Wednesday, May 12, 2010

You don't need a reason to like something

Now for something a little different...

O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, has there ever been another place on earth where so many people of wealth and power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested as within thy blessed borders today?

So opens Tom Wolfe's brilliant From Our House to Bauhaus which represented a scathing critique of the International Style that was originated and fostered at the Bauhaus school in Germany in the 20s and 30s.

Wolfe lamented the glass and steel box monotony of the International Style which for its true believers was as much about social realities as it was architecture and design. People like Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, leaders of the Bauhaus movement, felt they were building the domiciles of the urban socialist worker's paradise. Ornamentation and artisanal skills were frowned upon - only machine-made products need apply.

So, can a type font have the same socio-political impact as an architectural movement?

In 1957, a couple of designers,Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann came up with the two-dimensional answer to Bauhaus when they invented the Helvetica font.

Ed Driscoll writing for Pajamas Media chronicles in Liberal Fascism: the font, the development of the Helvetica font and how it displaced the busy, layered and cursive style in advertising and popular artwork of the 50s. By the early to mid-60s the clean, spare and monotonous lines and philosophy of Helvetica had become the coin of the realm in advertising and the public square.

Driscoll makes the argument that Helvetica is the statist two-dimensional accompaniment to the soul-crushing sameness of Bauhaus. Fewer words and fewer figures meant fewer reasons to resist. Don't ask questions. Just. Drink. Coke.

Driscoll believes it's no coincidence that the IRS 1040 form is in Helvetica.

Here's a clip from the movie, Helvetica, made back in '07 on the occasion of Helvetica's 50th birthday.

For a visual primer, Driscoll encourages the reader to check out James Lilek's Institute of Official Cheer which we happen to be big fans of as an excellent compendium of mid-(last)century adverts, pop art, design and architecture.

And as a total coincidental bonus this "homage" to Helvetica was on YouTube's front page a couple of days ago.

We look forward to Driscoll's next piece on the socialist stylings of Kraftwerk.


SarahB said...

Be still my beating heart...BWD stumbles onto my other obsession with typography. And, yes, all design is politics, seduction and/or propaganda.

However, I'm not fan of has all the elegance of polyester. Good old bodycopy standby in a pinch...and always kerns well. But the "a" "r" "y" & "R" drive me nuts...they suck all the masculinity out of a well crafted san serif...but knowing the culture sapping agenda of Bauhaus, it was probably intentional. "Avant Garde" "Futura" "News Gothic" "Gill Sans" and other old guard fonts better capture the optimism of the 20th century when looking for clean, sleek, timeless readability.

Interesting how the old 50's design principles that are so belittled in the video are raging back into vogue...that all the bells and whistles of computer generated effects cannot mask the need for good old fashioned design principles.

Love the footage of old LetterPress. Takes me back.

Thanks for the break from politics and packing.

Dean said...

Sarah, I never knew! Glad you enjoyed it. A burgeoning interest of mine.