Friday, March 5, 2010

Helvetica Is Not A Fascist Font.

[Editor's Note: Erik Spooner is guest blogging this post. He wrote his essay out in Helvetica, but ironically (I know, I know that's not what that word means, but that's what we all mean when we say it) Helvetica is not available on Blogger so I used Arial. Dang, like rain on your wedding day.]

Suzy Rice claims that she designed the Star Wars logo, and that George Lucas wanted something fascist for his movie Star Wars’ logo. She also claims that Joseph Goebbels designed typefaces and that the Nazis created a font called Helvetika, upon which Helvetica, perhaps the most important modernist font ever cut, was based. It is impossible for me to know whether or not she ever worked for George Lucas (I can find no third party account of her story). Her historical account of Helvetica’s development, are however totally false.

How false? She writes that Max Miedinger, the designer of Helvetica, used Goebbels’ type designs for reference when he drew Helvetica for the first time nearly a decade after the end of the War, that Goebbels, a German leader in the Third Reich, named his typeface Helvetika (which seems a misguided attempt to Germanize Helvetica, which is the Latin word for Swiss). Even if Goebels was a font designer (and he wasn’t), why would the Thousand Year Reich create a visual program for their infamous final solution and name it for the Swiss? Obviously none of this lines up. She is defaming the early German Modernists as well as the post war Swiss creator of Helvetica, and they both deserve better.

Because Ms. Rice’s history is so pointedly false, it’s hard to know what her motives are. Is Suzy Rice confused or is there a political agenda? I think that it’s impossible to know, but knowing whether this is a confused agenda or just confusion is probably irrelevant anyway. So who am I to question these assertions? I’m an art director; a font geek, and a cultural enthusiast. In my every-day-life, I work for the science magazine DISCOVER, which isn’t in-and-of-itself a particularly qualifying gig to write this post (any more than being the art director at any other magazine is), but because of where I work, I use Helvetica every single day. I have a vested interest in this because, for all its faults (and there sure are a bunch), I still love Helvetica. Sol le let’s start with Nazi visual programming and work our way up to 1960: the year of Helvetica.

Before the Nazification of Germany, people like Jan Tschichold and Paul Renner were commanding the typographic design coming out of Germany, along with the famous Herbert Bayer of the Bauhaus, and many others. Who are they? Bayer is most known for his work as the Berlin Art Director of Vogue, co-designing the Aspen Institute building, the ARCO gas logo, and the double-ascension fountain in downtown LA. Tschichold and Renner were friends and colleagues at the Münchener Meisterschule, or the Munich Art School, and both were thinkers and designers of the Bauhaus mold. Renner designed Futura, the font made famous by the likes of IKEA (when they dropped it last year for Verdana) and Volkswagen (it’s been their logo-face for sometime).

They all championed the unification of typographic standards and systems, in the name of better communication. In 1933, after the capitulation of the German government that essentially handed Hitler dictatorial powers, a sweeping change came through Germany—Tschichold and Renner were both arrested; one of the last to leave, in 1938 Bayer relocated to New York City. The progressive views of the German avant-garde were increasingly being drowned out by the Nazis. Renner was the only one to remain in Germany (although he hopped over to Switzerland for a second, just to take a breather after his arrest; Tschichold relocated permanently to Switzerland following his incarceration.)

An ardent Social Democrat, Renner was walking with a target on him anyway. The Nazis were always combative towards other parties, but in 1933 they promptly outlawed every other party in the country; Renner abandoned his membership because he had no choice, but he never joined the National Socialists. What put Renner in jail, though according to the exhaustive biography Paul Renner by Christopher Burke, was a pamphlet he designed and wrote, called Kulturbolschwismus? (“Cultural Bolshevism?”). He attacked the Nazi propaganda at the time, and directly responded to their racist “entartete kunst” (degenerate art) philosophy, which linked the art of other world cultures and the 20th Century avant garde to perversion. Although the Nazi-sponsored Entartete Kunst exhibition wasn’t held until 1937, the lecture that the exhibition was built around had been touring Germany for years prior, given by Paul Schultze-Naumburg. It was one of these Schultze-Naumburg lectures that Renner attended and wrote about in his 1932 pamphlet. After a painter in the audience questioned Schultze-Naumburg about where all of the “good modern art” was, he was beaten by the Nazi crowd. In Kulturbolschwismus?, Renner summed up Nazi visual philosophy keenly in one sentence:

“They profess to fight for German culture and yet they are prepared at any moment to betray to fascism the prerequisite and living condition of any culture: intellectual freedom.”

That sentence is the pre-requisite knowledge anyone needs in trying to understand how the Nazi’s propaganda campaigns worked.

Although Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister, did indeed have a modernist flare in his taste, and Hitler was a champion of the machine age, they were not alone in their ability to control the cultural production of the party. Powerful, certainly, but they had built a machine of cultural production that was run by Alfred Rosenberg and his Kampfbund für Deutsche Kultur (the Combat League for German Culture) to oppose the influence of the established Deutscher Werkbund (German Artworks League), to which many of the artists of the day belonged. (Renner was a prominent member of the Werkbund.) Rosenberg and many of those in the Kampfbund were proponents of the Fraktur style of typography, a blackletter that enjoyed use throughout European printing since the sixteenth century, but lasted longest in Germany. Goebbels and Hitler both felt the Fraktur was old-fashioned but Rosenberg insisted and he won. At the time, Germany was the only remaining European nation to continue to use Gothic blackletter styles in official and broad capacities, and Rosenberg argued that the German script was the only appropriate “clothing” for the “body” of German language. The idea took hold, and the gothic scripts went into full use.

