Type Tips

Types of their time – A short history of the geometric sans

April 02, 2014 by
Ferdinand Ulrich
Ferdinand Ulrich

Typefaces are an expression of their time. FF Mark is a new typeface and yet it clearly draws on historical examples from the past. Precisely, the mid-1920s, a period in German history with exceptional innovation in engineering, in the arts and in design. In particular, the years between 1925 and 1930 produced several ideas that were new to the world – among them a new concept in type design: the geometric sans serif.

In 1926, the Berlin Funkturm – a transmitting tower with an observation platform first opened to the public enabling new perspectives on the metropolis. The same year Mart Stam designed a cubic chair construction made from tubes (possibly the first without back legs), while Ludwig Mies van der Rohe filed a patent application for his version of this so-called Freischwinger (cantilever chair). It was designed in semicircles instead and thus supported the ability to swing. The architect Bruno Taut and his colleagues began major housing estate projects in Berlin: Onkel Toms Hütte (named after the famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin) in 1926 and the Hufeisensiedlung (literally horseshoe estate) a year earlier. Both are long and round building complexes equipped with many little square windows of different sizes – milestones in social housing. At the same time the students of the Bauhaus moved into their new school building in Dessau, designed by Walter Gropius. Not only is the building’s transparent “curtain wall” iconic, but so too the letters B-A-U-H-A-U-S running down the façade – geometric letters constructed from a simple grid. The basic shapes circle, square and triangle were omnipresent in the fields of industrial design, architecture, certainly in graphic design, as well as in lettering and type design.

In a special edition of the journal Typographische Mitteilungen titled Elementare Typographie it was Jan Tschichold who expressed his views on a new typographic style. Tschichold claimed it followed purpose and function; it rejected ornaments and instead used lines and basic shapes as graphic elements. In the fourth commandment of his manifesto it reads: “The elementary form of type shall be sans serif [Groteskschrift] in all its variants”. 1 Many foundries at the time were in search of a typeface that would not only serve these needs, but one that visually reflected the zeitgeist and thus letterforms originating from basic shapes.

In 1927, the Bauer type foundry released Futura, a geometric sans serif designed by Paul Renner. Not only did its name hold great demands, but even more so the Bauer advertising: “Die Schrift unserer Zeit” (the type of our time), which was initially an idea by the editor Jakob Hegener.2 The claim that Futura was the type of its time, however, is excessive: type design at the time was as diverse as product design and architecture and there are numerous examples of geometric typefaces that represent similar thoughts and ideas.

The short intervals of designs released in the late 1920s and early 1930s suggest that there were instead many “types of their time”. The following introduces some of these original designs of the geometric concept in the metal type era, their earliest revivals in the 1970s as well as new interpretations in the years to follow and contemporary developments of this popular genre in type design.

Sans serif type and lettering at the Bauhaus

At the Bauhaus many ideas corresponded with the principles of the elementary typography. Among its followers was Herbert Bayer, a former Bauhaus student himself and later typographic director at the school in Dessau. It was he who designed the lettering on the new Bauhaus building and in 1925 he proceeded to design the concept for a “universal” alphabet known as Universalschrift – a fusion of upper and lower case, the creation of a single set of characters. It was by far not a complete typeface, rather a set of characters, constructed using triangle and compass in a geometric system. Between 1925 and 1930, Bayer redrew the alphabet several times.3 A bolder version with narrow and wider letters is also known as Bayer’s “Alfabet” published in his 1926 article Versuch einer neuen Schrift (attempt at designing a new type).4 On the one hand, the letters are truly geometrical, however, on the other hand it is this characteristic that makes them illegible in smaller sizes. No optical corrections had been applied to the letterforms.

Some of Bayer’s colleagues had constructed alphabets of their own. The idea itself was not an invention of the Bauhaus, however. For decades, there had already been a tradition in the construction of letters for storefront signs by designers. But the Bauhaus established it in its classes and made it a trend. Foremost Joost Schmidt, who drew several sans serifs, slab serifs as well as modern faces (meaning Didones). Sketches of Josef Albers’ grid-based Schablonenschrift, an alphabet constructed from square shapes, triangles and circles as well as circle segments were first published in an article in 1926. Five years later it was more simplified and based upon only ten elements (without triangular shapes), known as Kombinationsschrift.

None of the Bauhaus type designs, however, were ever cast in metal. Instead they were hand-drawn for every respective application. For large bodies of text the Bauhaus printing workshop relied on other sans serif typefaces – not geometric, but close enough to the school’s new principles. The two most commonly used faces in their publications and posters were the Art Deco-influenced Venus (with a characteristically high “waist”) of the Bauer type foundry and a type simply referred to as Grotesk, available from the German foundry Schelter und Giesecke (which is why it is often known as Schelter’sche Grotesk today). The use of true geometric types released by other foundries in the late 1920s may be doubted for good reasons. Perhaps the use of Futura Black, a stencil face similar to Albers’ Schablonenschrift, on the cover of Bauhausbücher #12, published in 1930, as well as on other printed matter remains to be one of the better-known exceptions.

