Futura: a brief cultural history

An excerpt from a feature on the cultural history of the typeface Futura I wrote for issue 78 of The New European.

Helvetica may still be the only typeface to have starred in a movie. But another great European font, which turned 90 this year, has had a still more profound impact on the world’s visual culture.

Futura, the ultimate geometric sans serif, designed by the master typographer Paul Renner, was at the edge of the modernist design movement that emerged during the turbulent years of Germany’s Weimar Republic. The modernists, led by the Bauhaus in Germany and the Constructivists in the Soviet Union, developed new graphic principles suitable for the machine age, emphasising clarity and mathematical precision over the irregularities of design by hand.

The principles that informed Renner’s design were famously expressed in his colleague Jan Tschichold’s 1928 manifesto The New Typography, a bracing call for clarity over superfluous ‘ornamentation’. ‘Today we see in a desire for ornament an ignorant tendency that our century must repress,’ wrote Tschichold. ‘When in earlier periods ornament was used, often in an extravagant degree, it only showed how little the essence of typography, which is communication, was understood.’

For Tschichold, whose book made extensive reference to Marxist Constructivist theory and Leon Trotsky’s polemic Literature and Revolution, egalitarian sans serifs were the only typefaces appropriate for socialist modernity (though he didn’t go so far as the Bauhaus designer Hebert Bayer in condemning even the distinction between upper- and lowercase as irredeemably bourgeois).

Renner’s Futura, an abstract poetry of circles, triangle and squares, demonstrated his commitment to Tschichold’s functional ideal. But Renner drew on his deep understanding of typographic tradition to look back as well as forward, in this case to the inscriptions of ancient Rome. The capital lettering still visible on monuments such as the Pantheon, Trajan’s Column and the Arch of Titus, with their sharp, straight lines, smooth curves and judicious balance of thick and thin strokes, marked Futura’s design just as much as the theories of the avant-garde.

Read the full story in issue 78 of The New European.

The image above is a detail from the San Diego Air and Space Museum archives.