Futura at 90

A favourite of Stanley Kubrick and NASA, the typeface Futura is turning 90 this year. In this article for CR, the authors of a new book on Futura’s history and influence explain the development of its design by Paul Renner.

With the design of his typeface Futura in 1927, Paul Renner’s reputation began to grow; he went on to become one of the best-known type designers of his time. As a leading member of the Deutscher Werkbund (a German association of architects, artists, designers and industrialists) and head of the Meisterschule für Deutschlands Buchdrucker (Trade School for Book Printers of Germany) in Munich, he was at the centre of a new media and advertising industry — a position that he also used to criticise the propagandist strategies of the National Socialists.

However, Renner’s work cannot be unreservedly grouped together with the radical design trends of the Bauhaus or the New Typography in Germany, even though he was sympathetic to the typographic avant-garde. Renner was too rooted in the design traditions of the liberal humanist bourgeoisie, and it was from this position that the conception of Futura arose. Renner did not base the development of his typeface on the well-known sans-serif types that had hitherto been used for simple printed material and were therefore considered to be inferior; his approach was determined much more by antique inscriptions, and particularly by the Roman Capitalis Monumentalis.

Top: Archive materials from the Klingspor Museum, Offenbach-am-Main; Above: Paul Renner in a spread from Futura: The Typeface, published by Laurence King
Spread from Futura: A Typeface

Unlike many avant-garde designers, who saw their experiments with type as manifestations of a new way of thinking, and either drew typefaces manually or used existing text in a playful way, Renner operated as a typographic specialist. His extensive experience with typefaces made it clear to him that a typeface could be successful only if the upper- and lower-case letters gave rise to a formal aesthetic whole.

On the basis of this observation, he derived the structures of his lower-case letters systematically from the geometrical principles of Roman uppercase Antiqua. With this reference to antiquity, Renner managed to design a truly ‘modern’ geometrical typeface, which both met the requirements of the New Typography and suited the tastes of more conservative designers. From a historical point of view, therefore, Futura was a true typographic design innovation that anticipated the future while being rooted in its own time.

Archive materials from the Klingspor Museum, Offenbach-am-Main
Archive material from the Klingspor Museum, Offenbach-am-Main

The enormous success of Futura was owed to the risks taken by Georg Hartmann at the Bauer Type Foundry in Frankfurt, as well as the professional care given to the typeface by Heinrich Jost, and the marketing of the typeface through the foundry. Fritz Wichert’s idea to name the new typeface Futura – the future – was certainly also ingenious. It is no coincidence that this name was devised in the context of the New Frankfurt project, since, at this time, the city was turning into a hotspot of innovative design.

Another contributor to the typeface’s rapid success in Germany was the economic prosperity being experienced the country, which led to a booming advertising scene that quickly became professional. With its elegant, modern and classic appearance, Futura seemed destined to become the typeface of the ‘modern’ look. With the internationalisation of this new way of experiencing life, the typeface, which was quickly expanded by the Bauer Type Foundry into a varied typeface family, became a successful export product.

Spread from Futura: The Typeface
Cover of the book

Futura: The Typeface illuminates typographic ideas and discourses from the 1920s to the 1960s, from different perspectives, yet through the example of a single typeface. It features designs, drawings, documents and letters from important private collections, state archives, libraries, museums and institutions, some of which have never before been documented, or placed in their historical design context. These originals are supplemented by Renner’s own texts, which provide insight into his theoretical explorations during the development of his typeface. The numerous applications of Futura over the decades demonstrate – even 90 years later – the enormous innovative power that the ‘modernist’ design movement has to this day, to which this typeface gave its valuable support.

Futura: The Typeface by Petra Eisele, Annette Ludwig and Isabel Naegele is published by Laurence King on October 30. laurenceking.com