Comparison of Universalschrift by Herbert Bayer, Schablonenschrift by Josef Albers and Systemschrift by Kurt Schwitters with Paul Renner’s Futura in the critical article “Zweifel” (doubt) by Heinrich Jost in Klimschs Jahrbuch, vol. 21, Frankfurt/Main 1928<
Comparison of Universalschrift by Herbert Bayer, Schablonenschrift by Josef Albers and Systemschrift by Kurt Schwitters with Paul Renner’s Futura in the critical article “Zweifel” (doubt) by Heinrich Jost in Klimschs Jahrbuch, vol. 21, Frankfurt/Main 1928<

Futura Black used on the cover of Klimschs Jahrbuch, vol. 24, Frankfurt/Main 1931.
Futura Black used on the cover of Klimschs Jahrbuch, vol. 24, Frankfurt/Main 1931.

Erbar-Grotesk, 1926

The first German geometric sans to be released was Erbar-Grotesk with the Ludwig & Mayer type foundry in 1926. Its eponymous designer Jakob Erbar defined the circle as a basic element on which the typeface was built – note the almost perfectly circular capital ›O‹. In early type specimens, the foundry claimed that Erbar-Grotesk was free from antics following the aim to develop a “healthy” typeface, to one day replace the “old characterless grotesk typefaces” and to “establish itself in every well-equipped composing room in the long run”.5 Between 1926 and 1930, Erbar-Grotesk was extended to a large family of weights and styles in exemplary manner: it ranged from light to bold and their italic counterparts as well as condensed versions plus a couple of rather playful outline styles for headlines and initials. Lucina, lichte fette Grotesk, Lumina and Lux were all relatives of the Erbar family. Strong characteristics of Erbar-Grotesk can be seen through its two-story lowercase ›a‹ as well as the significant ‘ß’, a ligature with both an ascender and a descender. The influence of Erbar-Grotesk can still be found on the street signs in the Western part of Berlin.

Futura Black used on the cover of Klimschs Jahrbuch, vol. 24, Frankfurt/Main 1931.
Futura Black used on the cover of Klimschs Jahrbuch, vol. 24, Frankfurt/Main 1931.

Type specimen of Erbar-Grotesk (Ludwig &amp; Mayer), Baustein-Grotesk and Lichte Koralle (both Schelter &amp; Giesecke) in capital letters—note the capital ‘ß’—Futura (Bauer) and Grobe Kabel (Gebr. Klingspor) in Klimschs Jahrbuch, vol. 22, Frankfurt/Main 1929.
Type specimen of Erbar-Grotesk (Ludwig &amp; Mayer), Baustein-Grotesk and Lichte Koralle (both Schelter &amp; Giesecke) in capital letters—note the capital ‘ß’—Futura (Bauer) and Grobe Kabel (Gebr. Klingspor) in Klimschs Jahrbuch, vol. 22, Frankfurt/Main 1929.

Futura, 1927

The release of Futura the following year easily provokes the debate whether it was influenced by Erbar-Grotesk or whether it was possibly the other way around. In fact, Paul Renner had already presented his type design to an audience during a lecture at the Kölner Werbeschule in 1925, where Jakob Erbar happened to be teaching.6 Erbar on the other hand claims to have begun his design several years earlier. Furthermore, Futura’s capital letters show a strong resemblance to a type design by Ferdinand Kramer, a colleague of Renner at the school of art in Frankfurt, who had initially designed the so-called Kramer-Grotesk for his family’s hat store.7 Whatever the case may be, again this debate simply proves that more than one person sensed the spirit of the time.

In Renner’s view the ancient Roman capitalis monumentalis was based on the elemental shapes; circle, square, triangle, and thus they served to him as a starting point for Futura’s capital letters. The width of the capital letters changes heavily from character to character. While ‘O’ and ‘G’ are almost perfectly round, letters such as ‘E’, ‘F’ and ‘L’ have the width of only half a square. Later the geometric structure was applied to the lowercase letters as well, however, in comparison to the alphabets designed at the Bauhaus, they were not drawn with triangle and compass. Only some early letterforms were truly constructed, for example ‘a’, ‘g’, ‘m’, ‘n’ and ‘r’, but they were gradually left out of the font.

Considering the time when the majority of typefaces were released in regular, bold and respective italics, Futura was extended to an impeccable series of weights, ranging from mager (light) over Buchschrift (book), halbfett (medium), dreiviertelfett (literally three quarters bold, later known as demi bold in English specimens) to fett (bold), each slightly thicker or thinner than the other. While the mager weight seems rather light, Buchschrift is equipped with the appropriate contrast for reading long text (Buchschrift means type for books).

