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Work / Graphic Design

Typography and National Socialism – the journey of Futura in an era of “reactionary modernity”

As the designer of one of the world’s most popular typefaces, Futura, Paul Renner used his position as a creative leader to criticise National Socialist propaganda in pre WW2 Germany. His fascinating and multi-faceted story is told in-depth in new tome Futura -The Typeface and here we publish an extract by graphic designer and author Andreas Koop about its use during the rise of the Nazis.

The visual representations of the Third Reich are both contradictory and consistent, and the phrase that can be used to describe both the era and the existence of National Socialism, in terms of design, is ‘reactionary modernity’: a modernity behind natural stone facades, a constant contradiction between a real and a predetermined goal, between form and content, between claim and implementation. This can also be observed in its use of type. Just as architecture made use of historical references, with the construction of ‘medieval castles’ and neo-classical structures, alongside the highly functional
industrial buildings in the style of the Bauhaus, typography used a mix of black letter fonts, Antiqua and sans serif types.

A distinction must, however, be made between the years leading up to 1933 and the 12 years of Nazi dominance. At first, the NSDAP made attempts to appear grounded and close to the people, which often gave rise to crude, ‘wooden’ designs using various kinds of Fraktur and Schwabacher types (which were also used by the other parties). However, examples of the use of sans serif types can also be found. With varying degrees of success, typesetters and graphic designers in the Third Reich played freely with the entire range of types. While the poster for the ‘Great German Art Exhibition’, for example, was set in a gold, upper-case and centred Antiqua, lettering for a regional sports event might use black letter type. Similarly, the ‘value’ of the product often determined the care with which the type or types were chosen and applied.

Since it is not possible (and perhaps not even desirable) truly to monitor design against the use of ideologically suitable text – much of which also lacks professional competence – it is impossible to establish a consistent connection with the use of particular types. Design quality and choice of typeface were ultimately dependent on local officials and institutions – their demands, their abilities and their agenda, in addition to the technical possibilities. Naturally, though, an effort was generally made to appear ‘German’ and ‘of the people’, which is why black letter types played an important role until the ‘type decree’ of 1941. 18 The ‘great achievements of German culture’ were considered to be more appropriately represented by an Antiqua – or a sans serif, even if magazines such as Betonstra.enbau and Die Stra.e were considered representative of current technical standards and progress.

This was probably more of an emotional than a rational approach to type, which at that time was determined by the work in question. If a winter relief poster was supposed to appeal strongly to the people, Antiqua capitals were simply not appropriate, since they were considered to be somewhat elitist at that time. Black letter types were absent in almost all international media and applications. For example, no black letter type was used in the context of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. The same applied to recruitment posters in the Netherlands and Denmark. The different target audiences among the German reading public also played an important role in the choice of type. For example, the difference in terms of typographic style and design between the V.lkischer Beobachter and the weekly periodical Das Reich was similar to that between Bild and Die Zeit today.

To grasp design (among other things) in the Third Reich, it is worth examining the magazine Gebrauchsgraphik, which was undoubtedly the most important vehicle of the industry at that time. One thing immediately catches the eye: it uses Futura 20 – despite the destiny of its author. In fact, Paul Renner’s famous typeface (and other sans serif types) began to appear more frequently, demonstrating their modernity and power in instances where they were used to replace an older type as part of a design revision. That Futura’s potential was tested in type combinations for the Waffen-SS is a bitter irony. Its “self-evident, noble figure, free from any influence of fashionable form, and whose crystal-clear purity is always pleasant and fresh to the eye,” could, as the examples show, also be used for negative purposes.

Futura was promoted from Frankfurt by the Bauer Type Foundry in almost every issue of Gebrauchsgraphik, often with advertisements covering an entire page, although interestingly – and certainly not coincidentally – without naming its author (the foundry did not otherwise hesitate exception: the comprehensive announcement of Renner’s 65th birthday, which at first glance does not appear to be an advertisement, and which presents in a preceding editorial piece what are presumably the most conservative works of his output. Even those who rejected ‘Bolshevik design’, Constructivism and
contemporary modernism could not escape Renner (who was driven from his professional post as quickly as possible in 1933) or his Futura. This remains just as true today, as Renner’s most famous type, acting in his stead, continues to outlive all people and all things.

This is an extract from Futura: The Typeface by Petra Eisele, Annette Ludwig and Isabel Naegele, published by Laurence King on 30 October 2017. Pre-order here or get a discount after the book’s release through Laurence King using It’s Nice That promo code INT35.

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Petra Eisele, Annette Ludwig and Isabel Naegele: Futura: The Typeface
Image courtesy Andrea Haushofer Archive Munich

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Petra Eisele, Annette Ludwig and Isabel Naegele: Futura: The Typeface
Image courtesy Andrea Haushofer Archive Munich

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Petra Eisele, Annette Ludwig and Isabel Naegele: Futura: The Typeface
Image courtesy Institut fur Zeitgeschichte (IFZ) München

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Petra Eisele, Annette Ludwig and Isabel Naegele: Futura: The Typeface
Image courtesy Magazine die neue linie Berlin

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Petra Eisele, Annette Ludwig and Isabel Naegele: Futura: The Typeface
Image courtesy Müchner Stadtmuseum

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Petra Eisele, Annette Ludwig and Isabel Naegele: Futura: The Typeface
Image courtesy The Heartfield community of Heirs VG Bild Kunst, Bonn

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Petra Eisele, Annette Ludwig and Isabel Naegele: Futura: The Typeface

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Petra Eisele, Annette Ludwig and Isabel Naegele: Futura: The Typeface