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.
When given a large enough budget from their clients, Mies and Gropius’ efforts at Starting from Zero could produce some beautiful results. The 1919 building that Gropius designed in Dessau for the Bauhaus was an early landmark of modern architecture. And just check out the block of Park Avenue that contains the 1952 Lever House building, inspired by Mies, and 1958’s Seagram Building, designed by Mies with an assist from Philip Johnson, who had all sorts of socialist-themed “Starting From Zero” moments of his own in the 1930s.
Diapers Gone High
But by the mid to late 1960s, it was becoming increasingly obvious in the modern architectural world that the freedom promised by “starting from zero” has been replaced by design theories that had become as equally stratified in their own right as the Beaux-Arts was before the great Bauhaus cleanup.
For those who didn’t worship at the temple of Mies, this rigid uniformity could at times seem comical. As Tom Wolfe wrote in a later chapter of From Bauhaus to Our House:
Every young architect’s apartment, and every architect’s student’s room was that [International Style glass box] and that shrine. And in that shrine was always the same icon. I can still see it. The living room would be a mean little space on the backside of walkup tenement. The couch would be a mattress on top of a flush door supported by bricks and covered with a piece of monk’s cloth. There would be more monk’s cloth used as curtains and on the floor would be a sisal rug that left corduroy ribs on the bottoms of your feet in the morning. The place would be lit by clamp-on heat lamps with half-globe aluminum reflectors and ordinary bulbs replacing the heat bulbs. At one end of the rug, there it would be . . . the Barcelona chair. Mies had designed it for his German Pavilion at the Barcelona Exposition of 1929. The Platonic idea of chair it was, pure Worker Housing leather and stainless steel, the most perfect piece of furniture design in the twentieth century. The Barcelona chair commanded the staggering price of $550, however, and that was wholesale. When you saw that holy object on the sisal rug, you knew that you were in a household where a fledgling architect and his young wife had sacrificed everything to bring the symbol of the godly mission into their home. Five hundred and fifty dollars! She had even given up the diaper service and was doing the diapers by hand. It got to the point where, if I saw a Barcelona chair, no matter where, I immediately — in the classic stimulus-response bond — smelled diapers gone high.
Which isn’t to say that’s entirely a bad thing. The Barcelona chair is beautiful; I don’t own one (or two), but I do own plenty of Mies’s other furniture — in my past, I was as susceptible to the Great Cleanup as anyone, and in a way, I still am. (Two guesses as to what the font on the cover of the annual Christmas catalog put out by the design store of the Museum of Modern Art has been since at least the late 1980s.)
The Great Cleanup Goes Two-Dimensional
With architecture settling on the Miesian glass box by the early 1950s, the Great Cleanup began extending to two-dimensional designs as well. While the Bauhaus experimented with typography in the 1920s, most of its fonts seemed a bit too avant-garde for everyday use.
The real breakthrough occurred in 1957, when Swiss designers Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann invented a font called “Helvetica.” Originally called “Neue Haas Grotesk,” the name was simplified and de-Grotesked, with an eye towards the American market.
The font succeeded beyond its designers’ wildest dreams; it’s everywhere. Even on your computer, where Microsoft’s Arial is an only slightly modified royalty-free variant.
Helvetica: The Motion Picture
Which brings us back to where we started, the film about the font. Released in 2007 in honor of its namesake font’s 50th anniversary, the documentary, available on DVD, is certainly fun to watch on multiple levels, including an amazing visual look at modern typographic and commercial design over the years. Think of Koyaanisqatsi meets Lost in Translation, and you have a sense of the film’s atmosphere.
Watching the film’s interview subjects and stock footage you can see the high priests of graphic design over the years. As the film progresses, you can watch them morph from the original designers and users of Helvetica, bloodless slide rule European technocrats in starched white Brooks Brothers shirts and custom-made suits with working sleeve buttons, to Jurassic sixties hippies, to ‘90s grunge, and beyond.
Starting from Zero in the Design World
But the same “start from zero” manifesto, with the promise of bringing greater freedom to the artist, which instead winds up stifling all design choices, was as big a part of the commercial arts as it was of modern architecture. Fans of James Lileks’ Website are familiar with his extensive use of 1950s advertisements and design to provide much of its ironic retro look. And fans of the TV series Mad Men may recall the plight of the Salvatore Romano character last season. Before being forced out of Sterling-Cooper as a result of sexual harassment from the scion of the firm’s most important client, Sal was being transitioned from the art department to shooting TV commercials, because photography was rendering sketched and painted artwork anathema in the early to mid 1960s advertising world.
Similarly, the ubiquity of Helvetica was destroying the wild visual freedom that advertisers had in the 1950s as well. There’s a scene from Helvetica, featuring an interview with graphic designer Michael Bierut that illustrates this in the starkest terms possible, as you can see in this clip:
You can see exactly what Bierut is referring to, if you ever flip through one of Taschen’s collections of advertising from the 1960s. Right around 1965 or ’66, the swanky Rat Pack/Camelot-era advertising holdovers from the 1950s, typically with beautiful illustrations end, and then every ad starts to look the same: a photo adorned with Helvetica typography. (Of course, in retrospect, that style looked pretty swanky in its own way, once the polyester brown shag 1970s began to arrive.)
In a way, Helvetica is the font of liberal fascism; it’s certainly the font of corporatism. To this day, it’s on the side of every one of the airplanes owned by American Airlines, a private corporation. But it’s also the font of the New York Subway system, both the work of Italian designer Massimo Vignelli, now in his late ‘70s, and interviewed in the Helvetica film. And since Amtrak’s inception via Congress and President Nixon in 1971, the typeface on sides of its cars and locomotives is Helvetica as well. Helvetica symbolizes order and authority, but to borrow from one of the concluding memes of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, it’s the softer authoritarian nanny state of Brave New World, not the oppressiveness militarism of 1984. And it’s the font of IRS’s tax forms:
But one of the dangers of Starting from Zero is staying there permanently. In addition to the aforementioned institutions, public and private, the Helvetica film also documents designers who are still using (albeit often ironically) a 50 year old font, in much the same way that architects, interior designers and commercial photographers are still using Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair 80 years after Mies designed it. The Bauhaus banished the past, but in a sense, they freeze-dried the future as well.
Like Helvetica, it’s a good thing their best efforts still hold up pretty well. “Timeless” Modernism would look pretty antiquated, otherwise.