A general problem arising in the design of typefaces based on geometric shapes is the formation of dark spots whenever heavy bars meet. This meant that several optical corrections had to be applied to the final drawings in order to ensure the impression of Futura’s monolinearity. Especially in the bolder weights, many compromises were made: strokes that go into stems are heavily reduced, some of the capital characters lose their pointed apexes – a key feature in all the lighter weights – and the closing of the lowercase ›e‹ is quite unfortunate as it seems inconsistent and appears to be a misfit in the overall design.

Nevertheless, Futura remains to be the most popular geometric sans of that time. Certainly this can also be attributed to the international position that Bauer held as opposed to its competitors. In 1928 Heinrich Jost, artistic advisor at Bauer, emphasizes the foundry’s self-confidence in an article: “Futura may contribute to the movement of the ‘elementary typography’ by steering it into a sophisticated direction”.8

Early Bauer type specimen of Futura.
Early Bauer type specimen of Futura.

Specimen of Futura issued by the New York City sales office of the Bauer type foundry. The back cover lists 16 other Bauer representatives across the Unites States to emphasize the foundry’s international position.
Specimen of Futura issued by the New York City sales office of the Bauer type foundry. The back cover lists 16 other Bauer representatives across the Unites States to emphasize the foundry’s international position.

Kabel, 1928

Soon after Erbar-Grotesk and Futura, another geometric sans hit the market. In 1928, the Offenbach-based type foundry Klingspor released Kabel by Rudolf Koch, a well-known German type designer. It is possible that it was named after the transatlantic telecommunications cable installed during this period. While Kabel captures the modern look of the 1920s it reveals features of Art Deco at the same time. This successful and friendly mix of two styles is just as characteristic of the typeface as its low x-height and some of its letterforms, for example ‘a’, ‘e’ and ‘g’, manage to maintain their qualities in bolder weights. Another strong feature distinguishing Kabel from its contemporaries is the slanted endings on some of the letters’ tails that make the typeface livelier. Just like its predecessors, outline-style relatives extended the Kabel family. First came Zeppelin in 1929, followed by Prisma a year later. The light and bold weights were accompanied by alternative characters for display sizes as well as a Kabel Rundschrift – a rounded companion that emphasizes the Art Deco background of the type, available only in 60 cicero for posters. In 1932, Schelter und Giesecke released Rhythmus, a type extremely close to Kabel, but with increased ascenders and a very low x-height.

Specimen of Erbar-Grotesk (1926), Futura (1927) and Kabel (1928) all on one spread in Klimschs Jahrbuch, vol. 21, Frankfurt/Main 1928.
Specimen of Erbar-Grotesk (1926), Futura (1927) and Kabel (1928) all on one spread in Klimschs Jahrbuch, vol. 21, Frankfurt/Main 1928.

Berthold Grotesk, 1928

In a time when sans serif typefaces were gaining more and more popularity, the Berthold type foundry was well represented with its flagship Akzidenz-Grotesk. However, following the developments in the mid-twenties, Berthold wanted to be every bit up-to-date and released their Hausschnitt (in-house design) Berthold-Grotesk in 1928. Initially it came with regular and light weights and was quickly expanded to an extensive family in the following years. Like its contemporaries Berthold-Grotesk has a small x-height, long ascenders, but relatively short descenders. A significant feature is the capital ‘M’. Its crotch does not go all the way to the baseline, but it is not sitting on the x-height either. The figures are comparatively large and some of their shapes are reminiscent of those in Akzidenz-Grotesk – note the little serif on numeral seven.

A challenge that many faced in designing a geometric typeface was the placement of umlaut dots – diacritics significant to the German language. While they gently sit left and right of an ‘A’s’ apex, they would sometime drop into the ‘U’s’ bowl in the bolder weights. In Berthold-Grotesk bold the dots merge with the umlaut ‘O’, creating a head with teddy bear-like ears. Within the system of different weights Berthold-Grotesk did not lose its initial character and optical compromises were applied carefully. In 1940 a heavy weight followed.

Although Berthold-Grotesk is a fully developed sans serif, available in several weights, it is not so well known today. Perhaps because it was long overshadowed by its distant relative, the extremely popular Akzidenz-Grotesk.

Specimen No. 262 of the Berthold type foundry, titled in English spelling of Berthold-Grotesk.
Specimen No. 262 of the Berthold type foundry, titled in English spelling of Berthold-Grotesk.

Geometric diversity

By 1930, just four years after the release of Erbar, almost every large type foundry in Germany had its own interpretation of the geometric sans serif. At the same time this trend began to spread over the neighboring countries. New original designs were born just as much as proven types were slightly adjusted and released under different names. When Futura became available in France as Europe, a distinct letter was redesigned. The lowercase ‘a’ took on a shape in tradition of the Carolingian minuscule; a bow with an open counter below. This change had a huge impact on the overall appearance on a printed page.

