Anatomy of a typeface

Renner Futura

David Quay
Grafik Magazine
October 2005

For me modern design started around 1925. In 1924 Gerrit Rietveld built the Rietveld Schröder house in Utrecht; the Bauhaus moved from Weimar to the industrial city of Dessau in 1926, and started its constructivist phase – and in 1927 the Bauer type foundry released Paul Renner’s typeface ‘Futura’.

Renner began working on Futura in 1924; his start point, and the basis for the design, being classical Roman inscriptional capitals. The task then was to make a harmonious marriage between capitals and lowercase. In contrast, at the Bauhaus Herbert Bayer was busy, constructing typefaces with ruler and compass, but these experiments were not to be realized. Renner was never a member of the Bauhaus; throughout his life he held the values of the Deutsche Werkbund. His Futura was achieved through subtle deviations from strict geometry.

Renner’s Futura was successful because it addressed the desire for a geometric typeface that composed well in text in a range of sizes. Futura’s beauty lies in its classical proportions, more in sympathy with Le Corbusier’s Villa Stein, also built between 1926–8, and with fine piloti, rather than Constructivist architecture of the Bauhaus. According to Robert Bringhurst – ‘Geometric as it is, Futura is one of the most rhythmical san serifs ever made. It’s classical proportions are graceful and humane – closer to those of Centaur in the vertical dimensions.’

Renner consciously avoided all reference to handwriting or calligraphy in Futura. He wrote, ‘in developing Futura, everything followed the desire to carry the strict geometric structure of the capitals into the small letters also…. I consciously eradicated all those small quantities that creep into the design [formgebung] of their own accord when the form is developed from writing.’ Deliberately ignoring the handwritten dynamic resulted in a very original typeface; the geometry never imposed itself over the design. Christopher Burke in his book about Renner said, ‘The subtlety of the design in Futura surely enhanced its appeal: it seemed to be at ease with itself, not suffering under a rationalized principle of construction like many subsequent geometric typefaces (for instance Avant Garde Gothic 1970)’.

Futura was originally designed with two sets of numerals – aligning,
and, unheard of in a sans serif, old style. Renner also experimented with alternative lowercase characters, the lowercase ‘g’ and ’a‘ had at least 3 or 4 variations. These experimental, abstract forms were a departure from the norms of type design. In the end Renner found that they were too geometric and interrupted the flow of text, and Bauer was concerned that these unconventional characters would hinder sales. In the first type specimens marking Futura’s 1927 release the alternative characters are shown, but by the 1928 specimen they had disappeared. The old style figures were still there, but when the typeface was released in the United States in 1931, these too were gone.

Renner wanted to give Futura universal appeal, but he was also conscious of the particular needs of the German language where capitals are more frequently used, therefore the capitals are reduced, emulating humanistic scripts. He gave the capital ‘C’ and lowercase ‘c’ vertical terminal cuts, as in German these characters are often followed by ‘h’ or ‘k’ and require a tighter fit. Max Miedinger’s 1956 Helvetica, also references the logicality of German text, by making the capitals as visually mono width and as unobtrusive as possible.

In 1928, Jan Tschichold while welcoming Futura, said, ’I myself think that it cannot be open to one person to create the letterform of our age, which is something that must be free of any personal traces. It will be the work of several people, among whom one will probably find an engineer.’ Tschichold thought Futura too personal a statement; his own attempt at producing a ‘universal alphabet’ was one of the better geometric attempts but, as with other Bauhaus versions, it was never put into production.

Renner believed that sans serifs were best suited to the requirements of modern typography, and that Futura’s even colour in text made it an appropriate typeface to combine with photography, an essential ‘building-block’ of the new typography.

Looking at Futura now, where a more compact appearance is fashionable, especially after several decades of exposure to Helvetica or Univers, perhaps the relatively small x-height, tall ascenders and long descenders make it difficult to handle in modern text, Nonetheless employed in the right way, as in 8vo’s catalogue designs for Rotterdam’s museum Van Boijmans, it gives a wonderful result. Futura’s longevity is borne out in many different cuts by various type manufacturers, and the successful transition into the digital age. Although Renner himself described Futura as, ‘Die Schrift unserer Zeit’ [the typeface of our time], I am sure that he would be both gratified and amazed that Futura still holds its ground; as a typeface it is one of the outstanding achievements of early modernism.