Kunst.
I used the word "bruchschrift" on the advice of a German epigraphic scholar, but thank you for suggesting more contemporary alternatives.
The reference to the "post WW II silence" was made in terms of Renner's isolation from the history of design as written and taught in England and the United States after world War II.
The point about Renner's appearance was more to explain why he had less trouble than he did after his contretemps with the Nazis in 1933. That comment was all that was left after an edit that removed accompanying information about his Northern-German protestant background, but I certainly apologize for any offence.
Again, thank you for the feedback and I will certainly recheck the German spellings.

piccic's picture

Charles,
I have just found the link to your thesis by chance. Although it's not so easy for me to read such studies in English (I am Italian), I wished to thank you.
I have bought just now the book by Christopher Burke, and so I have the opportunity of reading both.
I think they may be quite complementary to the texts assembled by Paul Shaw and Peter Bain while doing their landmark exhibition (and catalog): Blackletter: Type and National Identity.

Christoph is right by saying we shouldn't see people working in different places in the same period being so "isolated", but I have to say also that what happened in Italy in these years was really different. This is shown practically if we consider Futura's Italian "counterpart", Semplicità which was designed around 1928-30 by Alessandro Butti. Radio Grotesca digitized by Marta Sánchez, is another example.
Sentiments accompanying Modernity were filtered very much through each counrty's sensibilities…

That comment was all that was left after an edit that removed accompanying information about his Northern-German protestant background, but I certainly apologize for any offence.
I would be interested to read additional things about Renner and how he related protestantism and his German culture, as the references in Burke's book are very insightful. Would it be possible to read the parts you left out?

Many thanks again! :=)

Charles Leonard's picture

I have to say also that what happened in Italy in these years was really different.
First thanks for your comments.
Historical contingency always matters. One of modernity's agenda items was to end history and it became a historical oddity itself.
Renner said that a particular era cannot identify its own style and what is modern is how current taste differs from another period. I think that is easily enough understood when talking about, say, national or gender boundaries, but hard to grasp when the separation is temporal.
Umberto Eco in the English entitled The Mysterious Flame of Queen Lolanna makes it clear that what not only happened "in Italy in these years" is different, but what happens in anyone's life has different significance for the one who lives it.

Bleisetzer's picture

Well, I think, Futura is a very german font. It was not Futura, what was banned by Nazi party, it was Paul Renner. Adolf Hitler prefered Antiqua to be used by official documents since 1941, when the usage of Fraktur was forbidden. Before, Bernard Fraktur from Lucian Bernhard alias Emil Kahn, a jewish artist, was used for the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter - what a joke.

I sometimes think that Futura is seen in a different way in Germany and in the anglo-american scene. I use it for my website www.bleisetzer.de because for me it is a typical "prussian" font.

Georg
_______________________________________________
„Ich bin ein Preuße, kennt Ihr meine Farben...“

Chris Dean's picture

Tracking

blank's picture

Well, I think, Futura is a very german font.

Do you feel the same way about Gill Sans and Johnston’s Underground?

Bleisetzer's picture

@ James Puckett

Mh... good question. I am not familiar enough with fonts from out of Germany... but I can say: When I got Gill (in lead) the first time in 1975 or so, we all in our company realized: its not a german font. But this had nothing to do if we liked Gill or not.

"Typical german fonts" in my opinion are of course:
All fonts out of Group X - Gebrochene Schriften:
http://www.bleisetzer.de/schriftensammlung.html

In Group VI, Sans Serif, I do not feel the same "german character" with Akdidenz-Grotesk, Berthold Grotesk or others.

Sorry, I never studied like most(?) of you guys, I am only an old german typesetter, who does his job since around 35 years in the Graphic Industry.

