Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Zaha Hadid Collaborates with Humanoid Lizards That Eat Human Flesh

I think ABC's "re-imagining" of the 80s mini-series "V" stinks on ice. Generally I will watch anything if it has someone wearing a prosthetic forehead and talking techno babble and there's a little gun play. Add to that character flaw a gruesome hangover and I found myself watching V - super bored, but unable to turn away.
Then I spotted an oddly familiar bit bloboid furniture in the alien queens flying saucer (worst turn on the trope since Norman Garwood's lopsided over-designed saucer for Lost in Space). I was finally entertained, but still too stupid to figure out exactly what I was looking at (I blame the hangover). I sent the screen grab to my friend Greg. He's my favorite go to guy for random late night WTFs. Before the alien queen could eat her lover (stupid show) he fired back that it was a Moon System B&B Italia Sofa designed by Ms. Hadid.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Future is Feminist

American Women: "There was no underwear in space."; Gail Collins

In the mania leading up to the millennial-new-years I heard someone (after a decade I cannot remember who) say that feminism would be remembered as the most important intellectual breakthrough of the 20th Century, topping heavier-than-air flight, the nuclear bomb, and dwarfing the Internet for its impact on human history. Having grown up in the immediate wake of the second-wave feminism, it stuck me at the time as a solid commonsense truth.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Star Wars and South Commons

Clearly, I associate Star Wars with Modernism, at least part of that association is personal. I wrote the following personal history for Kato McNickle’s theater project Star Wars Stories. She is looking for sories about how Star Wars changed your life. It doesn't need to be about 1977 or as long as the one I ended up writing, but it does need to be written soon. She needs people to submit their stories before March 3oth.

On the 22nd of May of 1977 I was six years old, almost seven, and had no idea what was going on in the world beyond the bowl of South Commons, a planned community on Chicago’s South Side. It was a ring of inward facing town houses, surrounding a grassy quad and a playground. The look of the place was aggressively Modernist; from the flat roofs and unadorned sheetrock interiors to the industrial plainness of the brick facades and the organic cast cement Isamu Noguchi-esque playground equipment. My family had moved there before I was born and I was only beginning to understand that there was more to the world.

As microcosms go, it was a wonderful one. It was designed with the help of University of Chicago academics, the inward facing 2nd floor kitchen windows were placed so that young stay-at-home mothers could keep an eye on their children while they cooked the evening's meal. The model was a Modernist ideal of a traditional family facing an updated village green. And while the place had the look preferred by Robert Moses and Le Corbusier, urban theories, no doubt adopted from Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, contributed to justifying the layout of the place.

The aim of the designers was to create a neighborhood that was racially and economically integrated. My parents and the other young families that bought in were trying to live the ideals of the Civil Rights era, and for a time it worked. I remember loving and admiring the older kids with their Afros and long hair; my beautiful teenage babysitters sneaking their head-banded-boyfriends in through our basement window like something out of Welcome Back Kotter; and old men doing the Robot to the theme to Car Wash – showing the kids how it was done.

What I don’t remember is seeing Star Wars the first time any more then I remember the first time I saw a Big Wheel. These are things that were once not there, and then were everywhere. I have only one clear memory that I can positively date as having anything to do with seeing Star Wars the first time. My sisters wanted to go see Star Wars and I didn’t. I wanted to stay outside and play with my best friend Carl. He and I had lost our minds over Tarzan Lord of the Jungle. He had run down the block to my house the Saturday morning it first aired to tell me to turn it on. The gritty realistic animation was SO much better then the lousy Hanna Barbera stuff we had been force fed the summer before.

The first Green Machine had appeared around that time as well. It was an up-market Big Wheel. It looked so much cooler then our beat up, sagging tricycle-like Big Wheels, and could do these crazy spin outs that were hard to do on a Big Wheel without turning over (many scabs). But they were expensive and while a few of the kids got them Carl and I were stuck with last year’s Big Wheels. It was my first awareness that some families had more money then others.

The day my sisters pressed me into going to the movies the weather was great and I didn’t want to go see some dumb space movie. If I had to guess, I probably wanted to play Tarzan (“Unk Cheetah!”) or bum a turn on some else's Green Machine.

