December 26, 2019 100

The font that escaped the Nazis and landed on the moon

The font that escaped the Nazis and landed on the moon


You know Futura. With those knife sharp Vs and
wide circle Os, it cornered the market on that retro-future-cool
thing. Futura defined Barbara Kruger’s art and
helped streetwear company Supreme rip her off…I mean, create a loving homage
to her work. It’s such a Wes Anderson cliche that complaining
that it’s a cliche is a cliche. It’s on wedding invitations from those friends
of yours who put Urban Outfitters on their wedding registry. But Futura overcame a lot to get this far. Like Nazis. (Yes, those Nazis.) Paul Renner designed Futura, and he came to
it from book design, where it was key to communicate
clearly. It was the 1920s and the Bauhaus school of
design was becoming popular. Think cool looking chairs that are really
uncomfortable. Renner wasn’t part of that school, but like
Bauhaus designers, he wanted function and beauty. At the time, when people thought of German
typography, they thought of fraktur style typography, and Renner thought it didn’t work. He said fraktur was like lederhosen. Outdated and quaint. So after a couple of years of development,
Futura went on the market in 1927. It was sold as “the typeface of our time.” This thing was modern. Some early designs were even crazier, with
extremely geometric figures, like this g, or this a. That look was in the air with other typefaces,
like Johnston and Akzidenz Grotesk, but Renner thought Futura was unique. He called it an “eminently German typeface”
and the type foundry, Bauer, sold it as the type
of the future. It gained broad international distribution,
showing up on charts or being overlaid on pictures. It became a symbol of the future – and for
the Nazis, that was the problem. That fraktur – the Gothic style Renner rejected
— became the Nazi look in the 1930s. And the Nazis starting scrubbing out modern
fonts in favor of ornate styles. At the same time, Renner became an outcast
after he wrote a famous anti-Nazi essay. He was arrested and briefly in exile from
Germany. Sans-serif type was cast out too. But Nazis were inconsistent. Renner returned to Germany, and Nazis occasionally
even used Futura. Look at these pages from a Nazi design manual. Aside from the Fraktur and little Nazi paper
cut out dolls, which were uniform guides, there are a couple of charts in Futura. In 1941, the Nazis reversed course. Out of the blue, they decided their beloved
Fraktur was a “Jewish” style, so they banned it. They’d really come around to Renner’s
idea, that the German typeface of the future had to be more readable. But by that time, Futura was established as
an international typeface. That might be what saved it. During World War II, a lot of different, modern-looking
sans-serif fonts were kicking around NASA’s predecessor, NACA, and the rest of the American
military. At the time, people chose fonts based on the
availability of physical pieces of type. Futura was…around, and it was clear and
modern . That made it an obvious choice for a very important job. When NASA needed a plaque for Apollo 11, they
chose one font; they pulled from a typeface the would become
beloved by Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson alike. They used the uniquely German design that
through a talented and idealistic creator, traveled beyond the Nazis, beyond the 1940s,
beyond Germany, and beyond this planet, too. “We’ll read the plaque that’s on the
front landing gear of this L.M. Here men from the planet Earth first set foot
upon the moon. July 1969.” They chose Futura. There are a lot of reasons that Futura has
that extremely modern, international feel. One of those reasons, though, is really German. A lot of people credit Volkswagen with bringing
Futura to a new generation and also into the mainstream.

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