Futura (and here mostly Futura Buch) with its strong and very clear character, constructed and from Paul Renner (I cannot separate these two informations in my head) who - for me - was one of the absolute positive german type designers (a brave and open man like I wished all germans in the 20ies shoulf have been). "Prussian character" for me is: black or white (the flagg), truth or lie, yes or no, straight forward in honest way of doing, a positive konservativ way of life. This - for me - is german. This - for me - is Futura. And this was the reason why I choosed this font for my website and all my company documents.

And of course its very interesting for me to read what you guys think about Furura. :)

Georg
_______________________________________________
„Ich bin ein Preuße, kennt Ihr meine Farben...“

Charles Leonard's picture

I sometimes think that Futura is seen in a different way in Germany and in the anglo-american scene.
Since this was the premise with which I began my research on Renner, it is wonderful to receive such a comment. And particularly from "an old German typesetter." You have made my day.

Nick Shinn's picture

When I got Gill (in lead) the first time in 1975 or so, we all in our company realized: its not a german font.

Hence Monotype Series 262, in which the A, M, N, a, g, and t of Gill, and the figures, were given more "geometric" forms.
I don't think the distaste for Gill is specifically German, as Gill never caught on in many parts of the world which fell in love with Futura from the get-go, such as the USA. I have even come across geometric modifications of Gill used in the UK.

There's nothing inherently German about Futura. When it was released, no doubt the traditionalists thought its Antiqua alphabet was horribly un-German.

I would say it's the other way round. Germany became Futura-ish, as German identity came to be associated, in the metaculture of art and design around the world, with the Weimar-era modernism typified by Futura.

IMO, this is an issue of modernity, rather than Germanity. The humanist characters in Gill may are an expression of the fact that the UK, between the wars, didn't "get" modernism to the same extent that continental Europe and the US (at least in commercial culture) did--and there was probably some part played by the commercial stranglehold of Monotype in the UK, in keeping out the geometric modern typefaces.

dan_reynolds's picture

>There’s nothing inherently German about Futura

Well, I don't think that is true. The c is German. In German words, c is (just about…) always followed by h or by k. The c is narrow if Futura because it isn't going to be standing alone. If Futura had been designed in France or the UK, the c would probably have had a different form.

You might also argue about the single-storey g, which is common in many German typefaces (Blackletters, sans serifs…). But I think that the c is enough. That is at least one thing that represents a design/production/sales decision that is—at its heart—inherently German.

Nick Shinn's picture

Dan, Gill Sans also has a narrow c.
("Unfurled" according to Stanley Hess' terminology in The Modification of Letterforms.)

eliason's picture

I see from Burke's book that Renner himself called Futura "an eminently German typeface" (in a 1940 letter to the Bauer typefoundry)! Burke implies that the context of that statement was that it was suited to particularities of German orthography (C/c's vertical terminals, shorter cap height), not that it contained the German Geist...

Other food for thought:
- Futura's name is distinctly un-German (Latinish; the German word for "future" is Zukunft).
- When D&P obtained the rights to sell the design in France, they rechristened it "Europe"

I would say it’s the other way round

Well put.

Nick Shinn's picture

Perhaps there was a little too much of the Geist of ancient Rome in Futura for Jan Tschichold, i.e. the proportions of the capitals--and that was too close to the Nazi taste. (Although he did say that his disenchantment with the modernist agenda was due to its totalitarian overtones.)

paragraph's picture

For me too, and many other Czechs. Which Thousand Year Empire would you rather live in?

Charles Leonard's picture

I'm glad to see this discussion picking up.
Futura’s name is distinctly un-German.
It could well be that the name expresses a pan-European point of view, which then begs the question of why did D&P use Europe as the name in France.
Interestingly, the name was suggested to Renner by Fritz Wichert -- a pronounced modernist, who was the director of the Frankfurter Kunstschule. And the suggestion seems to been a development parallel to giving the name Futura to the cyborg in Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" -- to my eyes a German film, but in the modernist, Weimar, sense Mr. Shinn expresses. My reading has indicated to me that German writers frequently make use of "latinische" expressions when they want to make a philosophical or scientific point.
Perhaps there was a little too much of the Geist of ancient Rome in Futura for Jan Tschichold …
The NSDAP program of monumental authoritarian "Roman" building and ceremony didn't begin until well after Tschichold was forced into exile. When Tschichold worked with Renner in the late 20s -- and damned Futura with faint praise -- NSDAP tendency was for Heimat aesthetics.