But my sisters were a lot older and smarter and their friends were so beautiful and so cool. I never really stood a chance. So I know we did go see Star Wars and like every other little boy in America it blew the front of my skull off. I never recovered. (This must have been around the time I became disillusioned with Mr. Rogers, realizing that his trolley was always going to go to his Land of make Believe and never to mine.) Tarzan was immediately forgotten and the rest of my childhood was dominated by space ships (except a few years later when Thundarr the Barbarian united those two very different obsessions into one awesome world).

Carl and I were now only concerned with making the jump to hyperpace. And while the newer Green Machines were at first highly coveted by Carl and I, after Star Wars speed was all that mattered to anybody. “She may look like junk,’ we might have told the rich kids, “but she’s got it where it counts.”

We were the fastest kids in the neighborhood; hot-rodding our Big Wheels by removing the seatback and starting races by using them like kids use razor scooters now, only dropping into the “cockpit” and peddling like mad once we had “achieved hyperspace.” When we realized that because its forcibly recumbent ride and lack of handle bars the Green Machine was impossible to get a running start on, our dusty battle scared Big Wheels got new life. The Green Machines could not be hot-rodded to alter their fancy factory ready rides. They didn’t stand a chance against our souped-up Big Wheels.

Eventually the Green Machines were put away, they weren’t worth the trouble of dragging them outside. The Big Wheels had all the cool of the Millennium Falcon, Green Machines all the suck of Hanna Barbera.

That was the summer my parents divorced (that was the summer when everyone’s parents got divorced). That fall I moved with my mother and sisters to a suburb famous for Victorian and Prairie Style architecture where we rented a prewar wood frame house with a normal yard on a normal street; where no one wore an Afro or danced the Robot; and where no one rode Big Wheels, every one rode bikes. I was out of my element.

My first day of school in the suburbs I was confronted on the playground by a little boy who wanted to know if I knew why Darth Vader wore that mask. I had seen the movie, I understood the hilarity of speed, but he knew all kinds of stuff I didn’t (he had older brothers, and probably had access to their Starlog magazines, I had no such advantage).

Finally impatient and totally contemptuous of my lack of Star Wars knowledge he answered his own question: Darth Vader had to wear that mask because he had fallen into a volcano. His absolute certainty was echoing in my head when I saw the third prequel thirty-odd years later and watched the final light saber battle in disbelief waiting for Vader’s eventual fall into the lava. I still wonder how he knew.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Gov. Schwarzenegger Will Bring Balance to the Force

I have had a mad man-crush on Arnold since the days of Conan the Barbarian and Pumping Iron - a film in which he announced his political aspirations:

"I was always dreaming about very powerful people, dictators and things like that. I was just always impressed by people who could be remembered for hundreds of years, or even, like Jesus, be for thousands of years remembered."

My Brother-law mocked this yellow-dog heresy by bringing me an unwearably hot-pink Governator T-shirt back from a trip he took to California early on in Schwarzenegger administration. All the same I have never backed down, my high regard for Conan the Republican defies ideology and logic (he’s so cool). But this weekend I learned Arni’s actual plans to cement a positive legacy for his administration. If he pulls it off he may indeed get his wish to be remembered for thousands of years.

"As goes California, so goes the nation" is the saying in the States, but this one has the promise of offering an example to even the most forward thinking EU governments. I hope he’s able to pull it off.

(Pardon me for being cagey, but as a Chicagoan born and raised I would hate to play Steve Bartman to this moment. Watch for an announcement in the next month or so.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Star Wars and the Modernism of 2001

In his book, Air Guitar, Dave Hickey argues that, "artistic practice changes because younger artists must willfully misinterpret the work of their masters.” The master that George Lucas was most interested in willfully misinterpreting was Stanley Kubrick.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Anglican Communion Has The Force

My brother-in-law, Steve Mesler, just published a modest proposal on his Huffington Post Blog about the economic value of legalizing Gay Marriage. It's a fun and friendly piece and worth reading.

When he told me his idea for the post I told him about a homily my father gave (my father is an Episcopalian Priest) while I was visiting him on the West Coast this past spring. As it happened while I was out west he married a young couple. Because I was there, and available, and his son he asked me to assist him during the service (this entailed wearing a frilly red and white alter boy outfit straight out of Heaven Help Us - I so love my dad).

Steve ended up quoting my father's homily at length, The part where my dad spoke about gay marriage in particular. I thought I would just post a bit he did not quote in his post (but he does provide a link to my fathers' entire response to his request for the homily).

