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.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this great article. I found this article about google, searching for the history of Futura for a student work. Now i have an interesting fact for my work: Futura, the font used for the first Star Wars Poster.

    Greetings from Germany