Nick Shinn's picture

I was thinking of Tschichold's comment in 1946:

“[The Third Reich] could not bear the genuine modernists who, although political opponents, were nevertheless unwittingly not so far from the delusion of ‘order’ that ruled the Third Reich. The role of leader that fell to me…signified…an intellectual guardianship of ‘followers’ typical of dictatorial states.”

That partly explains why he no longer wanted to be the poster boy of the New Typography.
Notwithstanding Heimat, the capitals of Futura and Kabel take their shape from "Trajan", which is the style of ancient, dictatorial Rome. Hence the taint. Just a theory.

paragraph's picture

Well, I should have been more precise. It is the totalitarian aspect of modernism which I meant. Out with the old, and in with the new, as of noon today, so to speak. This intertwined with an uncanny revolutionary zeal and willingness to purge.

On their own, I'd say that in my example, Gill is the one more reminiscent of monumental roman capitals, not Futura, which to my eye comes across as strict, stern and clumsy.

On the cultural level, it might be relevant that the Roman state was a republic in its heyday, just like Weimar, and that there was a degree of autonomy and religious freedom within it, and that the Renaissance movement and humanism owe much to Roman inspiration. And, to me personally, the tension between blackletter and roman typefaces still echoes that clash. Then there is the sad fact that the fascist movement derived its iconography from the Roman Empire directly.

That aside, to my mind, Gill says humanism and respect, and Futura says revolution and upheaval. Caveats: please do not bring the personal habits of Mr Gill into this, and as for slavery, humanism eventually removed it from the Roman tradition before the nazis brought it back.

Charles Leonard's picture

I was thinking of Tschichold’s comment in 1946.
Well cited. What interests me about Futura, and Gill Sans for that matter, isn't how they were thought of in the aftermath of World War II, but rather what thoughts brought them into existence. The ideas that pre-figure their creation.
I feel that, despite the effects of historicism, designs are bound by historical contingency to their place and moment of creation. In that sense, Renner was a German book designer working in the reality of the Weimar Republic, where a large part of the work done was to make Germany more solidly a part of modern western European culture.
I believe that any internationalist effects of Futura were part of his program to once again make German typography meaningful on the international stage. And in that sense it is a German typeface that applied then current technology to an underlying structure derived from Arts & Crafts lettering.

Charles Leonard's picture

… there is the sad fact that the fascist movement derived its iconography from the Roman Empire directly.
It wasn't just the fascists. Don't forget that many of the pseudo-classical departmental buildings in Washington, D.C. were built during the 1930's. Often imperial style is appropriated to validate imperial ambitions.
Republican Rome was indeed the model cited by the independent Italian republics -- especially Florence and Venice -- during the 15th century. Of course they appropriated an imperial letter, the Republican capital is often a bit more stark than Trajanic capitals. It is beautiful after all. But they too appropriated the trappings of the Roman republic to serve to authenticate their authority and express their sense of their own importance. There is certainly that sense of boastful assertion of destiny in both Futura's name and style.

paragraph's picture

There is certainly that sense of boastful assertion of destiny in both Futura’s name and style.

I wholeheartedly agree.

Bleisetzer's picture

Well... difficult...
I am not sure to be able to explain in my special pidgin english, what I exactly mean. But I try...

"Perhaps there was a little too much of the Geist of ancient Rome in Futura for Jan Tschichold, i.e. the proportions of the capitals—and that was too close to the Nazi taste. (Although he did say that his disenchantment with the modernist agenda was due to its totalitarian overtones.)"