Before the wedding I was pretty much obsessing about the fact that I was going to have to appear in public dressed as an alter boy so had not thought to ask my dad what he was going to talk about. When the time came he spoke at about the Church's long struggle to incorporate sex into religious life. He pointed out that the early church was apocalyptic, so all sexual unions were suspect:

There are plenty of signs of patchwork efforts to reconcile biology and apocalyptic expectations, but nowhere are there any indications of church “blessings” of sexual unions – of any kind, never mind same-sex. Other sex is not necessarily better, may be more troublesome, and leads to all kinds of new questions. It might be fun to ask the fundamentalists what they make of Paul’s (that’s Saint Paul’s) warning that a man who resorts to a prostitute for sexual union becomes “one flesh” with her.

Somewhere in the 10th or 11th century – at least one thousand years into this so-called Common Era some newly-married couples began a custom of presenting themselves in the “porch'’ of a church, where, at the end of the Liturgy, the presiding and assisting Clergy came, from the altar, said some prayers and sprinkled them with water of blessing, then leading them back up to the altar rail to make their communion. (Still, the blood runs thicker than the Holy Water, was the cynic’s way of assessing the value of these rites.) “Not that there’s anything wrong with this” was the message (to anticipate Seinfeld), even though monasticism is still better and a way of gaining credit on the divine ledgers.

Now, another thousand years have passed. Old ideas about marriage, its nature, its social purpose, its stability, and its sanctity have been steadily questioned ever since the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the discovery of reliable birth-control. This has occasioned a great deal of uneasiness, as any disruption of custom and expectation is bound to do, and with this comes viewing with alarm, denunciations, and rear-guard efforts to paste up the shreds of patriarchal history.

Knowing this, there is certainly a touching confidence revealed in the continuing idea that sacred ceremony can serve to safeguard any personal (and commonly all-too-often impermanent) efforts at fidelity and solemn covenant. When same-sexed couples who treasure each other’s being in the world want to present themselves somewhere regarded as sacred space, and to act in what they want to be a sacred way in declaring their desire to love and to cherish each other throughout the vicissitudes of mortal life, it seems grudging to argue that they must be refused whatever strength and consolation may come through a priest’s prayers and acts of blessing. We can only hope that now, in a turbulent time of change, it may help them, when they encounter refusal, to remember that for one thousand or more years any sexual union of any kind was refused this blessing.

My father the Rev. Robert L Powers marched in Selma Alabama in March of 1965, answering Martin Luther Kings call for religious leaders to join him in and support the Civil rights marchers. I am very glad that he and the Anglican Communion are are out in front again. There is more to read. Again I urge you to check out Steve's post.

Monday, March 8, 2010

fascism Set In Futura

At this point I have watched the Helvetica documentary back to back easily five times in the past two days and I still love everything about it. As it turns out, it is an excellent shorthand account of how Modernism developed into Post-Modernism, and Post-Modernism into whatever it is that is happening today (Post-Star Wars-Modernism floats my boat, but I understand that I am a very special case).

While I am not sure if he would describe himself as a Post-Modernist, in the documentary the graphic designer Michael Bierut is roughly lumped with that second group. At the very beginning of the font-doc he introduces Helvetica as being like air or gravity - unavoidable. But a bit later on he also describes what it must have been like, in the post-war years when the junky designs of nuptial script and corny engravings on ivory paper were replaced by Modernist logos and Helvetica on crisp white paper:

"Can you imagine how bracing and thrilling that was? It must have seemed liked you had crawled through a desert with your mouth just caked with filthy dust, then someone offered you a clear refreshing distilled icy glass of water. To kind of clear away all this horrible burden of history. It must have just been fantastic, and you know it must have been fantastic because it was done over and over and over again."

As Bierut make awesomely clear Helvetica was not always ubiquitous. What he does not make clear is that Helvetica was adopted durring a particular historical moment. And while it must have been "bracing and thrilling," It was a time when Americans were rigidly conformist, violently resisting Civil Rights for African Americans, laughing off women's desires for equality, and ramping up the Vietnam War.

Erik Spooner wrote that, "by 1956, with the Modernist movement exploding across the world, [Eduard Hoffmann] wanted his cut of the dough." The biggest dough to be had in the late 50s was the US Government (public sector spending was driving the US economy through the 1960s) and corporations . The Helvetica documentary is explicit, the font was renamed (it was originally called Die Neue Haas Grotesk) in order to make the product more palatable for the American market, and it worked. By the time Bierut and other Post-Modernists started their professional life in the 1970s and early 80s Helvetica and Modernism were both indelibly linked with American corporate wealth and political power.