Rosenberg won the battle, but there was a war within the party for the cultural control of aesthetic and appearance, and this was not their only major disagreement, either. Hitler famously told a party gathering once “Your cozy gothic souls fit badly with the age of steel and concrete...” The statement officially aligned Hitler in Goebbels’ camp for modernism, and the schizophrenia of the party’s line (modern, machinist, unified) and the party’s style (traditional, hand-crafted, uniquely German) colored the entire Nazi era.

The problem with the blackletter forms, however, was that they’d fallen out of fashion elsewhere in Europe. Roman type had been in use for so long, and German Fraktur was so peculiar a blackletter form, that as the Nazis rolled across Europe and made pacts for their Thousand Year Reich’s New World Order with the Japanese and Italians, the central commands back in Berlin were getting complaints that locals couldn’t read the decrees, the newspapers, or the signs that the Nazis had been putting in place. Martin Bormann, Hitler’s domestic policy chief, decided that the Fraktur had to go, and wrote and signed a secret decree, with Hitler’s approval, banning the type style completely, arguing (one must admire their penchant for lying with total impunity) that the style was in fact a Jewish abomination, and its wide use was a reflection of the Jewish ‘infiltration’ of the printing and media businesses. The other interesting part of the decree is how closely it reflects the argument against blackletters in Kulturbolschwismus?, calling for a new roman style to be the standard for German communication, so that the language could be preserved in neighboring countries where people spoke German but they couldn’t read Fraktur. The ban was immediate, and all media reverted to Roman type in 1941.

This ban indeed brought about the official commission of an official typeface. But it wasn’t Helvetika or Helvetica or anything even sans-serif. It was indeed Paul Renner’s design that the Nazi’s sought, but it wasn’t a Modernist font they wanted from him. Since 1933, he had been ostracized by the regime (immediately following his arrest he was removed from his post at the Meisterschule and lost his pension) but in 1940 found refuge among the likes of Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect, and the chief of the Berlin studio charged by Hitler with rebuilding the capital city. This led to a commission from the Reich (by way of Speer) of Renner to develop a new “official typeface” of the Nazi Regime. Renner was paid approximately DM10,000.00 in all for his designs. They were never produced, and never used. The regime collapsed before any change could be made. Drawings and type tests of a medieval style roman font have been found and are believed to be those Renner was commissioned by Speer to do. All that font geekery translates to this: The official Nazi font doesn’t look remotely like Helvetica. The drawings are more like Times Roman.

Fast Forward: After the War, Europe’s hot conflicts have cooled into a Cold War, and in 1956, a Swiss businessman called Edward Hoffmann wrote to his former salesman and now freelance designer Max Miedinger (also Swiss). Hoffmann ran a company called the Haas’sche Schriftgiesserei, or the Haas Type Foundry (yup, that’s really all it says) in Münchenstein, Switzerland, and he had been watching as all the avant-garde sans-serif typefaces were taking hold in the design and printing industry. Since the early ‘50s, Hoffman wanted to commission a new sans-serif for Haas, and by 1956, with the Modernist movement exploding across the world, he wanted his cut of the dough. Haas had a sans-serif in catalog already but it wasn’t very cutting-edge (yukyukyuk--geek joke: type used to be cut from metal blocks). So Hoffmann went and asked his old friend to create a new one for him. Miedinger drew on two existing sans-serifs of great popularity, Akzidenz Grotesk and Schelter Grotesk. Both had been drawn at the end of the 19th century, and Miedinger wanted something akin, but updated and modern. After some back and forth with Haas and Hoffman, Haas Grotesk was born.

The New Haas Grotesk as it was called (Die Neue Haas Grotesk) launched at the type and printing convention of 1957, and a legend was born. According to one of the essays in Helvetica Forever by Axel Langer, soon, Linotype, the megalopolis of type foundries, caught interest and wanted to expand the face. They paid Stempel Type to manufacture the blocks for the matrices of Linotype machines. But as they looked to expand the face and sell it broadly, Linotype corporate brass felt the name wasn’t powerful enough to reach bigger markets than Switzerland, particularly the next market they intended to conquer: Germany. In 1960, after tossing it about for a while, the Linotype executives, Stempel managers, and Haas management all settled on Helvetica.

What Ms. Rice seems to have done, either intentionally or out of sloppiness is to have conflated two very different men: Goebells, the Nazi Propoganda apparatchik, and Paul Renner, an unrepentant Modernist—who was in no way a Nazi, but made his peace with the Reich. Some Bauhauslers and other modernists did this for ideological reasons or profit. Renner’s biographer makes clear his work for Speer was a question survival, having lost his job and pension. “Helvetika” is utterly an invention; it is Ms. Rice’s conflation of Futura, the Nazi appropriation and later rejection of Fraktur, and the medieval genre “Times Roman” like font they developed but never had an opportunity to deploy. Helvetica is untainted by any compromising association to the Third Reich, and if anything it was the Nazis who compromised their hard line anti-Modernist agenda and bent repeatedly to the utility and clarity the early Modernists had developed.


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  2. Unvelivable. Way cooler than my school teaching methods.

    Just for the record, Darth Vader looks is suppouse to ressamble a Samurai. Jungian phychoanalyst Jospeh Campbell inspired Geroge Lucas to write the story of Anakim based on bushido, and Csmpbell's Heroic Journey.

    So no. There are no fasism inspired art in Star Wars,

  3. I am so pleased to find a scholar of typography so eager to share such wonderful history and scandel about the ever fascinating evolution of the foundation of graphic art!