What you have to understand, is: Fonts from the years around 1930 up to 1935 were symbols of the spirit of Germany. But there were not only one national feeling group, there were more of it. The first group saw themselves represented in fonts like:

Tannenberg
http://www.bleisetzer.de/cms/front_content.php?idcat=57&idart=539

Gotenburg
http://www.bleisetzer.de/cms/front_content.php?idcat=57&idart=453

Element
http://www.bleisetzer.de/cms/front_content.php?idcat=57&idart=521

National
http://www.bleisetzer.de/cms/front_content.php?idcat=57&idart=543
Please see picture #3. In the printed catalogue of National what I bought was a little label from a guy of Ludwig & Mayer, the foundry: "Best regards to the local chief of NSDAP Franz Siegelmeier. It shows that L&M saw this font as a recommendable font for Nazi publications.

Futura was _not_ showing the character of above listet fonts.
It was a typical font of a patriotic german, but one of the brave german guys. Life is _not_ black or white, there are 256 grey scales. Not all who were in opposition to the Nazi were socialists. There were although national konservative or national revolutionary people in opposition. The most konservative people were national thinking, but they thought the Nazis being uneducted underdogs - see Ernst Rowohlt and authors of his company (Verlag).

Futura was a pre-answer to these martial fonts coming up after 1933. Futura is like Paul Renner was: a humanist and a konservativ thinking german. Its a prussian font. And after 1871 when Deutsches Reich was foundet, Prussia had the responsibility for whole Germany.

By the way: He was not the only one. Think about Rudolf Koch. Or Rudo Speeman, who e.g. designed Gavotte:
http://www.bleisetzer.de/cms/front_content.php?idcat=57&idart=669
But he went to war 1939 as a volunteer, because he was a brave german.

Georg
_______________________________________________
„Ich bin ein Preuße, kennt Ihr meine Farben...“

Bert Vanderveen's picture

My posited explanation for the non-German identity of Futura is that it has been the ‘inspiration’ for a lot of local sanses (Century Gothic, Nobel, etc.), whereas Gill has been pretty much left alone in this regard.

. . .
Bert Vanderveen BNO

Bleisetzer's picture

"I feel that, despite the effects of historicism, designs are bound by historical contingency to their place and moment of creation."

I totally agree. I always think about a font embedded in its historical epoche. I try to understand this epoche and try to answer myself the question, if this font is a "good or bad one", trying to see it with the eyes of someone living in this epoche. How else could it be? Its nuts to critizise e.g. Futura from a view of 2009. Its better to come closer to Futura from 1925 or so. What was new seing it from 1925? What was the mainstream feeling of fonts in this time? So my thoughts come automatically to your next announcement:

"In that sense, Renner was a German book designer working in the reality of the Weimar Republic, where a large part of the work done was to make Germany more solidly a part of modern western European culture."

Not in Germany. No one forgot the fatal contract of Versailles and was willing to excuse it to France, UK & US. This is why Hitler's decisions to militarize Rhine Area again, to reintegrate Austria, to stop the payments of the Versaille's contract got an acclamation of the german population. Germany did not want to be integrated wherever. All european nations were stand-alone national thinking ones. Germany wanted to take its place in Europe and the world of the "big nations". The epoche was minted by imperialistic thinking in all european nations, Gemany, too.

And so were the before listed "german fonts". Giving Futura a special place within the german font answer to itsself, like I wrote before.