Art history classes explain how the International Style architects had "rationalized" buildings and cities starting in the early 1950s. I remember going over that material any number of times. But graphic design was not on the radar of my professors. I have no memory of that material even being glossed over. I had never given much thought to the ways 2D design was being transformed by the International Typographic Style (also known as Swiss Style) until seeing Helvetica a couple years ago.

Like modernist architecture, Modernist design was adopted by the US Government and corporations very quickly. It was an abrupt sea change on the level of the planned economy, but it is important to note that the incremental growth private homes and wedding invitations was largely unmoved by that sea change.

Most homes built in the US are still traditional, very few couples want a san-serif-font on their engagement announcements. The "bracing and thrilling" change that Bierut describes was delivered from above. And for a while that, not only didn't matter, it was great. In the 1960 san-serif fonts, like Modernist art, architecture and urbanism, came to be identified with the exciting new world of economic and technological progress. But by the late 1960s early 70s the Modernist's ideals were indistinguishable from increasingly toxic political and corporate policies.

In 1969 when Robert Smithson's withdrew from the Sao Paulo Biennale, he explained his decision by comparing the modernism of NASA to the Army:

"To celebrate the power of technology through art strikes me as a sad parody of NASA. I do not share the confidence of the astronauts... The ‘team spirit’ of the exhibition could be seen as endorsements of NASA's Mission Operation Control room with all its crew cut teamwork… If one wants teamwork he should join the army."

A few years later when the graphic designer Paula Scher started her professional life she associated the Modernism of Helvetica with the army:

“I viewed the big corporations that were slathered in Helvetica as sponsors of the Vietnam War. So therefore if you used Helvetica you were in favor of the Vietnam War so how could you use it?”

Likewise the German typographer Erik Spiekermann (a contemporary of Scher) explains his contempt for the Modernist Helvetica:

“It’s the whole Swiss ideology. The guy who designed it tried to make all the letters look the same, Hello? That’s called an army. That’s not people, that’s people having the same fucking helmet on.”

Whether or not it is fair to say Helvetica or Modernism "caused" the Vietnam War (and later the Iraq War, as Scher does in Helvetica), the impressions of these artists make it clear that the rejection of Modernism by the Post-Modernists was not about formalism, or procedural logic. Neither was the rejection anti-modern. All three are expressing ideological revulsion with a particular regime. Their revulsion was with the violent policies of Cold Warriors as symbolized by the Modernism of Helvetica and NASA.

The font that seems to have most influenced the look of the Star Wars logo was not however Helvetica, but it was Modernist. The san-serif look of the Star Wars font most resembles the 1975 NASA "worm" logo. And while NASA, was part of the sea change of US government agencies adopting Helvetic (and still uses the font), when it came time to leave a plaque on the moon the font that was chosen was Futura.

Futura was, not coincidently, the director Stanley Kubrick’s favorite font. Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey, like other art produced durring the Cold War, should be considered what Max Kozloff described as "a form of benevolent propaganda for foreign [and domestic] intellectuals." The film had been made with the full cooperation of NASA and the aerospace industry. Many of the props and ships for 2001 were designed with the aid of engineers and corporate sub-contractors working on the American effort to put a man on the moon. Fred Ordway, a technical advisor on the the film writes:

“We were particularly pleased when, on the 25th of September 1965, the director of NASA's Office of Manned Space Flight, George Mueller, and astronaut Deke Slayton arrived at the studios. When Mueller saw the amount of documentation Lange and I had brought with us from the States, he dubbed our office complex ‘NASA East.’”

It cannot be an accident that in addition to being adopted by NASA for their moon bound plaque, Futura was also used for the copy in the very first Star Wars teaser poster. If Suzy Rice is correct and the Star Wars logo was supposed to look "fascist" it is because in the decade that separate the moon landing and the premier of Star Wars everything had changed.

Star Wars is (at least in part) an expression of contempt fo the Modernist fascism of the Cold War that Smithson and Scher (and millions of others) turned against. Smithson was a science fiction guy, its hard to imagine that he didn't simultaneously love NASA even as he slammed the space agency's crew cut. Likewise, Scher never abandoned her US citizenship. I am quite sure she loves her country while at the same time righteously holding it’s administrations to the highest ethical standard.