Between 1930 and 1938 Arno Drescher designed a new type called Super-Grotesk for the Dresden-based Schriftguss KG (formerly Brüder Butter type foundry). Drescher designed a family of several weights as well as the accompanying all-caps fonts Super-Blickfang, Super-Elektrik and Super-Reflex. Years later, after the owners of Schriftguss KG were dispossessed, the company as well as other foundries were converted into VEB Typoart in the German Democratic Republic. Super-Grotesk continued to be their greatest success and was soon known as “Futura of the East”.

Specimen of Super-Grotesk regular and medium in Klimschs Jahrbuch, vol. 24, Frankfurt/Main 1931.
Specimen of Super-Grotesk regular and medium in Klimschs Jahrbuch, vol. 24, Frankfurt/Main 1931.

In 1929 Sjoerd de Roos and Dick Dooijes designed Nobel for the Amsterdam type foundry. A look at the upper case letters quickly reveals a strong influence from Berthold-Grotesk – most noticeable in the ‘Q’’s tail, in the ‘M’ with the crotch sitting slightly below the x-height and in the ‘R’ with its leg drawn almost all the way back to the stem, creating a sharp edge. The same year the Stempel type foundry released their version of a geometric sans serif: Elegant-Grotesk, drawn in several weights by German type designer Hans Möhring a year earlier. In the United Kingdom Elegant-Grotesk was distributed by the Stephenson Blake type foundry who renamed it Guildford Sans.

Type specimen of Elegant-Grotesk, distributed as Elegant Sans by Caslon Machinery Ltd., sole agents of Stempel in Great Britain.
Type specimen of Elegant-Grotesk, distributed as Elegant Sans by Caslon Machinery Ltd., sole agents of Stempel in Great Britain.

Elegant Sans on the left, Stempel Gothic’s condensed weights on the right. A little caption in the upper right corner notes Stempel Gothic’s renaming into Stempel Sans.
Elegant Sans on the left, Stempel Gothic’s condensed weights on the right. A little caption in the upper right corner notes Stempel Gothic’s renaming into Stempel Sans.

Specimen of Elegant-Grotesk in medium and inline weights in Klimschs Jahrbuch, vol. 23, Frankfurt/Main 1930.
Specimen of Elegant-Grotesk in medium and inline weights in Klimschs Jahrbuch, vol. 23, Frankfurt/Main 1930.

Another type that has a long history of doubles and renaming was first known as Kristall Grotesk, an in-house design by the Leipzig-based Wagner & Schmidt type foundry. The many versions can be distinguished by alternate character sets (e.g. some fonts come with a single story ‘a’, while others feature the double-story alternative). According to Philipp Bertheau’s Atlas zur Geschichte der Schrift, a comprehensive encyclopedia of typefaces, Kristall Grotesk was revived and released under these names in the following years: as Polar Grotesk (or simply Polar) in 1930 by J. John Söhne in Hamburg; as Rund Grotesk with C. E. Weber, Stuttgart, in 1931 and once more as Kristall Grotesk with the Norddeutsche Schriftgießerei in Berlin. It was apparently released abroad as Saxo with the Berling type foundry in Sweden and as Predilecta with José Iranzo in Spain.9 In reference to its original name (spelled slightly different) it was distributed as Krystal-Grotesk in Denmark.

Type specimen of Kristall-Grotesk’s relative Rund-Grotesk in Klimschs Jahrbuch, vol. 26, Frankfurt/Main 1933.
Type specimen of Kristall-Grotesk’s relative Rund-Grotesk in Klimschs Jahrbuch, vol. 26, Frankfurt/Main 1933.

One of the most versatile geometric sans serifs of the time is perhaps Intertype’s Vogue, released in 1930. Even in its standard character set Vogue reveals something of its own, e.g. the uppercase ‘Q’ with a vertical tail sticks out as a distinguishing mark. What is more, it is equipped with fractions and small caps – something seldom seen in sans serif typefaces at the time. However, the most unusual feature of this typeface is its variety of at least eight additional character sets. By exchanging a number of letters from “Special No. 3”, Vogue suddenly dresses up as Kabel, while “Special No. 2” transforms it into Futura – “Special No. 8” even has the alternate Futura letters ‘k’, ‘m’, ‘n’, ‘r’, and ‘u’ in store.

In the late 1920s, an answer to Erbar, Futura and Kabel was also in the pipeline in the United States. The Mergenthaler Linotype Company in New York commissioned William A. Dwiggins to design a typeface based on the geometric concept. Paul Shaw, a research expert on the work of Dwiggins, reports that the original design called Metroblack was drawn in less than a year, but that it was initially rejected due to its “retention of oldstyle forms of letters such as a, e and g” and that the foundry’s customers were in favor of a more Futura-like design. Shaw writes: “Dwiggins was asked to design alternate characters for A, G, J, M, N, V, W, a, e, g, v and w. The revised face was dubbed Metroblack no. 2 and issued in 1931. It became a great success.”10

Double spread of an 1976 ITC Kabel specimen with the foundry’s famous line »26 good reasons to use ...«.
Double spread of an 1976 ITC Kabel specimen with the foundry’s famous line »26 good reasons to use ...«.