Georg
_______________________________________________
„Ich bin ein Preuße, kennt Ihr meine Farben...“

Charles Leonard's picture

Perhaps there was a little too much of the Geist of ancient Rome in Futura for Jan Tschichold, i.e. the proportions of the capitals—and that was too close to the Nazi taste.
I am writing this at 2 AM and I am not a night owl, but your thoughtful post deserves a prompt reply.
There was also, perhaps, a bit too much of the individual identity in Futura. What the purist modernists, as Tschichold was prior to 1933- 36, called for was neutrality of voice, transparency of identity, sublimation of individual aspiration to the continuity of the community. It is very helpful to remember that Jan Tschichold was not really very supportive of Futura before the NSDAP electoral victory in 1933. In other words, he didn't like Futura very much before the excesses of absolutist dictates became apparent. I suspect that he didn't like Futura in 1932 because it called too much attention to its style when what he wanted then were visually neutral typefaces, and in 1948 because it was to dismissive of historical features that he had subsequently come to appreciate. We can, after all, change our minds and still be correct.

Charles Leonard's picture

whereas Gill has been pretty much left alone in this regard
So, that leaves the question: What is Gill?
My contention is that the two are basically cut from the same cloth--Arts & Crafts lettering. However, the shears used have a slightly different bias. Renner's scissors cut a face that sought to remove every vestige of obsolete technology, e.g. pen trace. Morison through Gill, on the other hand, sought to maintain the visible authority of antiquity.
This reveals a dilemma at the heart of our understanding of the value of scriptal history. Do we better honor the intent of expression by preserving visual artifacts of no longer relevant technologies, or do we modulate such artifacts in order to best express the essence of character within current aesthetic and cultural parameters? I don't know the answer, but, personally, I think that this was the question that Renner faced. Further I believe he opted for the more stringent standard, not for aesthetic effect but because of a drive to be theoretically consistent. Hey, maybe this is the absolutism the chilled Jan Tschichold.

Nick Shinn's picture

What was new seing it from 1925?

Paul Renner was an artist, book designer, and educator who also wrote, spoke, and organized/agitated.

Like many people everywhere at the time, including the same-age Erbar and the much younger Tschichold, he started out an historicist and got modernism in the mid 1920s. (Historicism had been the progressive graphic movement since the turn of the century, with the influence of Morris and the private press movement.) But he wasn't the only 1920s designer to have a go at designing a sans; Goudy even preceded him. Renner described Futura as a "typeface of our time", not "of our country" or "of our world"; being up to date was important to him:

"For the Modern is an idea, an unending task, never to be entirely resolved. We seek it on a narrow ridge, which drops away on one side into thoughtlessly adopted convention and on the other side into the modish, which is mostly a somewhat foppish exaggeration of the Modern at any one time. This ridge is no comfortable middle way.
--1947, quoted from Christopher Burke's Paul Renner

Historicism was the modern thing to do in the first two decades of the 20th century, and the Arts and Crafts movement, which Renner participated in professionally as a book designer, did provide some of the formal and theoretical underpinnings of Modernism.

So there is nothing particularly Germanic about Renner's modernist "renewal" (as Burke calls it), except that Weimar was a hotbed of turmoil and polarization, with artists from many countries converging on the scene there, so it did provide a cauldron of creativity that produced extreme results, and Modernism was nothing if not extreme. So when he decided to construct a modern, geometric, reductive typeface, Renner took it all the way, and rationalized its appropriateness for the German language, arguing that the Carolignian script, basis of the humanist alphabet, was in fact Germanic, because Charlemagne was Karl the Great, and fraktur was a later French bastardization of the script.

So the geometric minimalism of Futura, in comparison to other sans faces of the era, was due to:

- The culture of extremism in Weimar. The geographical location of Weimar, between Constructivism in the Soviet Union, and De Stijl in the Netherlands, provided an apt center for the development of modernist graphic design, with Gropius' post-1923 concept of the Bauhaus providing a symbolic and social focus. However, in the same German environment, the Erbar sans and Kabel were not solely dependent for their modernity on looking as machine-made and simple as possible, but addressed and defined other qualities.

- Renner's background as an artist and intellectual, and being a member of that social set, provided an awareness of reductive modernism in art and theories such as Purism, and a sympathy for it.