The visuals of Star Wars--from the logo that opens the film, to the ships, sets and costumes--owe a debt something Lucas had a deep affection for. He described his intentions for Star Wars as Apocalypse Now in space. His original concept for Apocalypse Now, when he still intended to direct the film, had been to make Dr. Strangelove in Vietnam. Dr. Strangelove was Lucas's favorite film.

When it came time for Lucas to make his Dr.Strangelove-in-Vietnam-in-space movie the visual standard Lucas set for him self and his crew was Kubrick's science fiction masterpiece.

Futura was the first visual connection the public was shown between the two films (in the teaser trailer shown in detail below, is posted in all its glory here). This is not, however, an example of unalloyed hero worship. It is an example of deeply alloyed hero worship.

I don't doubt that Lucas asked for “something very fascist” when he described what he was looking for in a logo because that is consistent with the way he and his crew constructed the rest of the visual program for his film. The film populates 2001-like ships with Imperials dressed in Nazi gear. The key to understanding that visual program of Star Wars is Lucas's deeply ambivalent relationship to his master, Stanley Kubrick.

I think it is safe to say I have exhausted the subject of Modernist fonts (God I hope so), in the next few posts I am planning to look at Modernist space ships.

Helvetica Is fascist.

In the wake of Erik Spooner’s terrific guest-post debunking the wrong-headed typographic history of Suzy Rice, and expanding on the actual connections between pre-war German modern font design and the post-war Modernist Swiss design of Helvetica typeface; I rewatched the 2007 documentary entitled Helvetica. I am happy to report it is still as wonderful a design history of the post war period as I remembered.

The documentary introduces the font Helvetica as being "like air," or "off-white paint." It is both "ubiquitous" and, we are told, "timeless." One unrepentant Modernist says it was used in the 1960s because it was felt to be "more neutral." The documentary is roughly three sections. It starts with the Helvetica loving Modernists. They are followed by Helvetica rejecting Post-Modernists. And the documentary ends with a third group of contemporary designers (Post-Post?) who embrace Helvetica with, if not a sense of irony, then at least a deep sense of self-awareness.

As Erik made clear, Helvetica was not based on a Nazi font, it does however owe a debt to the pre-war Modernism that had developed in Germany. Early Modernism was fostered by groups like the Münchener Meisterschule and most famously the Bauhaus, but squashed by the Nazis. He is totally correct when he argues that it is not a Fascist font. However Paula Scher, who became a designer during the Vietnam War, righteously equates the font with fascism. But for Scher it is not the Nazis variety of Fascism of the 30s and 40s, it is a decidedly lower case "f" fascism of the 60s and 70s:

“The corporate culture was the visual language of big corporations, and at that time they were persuasively Helvetica. And they looked alike. They looked a little fascistic to me. They were clean. They reminded me of cleaning your room. I felt like it was some conspiracy of my mother’s to make me keep the house clean, that all that my messy room adolescent rebellion was coming back at me in the form of Helvetica and that I had to over throw it."

But just because she uses the term fascist in its most adolescent form (a "floating signifier of denunciation" one might hurl at one's mother), does not mean she isn't able to link the font to very real world violence. There is nothing adolescent about Scher's judgment of the typeface:

"I was also morally opposed to Helvetica because I viewed the big corporations that were slathered in Helvetica as sponsors of the Vietnam War. So therefore if you used Helvetica you were in favor of the Vietnam War so how could you use it?”

When asked, "If Helvetica was the typeface of the Vietnam War, what's the typeface of this [the Iraq] War? - Scher replies without hesitation, "Helvetica... It is. It repeated. That's why we're there. Helvetica caused it." As a designer she equates the American Cold War policies of Containment and Detente with the so-called Bush Doctrine of the NeoCons and lumps all of those violent paranoid ideologues with the use of Helvetica. fascists.

Paula Scher rejected Helvetica because of what it had come to represent for her. Her story about Helvetica is a microcosm of a wrenching moment that split two generations. This narrative of rejection is repeated in architecture, art, film, literature, and throughout the academic world. Scher's moral opposition to Helvetica, her association of Modernism to the violence of the Cold Warriors (and their NeoCon progeny) is at the core of the Post-Modernist break.