Type specimen showing off the ornamental companions that most geometric faces were equipped with at the time: Lichte Berthold-Grotesk, Kabel’s Prisma, Super-Reflex and Super-Elektrik.
Type specimen showing off the ornamental companions that most geometric faces were equipped with at the time: Lichte Berthold-Grotesk, Kabel’s Prisma, Super-Reflex and Super-Elektrik.

Neuzeit-Grotesk, 1932

Just three years after the not overly successful Elegant-Grotesk, Stempel released another geometric sans serif. Wilhelm Pischner had designed Neuzeit-Grotesk between 1928 and 1930 in light, regular, medium and bold weights before it was produced for both hand-setting and the Linotype system. Just as much as Futura’s name carries a strong statement, the term Neuzeit defines “the modern age” and thus claims to be the Grotesk of that era. Even though the concept of the geometric sans clearly underlies this design, it is not emphasized in the specimen text. At first glance Neuzeit-Grotesk has one major distinction as opposed to its predecessors: a larger x-height. With reduced white space between the lines and equipped with shorter ascenders and descenders, text columns appear more compact.

Overall the shapes are quite wide which helps provide a homogeneous appearance on the page. Strangely, the letterforms are slightly compressed in light and medium. Similar to Berthold-Grotesk the umlaut-dots merge with the ‘O’, but a fine line is spared around the dots, preventing them from actually touching each other. In the original design two lowercase letters have alternative characters: a two-story ‘a’ and the ‘u’ with a stem.

Over the following years Neuzeit-Grotesk was gradually extended to a larger family. Based on Pischner’s drawings, two condensed fonts (medium and bold) were added in the late 1930s. But it was not until fifteen years later that italics were designed to accompany the light, regular and bold weights. In 1959, the Stempel in-house department developed Neuzeit-Buchschrift. It is not bolder than Neuzeit-Grotesk’s regular weight, but lighter and it is equipped with its own Kräftige Neuzeit-Buchschrift (literally strong, commonly a weight that sits between regular and medium).

In the English speaking world Neuzeit-Grotesk was first known as Stempel Gothic. A Stempel specimen issued by the Caslon Machinery Ltd. in London, then sole agents of the German foundry in Great Britain, refers to that name and notes that it was changed to Stempel Sans. The renaming comes as no surprise: the term sans sérif has been emphasized as more adequate as opposed to grotesk (or perhaps gothic) in the introductory remarks of most Neuzeit specimens.

Influenced by the concept and design underlying Neuzeit-Buchschrift, a new typeface intended for large bodies of text was later collaboratively developed by Stempel and Linotype. The type was released in 1966, although initially produced exclusively for a new corporate design of Siemens and thus giving it the name: Neuzeit S. However, the new design underwent profound changes and ultimately lost much of its “geometric” character – in fact it has little to do with Neuzeit-Grotesk as we know it.

The original Neuzeit-Grotesk seemed to have been forgotten until it was resurrected by the DIN (German Institute for Standardization) in 1970. Defined as DIN 30640 the regular weight as well as the medium condensed were redrawn for the purpose of “lettering for printing”.11 All of the characters were made slightly wider, descenders became longer, and the previous alternates of ‘a’ and ‘u’ became part of the standard character set. The switching of characters can change the perception of a typeface extremely; nevertheless, Neuzeit-Grotesk maintained much of its original character.

Cover and double spread of an early Neuzeit-Grotesk specimen by Stempel.
Cover and double spread of an early Neuzeit-Grotesk specimen by Stempel.

Type specimen of Neuzeit-Grotesk from the early 1960s. This little booklet lists all eleven weights designed for the Linotype composing system from light to bold as well as the condensed and Neuzeit-Buchschrift fonts.
Type specimen of Neuzeit-Grotesk from the early 1960s. This little booklet lists all eleven weights designed for the Linotype composing system from light to bold as well as the condensed and Neuzeit-Buchschrift fonts.

Double spread of Neuzeit-Grotesk regular.
Double spread of Neuzeit-Grotesk regular.

Double spread of Neuzeit-Grotesk bold.
Double spread of Neuzeit-Grotesk bold.

DIN 1451, 1936

Another truly “constructed” typeface that is much more likely to be associated with the German Institute of Standardization is DIN Mittelschrift along with its condensed companion DIN Engschrift, also known by their industrial standard designation DIN 1451. Both are the most relied-on geometric typefaces used every day by millions in Germany – simply due to their application on traffic signs on the Autobahn, on road signs, construction sites and all sorts of signage in the public space.