- Renner's considerable professional status: in his late 40s when he designed Futura, he was a man with a solid track record in graphic design and education, and no doubt significant gravitas in person--these qualities meant that the folk at Bauer took his weird geometric experiment seriously, and were prepared to spend many years working on it, and with him, to make it commercially viable. In comparison, neither Bayer's universal alphabet, nor Tschichold's unicase made it into type. Gill Sans benefited from a similar provenance and sponsorship. Kabel too, must have been a no-brainer for Klingspor, given that it was the "skeletal" derivative of the already successful Koch Antiqua.

Ultimately, all type faces are type styles, and what comes first is something purely visual and crafted, rationalized post fact, not before. Really, in terms of genesis, the "modernistic" Benton and Hess face Broadway is not that much different from Futura: proceeding from reductive majuscule signage lettering, a matching lowercase adheres to the same strict formality.

Of course, historical contingency does play a part in shaping types, because every designer lives somewhere, sometime. But it is not a direct influence in a way that gives type forms inherent moral or political qualities--which is the association that people often look for, especially with Nazi-era DIN and Futura. The letters are just shapes, after all. Contingency means how a designer carves out a living, with the successful work being economically practical, and commensurate with the physicality of how he draws and designs for media.

For some reason, Renner was able to excise the trace of the hand from Futura in a way that other 1920s sans serif type designers were not, or didn't want to. At the time, his cultural environment fostered that--but it was the same German environment that nourished the more mannered though no less modern sans serifs of Jakob Erbar and Rudolf Koch.

The modernity of 20th century sans serif faces is not quite so epochal as the modernity of contemporary art. The sans serif had been invented 100 years earlier, and in continuous usage. It was standard practice for successful type designers to work in many genres, including sans. For this reason, one should be wary of borrowing historical contingencies from other fields of art and design and applying them to type. Should not Morris Benton, the author of News Gothic in 1908, inventor of the sans/serif megafamily Clearface, the ultralight Lightline Gothic, the geometric Bank Gothic, the reductive Broadway, the socially-committed Century Schoolbook, &c., &c., be considered a modernist?

My contention is that the two are basically cut from the same cloth—Arts & Crafts lettering.

I don't think so. The idealized geometric shapes of Futura are a completley new and opposite concept to the hand-made quality of Arts & Crafts and Gill Sans. In type, such plain geometry demonstrated the smooth machine finish, becoming at that time symbolic of functionalism. This was the change that Gropius instituted at the Bauhaus in 1923, and what distinguishes the bent steel tube chairs of Breuer from the bent wood chairs of Thonet.

...he opted for the more stringent standard, not for aesthetic effect but because of a drive to be theoretically consistent.

Design isn't either/or, it's both/and. The goal is to make something work well and look good, which involves resolving conflicting criteria. It's hard to marry theory and style, to satisfy both masters, to walk the narrow ridge, but Renner and Bauer pulled it off with Futura, creating a design that fused and transcended style and theory.

Indra Kupferschmid's picture

(thanks Nick, have not read something so well explained in a long time)

paragraph's picture

Yep.

Charles Leonard's picture

Nick thank you for your thorough critique. It is very helpful.
The idealized geometric shapes of Futura are a completely new and opposite concept to the hand-made quality of Arts & Crafts and Gill Sans.
I think that Renner was less a modernist than someone who came up in the arts and crafts movement and was trying to reconcile his life experience and book designing expertise with modernism as it was consolidated from all the other "isms" of the early Weimar republic. He held this view into the thirties. In 1931 he wrote: "It [the book trade] owes its recovery much more to the revival of the old craft than to constructivists and Dadists."

There are two aspects to Futura's geometry. The first is embodied in the form and the second is a result of its visual austerity.

As to the first, Renner wrote in 1922 that 'the inscriptional Roman capital which stands at the head of European scripts is composed of triangle, circle and square.'