Towards the end of Helvetica Massimo Vignelli, one of the Modernists, complains that the Post-Modernists "didn't know what they were caring for, they only knew about what they were against, and what they were against was Helvetica." The deep awareness for history that is on display throughout all three sections of the film (especially by the younger designers) make it abundantly clear that what caused the Post-Modernist split was not a lack of understanding. It is truer to say that the Modernists still do not understand that it is what they had come to represent, as much as what they were doing that was rejected. That the association to Vietnam, police riots, political and corporate malfeasance was septic, and caused them to be rejected by their heirs. That's got to suck.

Speaking for the last group of designers, Danny van den Dungen explains that for the generation who grew up durring 70s, in places that were dominated by late Modernist design, Modernism is a kind of "mother tongue." It is not something learned in books he explains, "it's in the blood." This is my favorite part of the film. It's forgiving.
It is these younger designers who are able to appreciate the Modernists without being overwhelmed by the hubris and contempt they had come to represent for the generation immediately in their wake. Historically Star Wars belongs with Paula Scher, in the group that rejected everything, but it's visual ethic is much more a characteristic of this last group (PoPoMo? Really?) that sees the value in Modernism.
The ways Star Wars incorporated Modernism, played with and rearranged symbolic vocabulary of industrial elements (like "machined" typefaces) cleaves closest to the ethic of the designers who grew up watching Star Wars. But to understand why Star Wars avoided rejection Requires a consideration of Futura, not Helvetica.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Accidental Albenda

This Ricci Albenda like bump was found by Wally Krantz in the corner of the men's bathroom at the Guggenheim.

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.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Star Wars Logo Is fascist.

Last week I wrote about Star Wars and Cold Warriors. I argued that the Nazi-look of the Imperial uniforms was not an attempt to repackage the struggle against Nazis or Soviets as a space fantasy; that the film is not about an external threat - capital "F" Fascism. I argued that the Imperials were an expression of disgust with American Cold Warriors - lowercase "f" fascism - as in "fascist pigs." While hurriedly looking for sites to link to, the first hit on google search for "Star Wars fascism" brought me to a site quoting at length a woman named Suzy Rice, who says she designed the original Star Wars logo:

"I designed the logo for the film, Star Wars with a minimalist directive from George Lucas: that he wanted “something very fascist” as to the film’s logo… And so, when George described what he wanted, I returned to the office and used what I reckoned to be the most “fascist” typeface I could think of as reference: Helvetica (Helvetika) Black… the forerunner typeface version, Helvetika, was designed by the dreaded Joseph Goebbels for use in culture-wide signage—road signs, license plates, “official” statements—to implement a standard of appearance by a government for purposes of both organizing and monopolizing culture through a uniform statement (uniformity of expression and style)."

I had never heard this story about the origins of the Star Wars logo. I couldn't figure out a way to search the film's credits. There is no mention of Ms. Rice’s name anywhere in the Making of Star Wars and no allusion to the story she tells, but the story is all over the web. You run into it it pretty quickly with any search related to the Star Wars logotype. The problem is Ms. Rice’s account of font history doesn’t hold water.

I had felt Ms. Rice’s story sounded fishy so I posted a larger section of Suzy Rice’s historical narrative of Helvetica on the Star Wars Modern Facebook page and started a discussion there. Erik Spooner, a print designer for Discover magazine, a sophisticated font geek, and a lover of German culture and design, blasted away at the historical inaccuracies in Suzy’s recounting of history. He pointed out that the Nazi connection is absurd –and had pretty interesting reasons for questioning her personal story as well. I have asked Erik to guest write a post on Helvetica & Suzy Rice. I'll leave it to him to untangle that story, which leaves me free to write about where the logo did come from.

Being a child of the 1970s I have never associated the logo with Fascism (that relationship should be unpacked at another time and place). Like most people I associate Fascism, especially Nazi Fascism with crazy gothic Blackletter fonts, not the san serif of Helvetica. Rice’s historical non sequitur made me realize what I do associate the logo with: Disco.

The disco/scifi association is a real one. In May of 1978 Andy Warhol wrote in his diary that:

"I'm surprised that the Star Wars movie company didn't actually franchise discotheques of Star Wars all over the country, but then, now that I'm thinking about it, things like that never work. It's usually one person who stands around screaming that makes a success out of a club."