DIN Mittelschrift and Engschrift have been omnipresent in Germany for decades, but it was Albert-Jan Pool who took the industrial looking static signage type and transformed it into a legible face suitable for setting text in 1995 for the FontFont library. It is also Pool who has been researching on the origins of DIN 1451 for many years. According to the Dutch type designer some of the type’s history remains unclear, a DIN publication from 1936 though, is regarded as an important source about the introduction of a new grid-based typeface – one that had been used by the Deutsche Reichsbahn and even dates back to lettering executed by the Königlich Preußische Eisenbahnverwaltung, KPEV, in 1905. Further he writes: “When counting from the 1905 KPEV master drawings, the DIN typeface celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2005.”12 It has also been suggested that the railway lettering could have possibly been an influence for Bayer and Schmidt in constructing their own grid-based letters.13

Photo type revivals

With a change in typesetting technology also came new demands for the way typefaces were designed. In 1976 the International Typeface Corporation announced their revival of “one of the most uniquely styled sans serif typefaces”: Kabel.14 Victor Caruso of Photo Lettering Inc. redrew the face under special license from Stempel, who had acquired Klingspor and their library of types and thus owned Kabel. Almost fifty years after the type’s initial release, ITC claimed to have redesigned the original “as Rudolph Koch might have chosen to create his Kabel letterforms if the technology of film and photo-typesetting had existed in his era”.15 Besides several minor refinements such as a more rounded descender of the ‘g’, a new angle on the crossbar of the ‘e’ and diamond-shaped ‘i’-dots, the most noticeable adjustment applied to the type was its dramatically increased x-height.

1976 press release and specimen of ITC Kabel in the foundry’s typical format at the time.
1976 press release and specimen of ITC Kabel in the foundry’s typical format at the time.

Double spread of an 1976 ITC Kabel specimen with the foundry’s famous line »26 good reasons to use ...«.
Double spread of an 1976 ITC Kabel specimen with the foundry’s famous line »26 good reasons to use ...«.

The large x-height was in fact a characteristic applied by ITC to its redesigns and a welcomed feature in advertising. In the case of Kabel, though, it seems rather obvious that this change resulted in the immediate loss of its geometric proportions. With the possibilities of easily copying typefaces in the phototype era without proper license, multiple versions of Kabel were available from various typesetting studios as Cable, Kabell, Kabello etc.

In 1975, ITC had already released another typeface with round and geometric forms designed by Caruso with his partner Ed Benguiat, which, by its sensational name seemed to suggest that it was also based on a historic example: ITC Bauhaus. All ITC specimen of the time agree that this new type “was inspired by the Universal typeface designed in 1925 by Herbert Bayer”.16 When comparing the two alphabets, this seems far off the mark. Some of the lowercase shapes may be connected to Universalschrift (the shape of the ‘x’ – two semicircles attached on their backs – is in fact a direct quote), but the overall look of the face is quite different. Little “cuts” in several letters create open counter forms, giving ITC Bauhaus a bit of a playful appearance.

After all, the simplicity and original idea behind Universalschrift was its monocase concept. ITC Bauhaus is no revival of Bayer’s type, nor is it a revival of any type drawn at the legendary design school and yet it is inevitably connected to it through its naming. The Apotheke am Bauhaus, a pharmacy just 500 feet away from the historical Bauhaus site in Dessau, uses ITC Bauhaus on its store front sign – only one example of a very unfortunate and frequent misconception.

Nevertheless, ITC Bauhaus is a type of its time – of the 1970s – and interestingly it has many contemporaries that reveal a certain family resemblance (some of them released earlier): Blippo Black (1969) by Joe Taylor, Burko (1970) by David L. Burke and ITC Pump Bold (1975) by Philip Kelly as well as Horatio (1971) by Bob Newman. Herb Lubalin’s ITC Ronda, released in 1970, can perhaps be listed in the same breath, even though it distinguishes itself from the group through its less quirky and instead rather elegant approach in the upper cases. At the time Lubalin was working on another typeface inspired by geometric shapes with his partner Tom Carnase: ITC Avant Garde, based on the logotype from the magazine of the same name. Designed and expanded to a family of several weights between 1970 and 1977, it has maintained great popularity up until today and can be found in countless logos.

Cover of the ITC Bauhaus specimen, upon its release in 1975. The capital ‘B’ with its stencil-like cuts must have looked like a ‘ß’ (known as “German B” in the US) to some Germans (see Futura’s ‘ß’ for comparison).
Cover of the ITC Bauhaus specimen, upon its release in 1975. The capital ‘B’ with its stencil-like cuts must have looked like a ‘ß’ (known as “German B” in the US) to some Germans (see Futura’s ‘ß’ for comparison).

Avenir, 1988

In the late 1980s Adrian Frutiger proposed the design of a new type to Linotype’s selection board. In a paper that resulted from his own research he pointed out a gap that he had spotted in their range of distributed type: a contemporary version of the geometric sans serif. With the awareness of ITC Avant Garde’s success more than ten years earlier and with his observation that geometric typefaces were becoming popular again, Frutiger wanted to design a new geometric type that was not merely meant for display purposes (like many of its contemporaries), but also for large bodies of text – and it had to be “an independent alphabet, one that belonged in the present”, Frutiger said.17

Frutiger’s starting point for the type to be known as Avenir was the drawing of the lowercase ‘0’ – that he regarded as “the first and most important letter”.18 Unlike many of his predecessors he did so without a compass, as he was aware of the importance of optical correction when designing a face based on geometrical shapes. The prototype was drawn in a light weight, later the typeface was produced in six fine gradations including light, book and regular, medium, heavy and black.