He uses this quote from Typografie als Kunst twice for proofs of Futura. The first instance is in the sample he prepared for Ehmcke's 1925 book on new German type

and the second is from December 1927, after the initial release of the face.

Renner didn't set out to rationalize the upper and lower case alphabets by drawing them geometrically. The geometry was already there in the system of proportions based on the relationship between the circle and the square. This point was also made by Edward Johnston, Rudolph Koch, and Rudolph von Larisch. Before World War I, Renner derived his instructional method for lettering from contact with Johnston's student Anna Simons. His brief description of starting Futura includes mention that he started out, 'just as he has his students do.'

What he did do, with the assistance of his former student and Bauer employee, Heinrich Jost was strip away any artifacts of the hand.

His view that "[Variation in stroke thickness], which script took from the wide-cut nib, are, like all other handwritten elements, not necessary components of these language marks," was modified by the work of Heinrich Jost. Jost apparently convinced him that a tapering reduction in stroke weight where bowls join stems wasn't an effect of the pen, but a necessary optical correction. While Jost was a student in the school Renner directed before World War I, Renner had employed Hans Cornelius to teach his students about the physiology of sight. The untapered perpendicular joins of the bottom of the b and d to their respective stems is sometimes cited as an example of the calligraphic, non-geometric quality of Gill Sans.

The key to this insistence on austerity and removing traces of the hand doesn't lie in attitudes about constructivism and the modern. It is revealed in Renner's discussion of Edgar Dacqué's primalist theories. Here's an example. "… fraktur is not actually of German origin. It is the last ornate offshoot of Gothic scripts…". The key words are "last ornate offshoot." Dacqué held that all creatures that had ever evolved had within them a primal human germ that acted as a generative force. In different eras different species developed. These species failed to achieve ideal form because they were conditioned and limited by the environment in which they emerged. Because of these limits these branchings were ultimately dead-ends that could never achieve the ideal form "sought" by the primal force. Renner applied Dacqué's idea to the history of European scripts. So when letters are created in a time of wide-nibs, they fail to achieve their ideal form because of the limitations of the tool that physically define them.

To be true to his own time and best express the primal letter, he believed that Futura could exhibit no artifacts of other eras.

Nick Shinn's picture

I suspect that the origin of Futura occurred to Renner in an instant: a mental pattern-matching of the circle+square+triangle of the Roman inscriptional capital with the same elemental forms exhibited in various modern art movements.

That the type which merged these ideas should be a monoline sans followed automatically from the reductive modernist component, as well as through his experience in calligraphy--as you say, "as his students do", i.e. starting out with the monoline skeleton.

The key to this insistence on austerity and removing traces of the hand doesn’t lie in attitudes about constructivism and the modern.

On the contrary, when modernism was the style, he produced the stripped-down Futura. Subsequently, he produced two more types, Ballade, a busy "broad-nibbed" gothic (blackletter) style, and the extremely chirographic Renner Antiqua.

So it seems to me that Dacqué's theory is a rationalization for what Renner wanted to realize in modernist times, and when the bloom was off that rose, he moved on to produce a fully-fledged gothic and an Antiqua.

As he abandoned Dacqué's theory after his modernist fling, this indicates that his relationship with modernism was the driving force in Futura's monoline simplicity.

However, it could be argued that Ballade and Renner Antiqua are attempts to redeem the wide-nibbed letter, firstly by giving a gothic style significant roman letterforms (Ballade), and secondly, vice versa, by "gothicizing" his Antiqua, a condensed, squarish, profusely serifed type.

If he were so dedicated to theory, and the commitment to produce types true to his own time, why would he embrace less ideal type-forms that were notably anachronistic? Perhaps he wearied of fashion, and could no longer deny the feel of the broad-nibbed pen in his hand.

Charles Leonard's picture

Good observations. I agree that for Renner, particularly the landscape painter who could never bring himself to completely disengage with the publishing industry, "the feel of the broad-nibbed pen in his hand" was important.