But the Disco/scifi connection is one that predates Warhol's comment by more then a decade. In his book The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test Tom Wolfe credits the Merry Pranksters for creating the first psychedelic light shows for their happenings:

“The idea went beyond what would later be known as mixed-media entertainment, now a standard practice in “psychedelic discotheques” and so forth… Both the Fillmore and the Avalon did the Pranksters Acid Test with all the mixed media stuff, the rock ’n’ roll and light shows. The Avalon even had it down to details like the strobes and sections of the floor where you could play with Day-Glo paint under black light. Everything but… the fourth dimension… Cosmo… the three o’clock thing… the experience.”

Those early ‘mixed media’ spectacles are clearly the inspiration for the Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which in turn inspired the Millennium Falcon’s jump to hyperspace.

Star Wars then, was part of a feedback loop between scifi and Disco, but all the same my association between the logo and Disco is an anachronism. It was a connection that was made after the fact by Warhol and others. The reason the Star Wars logo looks "Disco" to me is because of the hellish Disco remix of John Williams score that was part of the hysteria that I was born into. but because I was born into that hysteria (I don't remember seeing Star Wars for the first time, its just always been there), it never occurred to me that that could not be the actual source of the logo.

The logo that proceeded Star Wars that looks like the most likely source of inspiration is the NASA “worm” logo adopted in 1975, but dropped in 1992. Recently T Magazine ran a little piece on what they refer to as the worm "word mark":

“The worm consists of NASA’s initials portrayed in super-simple letters stripped to absolute essentials. There aren’t even any crossbars on the A’s, which are depicted as upturned V’s, rather like rockets ready for liftoff. Each letter is composed of a tube, with the first A flowing into the S, as if speeding off into space. The word mark (as graphic designers call it) is in a confident shade of red, occasionally with NASA’s full name written below in black Helvetica, the default typeface for any 1970s corporation with aspirations to modernity. Everything about the worm is seductively new, optimistic and futuristic, declaring that NASA is leading us toward a brighter, bolder future.”

This brings me back to Suzy Rice’s story and the small “f” fascism argument. While I think Rice’s knowledge of history is mostly bunk, I can easily imagine Lucas saying he wanted “something very fascist,” after all the film is loaded with Fascist imagery. From the Imperial Uniforms to the Rebel Alliance Awards ceremony there is a lot of Nazi imagery on view. But the film’s visual program willfully collapsed two wholly opposing aesthetics – Nazis and Modernism (the Modernists might have flirted with the Nazis, but the Nazis hated the Modernists).

But if Lucas did want a san-serif Helvetica-like font because he thought it looked fascist, it's because it looked Modernist, and he meant fascism with a lowercase “f.” When Star Wars was made the Modernists were at the peak of their powers and Helvetica had been widely adopted by the US government. NASA had represented something forward looking and positive when Kubrick made 2001. Only a few years later the space agency was tainted by associations to Nixon and the Vietnam War. In the minds of many young Americans, NASA was just another aspect of the corrupt authorities.

Consider that the artist Robert Smithson (the art world's closest equivalent to Luke Skywalker, and a HUGE scifi fan) decided in the spring of 1969 against representing the US in the Sao Paolo biennale. Smithson explained his decision to withdraw his participation in a letter he wrote to Gyorgy Kepes:

"I have to reconsider the context of the exhibition and feel that my art will not fit. To celebrate the power of technology through art strikes me as a sad parody of NASA. I do not share the confidence of the astronauts... The ‘team spirit’ of the exhibition could be seen as endorsements of NASA's Mission Operation Control room with all its crew cut teamwork... I am withdrawing from the exhibition because it promises nothing but a distraction amid the general nausea. If technology is to have any chance at all, it must become more self-critical. If one wants teamwork he should join the army.” Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings; 369.

It’s a pretty big deal for a young artist to turn his back on such a prestigious opportunity. Gill Scott Heron’s Whitey On The Moon is another example of this association from yet another and equally different artist. Lucas made no secret of his disgust with the Nixon administration. It is impossible for me to imagine how an artist could have to separated American power politics from American aesthetics in 1977. Star Wars artfully combined them and has shaped our view of both.

The Science fiction author David Brin argues convincingly that, as literature Star Wars is anti-modern. Others consider the film post-modern. I respectfully disagree with both these positions. Star Wars is not Postmodern, Modernism is post-Star Wars.