While its name clearly quotes Renner’s famous type (in French avenir means future), especially the lower case is inspired by Neuzeit-Grotesk. Overall Avenir can be regarded as a true geometric sans serif, optically adjusted and refined for pleasant reading. Years later Frutiger confessed: “Avenir is the typeface where I expended the most effort in getting it exactly right [...]. It’s the most precise typeface I’ve ever drawn.”19

Digital revivals

With the advantages of digital type design a new wave of revivals began in the early 1990s. Almost all of the typefaces mentioned above are available digitally, still licensed under their old names, but often in various interpretations from different foundries. After the Neufville type foundry took over Bauer’s activities in 1972 and inherited most of their licenses, it rightfully calls itself “the home of Futura” today and offers 22 fonts of Futura ND.20 At the same time several Futura versions are distributed on Monotype’s online platform, the Linotype library: Futura Plus, Futura T and Futura Round of URW, Futura from Bitstream, ParaType and Berthold as well as the Linotype Originals’ very own Futura.

The Linotype library also distributes ITC Kabel as well as another digital version that retains Koch’s original intentions. DIN Neuzeit and Neuzeit S are available on the platform, but not the original Neuzeit-Grotesk. In some digitizations relevant contemporary glyphs were often added later in the redesign process: currency signs, the @-symbol, the copyright sign, fractions etc. Unfortunately, these were not always drawn accurately and apparently not with the necessary dedication deserved and they therefore remain as alien elements in these digital versions. One that is designed consistently throughout and that has undergone tremendous improvement in terms of legibility is FF DIN, regularly ranked among FontShop’s bestsellers.

Besides the well-established larger distributors, many new foundries started up in the early 90s; among them The Foundry, started by David Quay and Freda Sack in 1989 and the P22 Type Foundry, founded by Richard Kegler in 1994. Both offer quite extensive collections of early geometric sans serif typefaces. The so-called Architype Collections, available from The Foundry, consist of five sets: Konstrukt, Universal, Crouwel, Renner and Ingenieur. As the name Universal seems to suggest, it contains a version of Bayer’s Universalschrift. The ‘a’ that Bayer had designed as an alternative character is now part of the standard font. Architype Renner includes four weights of Futura, built with all of the originally intended alternatives. P22 also offers a version of Universalschrift in their Bauhaus Collection – authorized by the Herbert Bayer Estate. This version appears to be a blend of the various Bayer drawings. Their Albers Collection, collaboratively produced with the Josef Albers Foundation, includes both Schablonenschrift and the later Kombinationsschrift.

FF Mark, 2013

Just as much as the original design of the Freischwinger could neither be fully attributed to Mart Stam nor to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (or even to Marcel Breuer, as some historians like to believe), no type designer can claim to have invented the geometric sans. Several designers and the respective foundries sensed the need to produce a type that would reflect the ideas and innovations of the 1920s — more or less at the same time. While these typefaces share the same core idea, they do have distinctions, special features and peculiarities.

FF Mark is not a revival of any of the typefaces mentioned above in particular. Evidently, it is based on a concept that is apparent in many examples from the past. What it is, is an original contemporary design that serves today’s needs. While some of these examples are charming and elegant they may appear quirky in single weights and are not consistent throughout the typographic system.

In the capital letters, FF Mark willfully avoids the capitalis monumentalis proportions and instead consistently represents wide letter shapes with the x-height in good balance. Overall, the typeface bears low contrast and even though very little stroke modulation has been applied to the letter shapes it maintains excellent legibility even in smaller type sizes.

It extends to ten weights with more than a thousand characters each, allowing for a wide range of possibilities in creating typographic hierarchy. Besides the more modern FF Mark Regular, the typeface is equipped with a Book weight to support rather traditional text appearances. This feature is on par with Neuzeit-Buchschrift, which was available in 6–12 pt. While the oblique fonts in some older examples of the geometric sans do not fully match the rest of the typeface (and thus can seem disturbing), the FF Mark Italic weights are more harmonized and retain the geometric character just as much as their upright counterparts. What’s more, FF Mark has small capitals. Within this large system of weights, very little optical corrections or compromises have been made to keep the type as consistent as possible.

Furthermore, several ligatures are provided for each of the weights. Among them, historic letter combinations such as ‘ft’, a ligature reminiscent of Futura, and one that the editor Jakob Hegener apparently compared to the shape of a horseshoe magnet.21 A stylistic set of particularly “German features” has also been added: ‘7’ with a crossbar and a long ‘s’. Additionally, the font contains several shapes and arrows following the sets of geometric shapes in the original Futura. Details such as the position of the tail in capital letters ‘K’ and ‘R’ and the ear-like umlaut-dots on the ‘O’, quote shapes from the past and personalize the typeface. It is equipped with all the necessary glyphs to provide a satisfying contemporary font for all eventualities.

