50 years of Helvetica

The Museum of Modern Art April 6, 2007 – March 31, 2008

The entry of Helvetica as the first canonized typeface into the hallowed halls of MoMA is a great moment for typographers and design enthusiasts everywhere. The museum has acquired a set of original 36” Helvetica Bold lead plates (1956-57) into its collection, and has organized an exhibit entitled 50 Years of Helvetica to mark the occasion and display its influence in context.

Gary Hustwit, Still from the film Helvetica (2007). Courtesy Gary Hustwit.

Designed in 1957 by Max Miedinger (1910-1980), with the help of Edouard Hoffman, director of the Haas Type Foundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland, Helvetica was part of the new wave of Swiss design that became the lingua franca of modern luxury and taste. Fifty years later, the sans-serif font is still ubiquitous, appearing on corporate logos from Comme des Garçons to American Apparel, Toyota to Intel.

Originally born as Neue Haas Grotesk and designed to be an updated version of the 1896 font Akzidenz Grotesk, the font was fortunately rebranded as Helvetica in 1961—deriving its name from the Latin for Switzerland.

The show’s curator, Christian Larsen, explained, “In the ’60s it was a craze among governments, businesses and the travel industry to use Helvetica, it became a default typeface. The backlash began in the late ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, as Helvetica became the face of conformity.”

Today, the middle-aged typeface is in the midst of a revival and even starring in a feature length documentary by Gary Hustwit that opened in New York in April before touring the world—a five-minute excerpt is included in the MoMA show.

Laid out in a prominent corner of The Philip Johnson Architecture and Design Galleries, the exhibit seems to prefer items that underscore the font’s spare, elegant curves. Angiolo Giuseppe Fronzoni’s 1966 poster for a Lucio Fontana show at Galleria La Polena in Genoa, Italy, is superlative in its simplicity. A single, horizontal line of text splits the middle of the sheet apart, mimicking Fontana’s sliced and bulging forms. Only a tiny line of information about the designer & printer interrupt the poster’s pristine minimalism.

Some designers, like Massimo Vignelli, have turned to Helvetica again and again for inspired branding. New Yorkers will be very familiar with Vignelli’s most ambitious project, the graphic identity of New York’s subway system. While Vignelli’s 1967 poster for Knoll International in the exhibit showcases a more arty use of overlapping and transparency, New York’s subway designs are frontal and clear—white on bold colors against a black background, and a color-coded map that is as concise as it is beautiful.

Vignelli believed that a designer needed only five fonts, and the easy-to-read Swiss typeface was among them. Unfortunately, while Vignelli’s brash subway graphics remain, the MTA jettisoned his exuberant map in 1979 for a more geographically accurate version that played down the designer’s graphic zest—but you can’t blame that on Helvetica.

What saved Helvetica from design purgatory, Larsen suggests, were two major events: when the company Linotype unified various versions of the font and reissued it as Neue Helvetica in 1983, and when design-conscious Apple Computers chose to bundle it in their Macintosh computers. In contrast, Apple’s competitor, Microsoft, went another route and developed a Helvetica look-alike called Arial, which became universal but never really loved.

“Arial is an imitation, and is about sidestepping copyright & licensing fees, and it is not as successful,” Larsen says. “Helvetica, on the other hand, ironed out the idiosyncrasies of an earlier font. Arial was about watering down Helvetica.”

While it may be the first typeface (in itself) to enter a major museum collection, the decision for MoMA to collect fonts was an ambitious choice, one that recognizes the importance of type as an art form. Considering the Modern’s object-based collection, it will prove a challenge to expand into digitally based contemporary typography.

“In the case of Helvetica, it was easy because there is an artifact there, but nowadays in digital design it is a tough question, we’re still working on it. We’re talking to Emigre magazine about acquiring fonts from them and we are both unsure how to do this,” Larsen explains. “It is an interesting issue since we seem to be chipping away on the object-based reality of the museum, and taking a second look at the question of process.”

Masterpieces of graphic design aside, “50 Years of Helvetica” is also filled with banal objects that clutter the show—the bottle of Commes des Garçons cologne and Experimental Jetset’s “John & Paul & Ringo & George” t-shirt are not particularly inspired uses of the font. Minor quibbles aside, this compact show affords one of the most elegant players on the typographic stage an overdue round of applause.

—Hrag Vartanian

Contributor

Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is a writer, critic, and designer. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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