Not all typefaces can boast about landing on the moon, or featuring on the front of film posters, iconic publications like Vanity Fair (it's even the typeface you're reading this feature in), as well as being born from one of the most influential design movements.
The iconic typeface Futura turns 90 this year. That means it's been circulating since German typographer Paul Renner designed it in 1927. Originally created as a contribution to the New Frankfurt project, the geometric sans serif typeface was based on visual elements of the Bauhaus design style of 1919 to 1933. In fact, it was commissioned as a typeface by the Bauer Type Foundry.
In this feature we celebrate Futura's origins and history, as well as how and when Futura has been used in significant points throughout Western history.
The Bauhaus was a school of art, architecture, graphic design and typography established by Walter Gropius at Weimar in Germany in 1919. It’s teaching method replaced the traditional pupil-teacher relationship with an idea of community – all artists worked together. It was designed this way to bring art back into the real world. Bauhaus was based on modernism and design associated with Bauhaus is generally radically simplified forms. The philosophy was that functionality and rationality ruled over the purpose of beauty in a commonplace object.
In 1933 Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis, one year after the school moved to Berlin. Its influence was huge in the US, where many artists moved before and during the Second World War.
Although Futura’s designer wasn’t directly associated with Bauhaus, he shared the ideology that a modern typeface should express modern models. In doing so he rejected most previous sans serif designs that are now known as grotesques. It was a distinct move away from typefaces based on sign painting, condensed lettering and 19th century serif typefaces.
Futura’s simple geometric circles, triangles and squares represent function over form, taking away the nonessential and decorative elements. This made it almost instantly successful as a typeface in the 20th century, with success still continuing today. A bunch of competing geometric sans-serif typefaces sprang up from foundries in the US following Futura’s release. It’s interesting to note that Futura was somewhat overshadowed in the UK however, with the iconic Gill Sans taking over London’s transport system and signage in the 1930s and 40s.
Futura works well in both print and digital texts, and both longform and for headlines. Although it’s been described as "the world’s most popular typeface", we’re sure Futura is also up against Times New Roman, Calibri or even Comic Sans MS (sadly) for that title. However, it’s use in different sectors is far-reaching – album covers, film posters, magazines, automotive advertising and even the Olympic Games (Moscow 1980).
Its versatility is probably helped by the different fonts and weights of Futura, including Futura Condensed, Demibold, Display, Black, Steile Futura and Futura Inline.
It’s been extensively favoured in advertising and logos such as for Volkswagen, Crayola and IKEA (before 2010). Film titles such as American Beauty, Sesame Street, V for Vendetta and many of director Wes Anderson’s films (probably inline with his love for symmetry) include Futura also.
More recently, both Gravity and Interstellar used Futura on their theatrical release posters.
The use of Futura on space films may be a nod to the typeface’s appearance on the plaque left by Neil Armstrong on the moon in July 1969, as you can see here.
Futura also appeared on the film poster for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A space Odyssey.
It’s important to remember that a typeface that is so successful and accessible can be used both for positive and negative impact.
During World War II, Nazis used Futura for Nazi propaganda in the magazine die neue linie, amongst other Nazi publications, despite Paul Renner being a critic of the regime (he wrote a book about it).
Vanity Fair used Futura as an experiment for five issues in 1929, demonstrating their "progressive design style".
Futura was described as "a face representing the new typography of the European avant-garde".
It also makes appearances in music, such as this album cover by Vampire Weekend.
All three of Vampire Weekend's albums use Futura on the covers, with the first two being exclusively Futura.
To coincide with Futura’s 90th anniversary a book dedicated to its fascinating life has been put together by Petra Eisele, Annette Ludwig and Isabel Naegele with Laurence King. Covering its Bauhaus origins to its current uses – and all the events mentioned in this feature – the book includes archive illustrations and essays from designers such as Steven Heller, Erik Spiekermann and Christopher Burke.
Futura: The Typeface will be available from Laurence King from October 30.