While I was flying back from New York City a couple of weeks ago, I finally got around to watching the DVD of the 2007 movie Helvetica. Simply put, this is The Greatest Movie Ever Made About a Type Font, but then, the roster of this cinematic genre wouldn’t take all that long to assemble. (Hopefully someone is shooting Font Wars: The Zapf Dingbats Strike Back even as we speak.)
Helvetica certainly does a fun job of explaining its titular subject’s history, and interviewing those who have used it in design work from the late 1950s through the present day. But to better place the font into context, it helps to go back a few decades from when it was first created in 1957, to understand the design world in which it functioned, its architectural ideals, and the politics from which those aesthetics flowed.
Bear with me for a few moments; I promise we’ll get back to Helvetica the font and the documentary in just a bit. But first, as Tom Wolfe has noted on a few occasions, one of the leitmotifs of the last 100 years was the idea of “Start From Zero.” The communists who took over the Soviet Union in 1917 believed that they could start from zero, and that history no longer counted. Shortly thereafter in Germany, as it emerged from the rubble of the First World War, the Bauhaus was founded, the fabled architecture and design school, which similarly banished the past. The stated goal was to provide architects, designers, and artists of all sorts with creative freedom, but as Wolfe noted in From Bauhaus to Our House, a few decades on, the result was a stultifying architectural conformity:
The country of the young Bauhausler, Germany, had been crushed in the war and humiliated at Versailles; the economy had collapsed in a delirium of inflation; the Kaiser had departed; the Social Democrats had taken power in the name of socialism; mobs of young men ricocheted through the cities drinking beer and awaiting a Soviet-style revolution from the east, or some terrific brawls at the very least. Rubble, smoking ruins — starting from zero! If you were young, it was wonderful stuff. Starting from zero referred to nothing less than re-creating the world.
Of course, in 1933, the Bauhaus was shut down after an infinitely more oppressive socialist Start from Zero campaign swept through Germany. Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus’s founder, Mies van der Rohe, its last director, and other Bauhauslers decamped to America, and re-re-started from zero again after World War II.