Bleisetzer's picture

Does this belong to this thread anymore?

"This thesis reviews the circumstances that led to what Paul Renner called �the inflation of historicism,� places his response to that problem in the context of the Weimar Republic, details how the German attributes with which he began the project were displaced from the typeface that emerged in 1927, demonstrates that Futura belongs to a new category of serif-less roman fonts rooted in Arts and Crafts lettering, and considers why the specifically German aspects of the project have gone unrecognized for over seventy years. Renner�s writing is compared to ideas prevalent in early twentieth-century German cultural discourse, and Futura�s design process is placed in the context of Renner�s personal experience of Weimar�s social and economic crises. Objective measurements are employed to establish the relationship between drawings attributed to Renner and are used to compare features of Futura with other fonts of the period."

Georg
_______________________________________________
„Ich bin ein Preuße, kennt Ihr meine Farben...“

Bleisetzer's picture

http://typophile.com/node/60296#comment-357987
Georg
_______________________________________________
„Ich bin ein Preuße, kennt Ihr meine Farben...“

David Rault's picture

Charles Leonard: if you are still there on the forum, could you please send me an email?

thanks,

David Rault (davidrault -at- gmail)

piccic's picture

I’d also be interested in talking again with Charles, since I did not visit the thread after he replied last year. I’m tracking this again… :)

Charles Leonard's picture

David & Claudio -- I am still around. Working on improving the soil on my farm and exploring how the early 20th century German debate on the relative roles of civilization and culture bears on Renner's mind-set c. 1925.

piccic's picture

Working on improving the soil on my farm

Literally? :-)

I will to contact you via PM.

Charles Leonard's picture

Claudio, yes literally. You'll be pleased to know that I am using an Italian tractor.

quadibloc's picture

Charles Leonard:
fonts like Times Roman disguise their modernist premise through appropriation of authority accrued to historic models. Further, such appropriation has become such a standard feature of 20th century typefounding that its implications frequently go unnoticed. Worse, appropriation of obvious historical authority obscures the true nature of fonts that, like Futura, have their own clearly discernable historical antecedants but access them in ways not in agreement with the "official party line."

(Annoyed John Cleese voice:) Appropriation of historical authority?

Wouldn't it be enough to say that humanist miniscule looked nice, and people were used to it, and it was readable, and so when Nicholas Jenson started from that, but made something more harmonious with the Roman capitals than rotunda, it looked nice, and people liked it - and so, even today, while type designers do try to express their own originality and creativity too, when they're making a design intended for practical use, they make one that's similar to what people already like and are used to.

With respect to your thesis rather than your posting, although the specifically German influence on Futura does generally go unmentioned in histories of printing types, in histories of typography in general (that is, the use of types as well as their design) the Weimar Republic and Bauhaus and all that figure rather prominently. After all, the other major geometric sans-serif is Kabel.

Thus, rather than looking for complicated reasons, I suspect that historians of printing types simply go with Italian: Jenson; French: Garamond; Dutch: Elzevir; English: Caslon... and then, what with Didot being French, and Bodoni being Italian, they just throw up their hands and proclaim that type design became international from then on.

On the other hand, as I progress further into your thesis, I find it eminently sensible to suspect that Paul Renner's reason for not leaving Germany was because of his age - and that any left-wing politics associated with the Weimar period that may have influenced the design of Futura would have been an embarrassment to be passed over in silence as Futura graced advertising copy in post-war America.

I just wouldn't have felt it necessary to slag Times Roman for paying homage to Caslon. Kowtowing to an authoritarian political model? Given that British history, despite the unpleasantness of the Industrial Revolution, went as well as it did because nonsense like the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon or Mussolini happened over there rather than in Britain, many people in Britain quite legitimately felt there was something to be said for respecting authority.

In short, I think your problem is that you're the sort of person that prefers other kinds of novels to The Lord of the Rings.

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