FF Mark takes on ideas that have worked well just as much as it learns from defects of its historical examples. What it does, is successfully perform how these challenges can be overcome. True to the geometric tradition, but better, FF Mark is a typeface of our time.

Ear-like umlaut-dots quote shapes from the past and personalize the typeface.
Ear-like umlaut-dots quote shapes from the past and personalize the typeface.

Breaking tradition with ten weights and over a thousand characters within each weight.
Breaking tradition with ten weights and over a thousand characters within each weight.

More consistent terminals (e, s, c). FF Mark (top) v. Futura (bottom)
More consistent terminals (e, s, c). FF Mark (top) v. Futura (bottom)

Willfully avoiding the capitalis monumentalis proportions. FF Mark (top) v. Futura (bottom)
Willfully avoiding the capitalis monumentalis proportions. FF Mark (top) v. Futura (bottom)

Wider proportions and a better-balanced and bigger x-height. FF Mark (top) v. Futura (bottom)
Wider proportions and a better-balanced and bigger x-height. FF Mark (top) v. Futura (bottom)

Food notes

1 Iwan [Jan] Tschichold: Elementare Typographie. Typografische Mitteillungen, Sonderheft, Leipzig 1925

2 Christopher Burke: Paul Renner. The art of typography, London 1998, p. 87

3 Please compare the different drawings in: Ute Brüning (ed.)/Bauhaus-Archiv: Das A und O des Bauhauses. Bauhauswerbung: Schriftbilder, Drucksachen, Ausstellungsdesign, Berlin/Leipzig 1995, p. 186 ff.

4 This article by Bayer was published in a special Bauhaus edition of: Offset, Buch- und Werbekunst, 1926, issue 7.

5 Ludwig & Mayer Schriftgießerei und Holzgerätefabrik: Die schöne Erbar-Grotesk. 14 Garnituren, Frankfurt/Main

6 Christopher Burke: Paul Renner. The art of typography, London 1998, p. 88

7 Please compare in: Eckhard Neumann: Frankfurter Typografie. Bemerkungen zur Futura und zur angeblichen Kramer-Grotesk, in: Claude Lichtenstein: Ferdinand Kramer. Der Charme des Systematischen, Gießen 1991, p. 32 ff.

8 Heinrich Jost: Zweifel, in: Klimschs Jahrbuch. Technische Abhandlungen und Berichte ueber die Neuheiten auf dem Gesamtgebiet der graphischen Künste, issue 21, Frankfurt / Main 1928

9 Please see the entry for Kristall Grotesk in Philipp Th. Bertheau (ed.): Buchdruckschriften im 20. Jahrhundert. Atlas zur Geschichte der Schrift, Darmstadt 1995

10 Please look up Paul Shaw: The Life and Work of William Addison Dwiggins on the Linotype website, or a print version of the text in Linotype Matrix magazine, vol. 4, no. 2

11 See: Beiblatt 2 zu DIN 30640, DIN Deutsches Institut für Normung e.V., Berlin 1991

12 Albert-Jan Pool: FF DIN. The history of a contemporary typeface, in: Erik Spiekermann/Jan Middendorp (ed.): Made with FontFont. Type for independent minds, Amsterdam 2006, p. 68

13 Ibid., p. 70

14 Please see the press release of the International Typeface Corporation of ITC Kabel, New York, June 7 1976.

15 Ibid.

16 Please compare with the introduction of an ITC Bauhaus specimen issued by the International Typeface Corporation in 1976 or with other ITC publications.

17 Read more about Frutiger’s concept in: Heidrun Osterer/ Philipp Stamm (ed.): Adrian Frutiger Typefaces. The complete works, Basel/Boston/Berlin 2009, p. 330 ff.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid., p. 333

20 »The home of Futura« is a registered trademark of the Barcelona-based Neufville Digital type foundry. The foundry’s abbreviation ND can be found in most of their font’s names.

21 Christopher Burke: Paul Renner. The art of typography, London 1998, p. 87

Bibliography

Articles and type specimens in: Klimschs Jahrbuch. Technische Abhandlungen und Berichte ueber die Neuheiten auf dem Gesamtgebiet der graphischen Künste, issues 20–26, Frankfurt/Main 1926–1932

Burke, Christopher: Paul Renner. The art of typography, London 1998

Pool, Albert-Jan: FF DIN. The history of a contemporary typeface, in: Erik Spiekermann/Jan Middendorp (Ed.): Made with FontFont. Type for independent minds, Amsterdam 2006

Spiekermann, Erik: Die Schrift der neuen Zeit, in: Studentenfutter. Ein Leitfaden durch den Buchstabendschungel, Nuremburg 1989

Original specimen of all the typefaces mentioned above, issued by the respective foundries.

Image sources

All images are courtesy of Erik Spiekermann, Berlin, except for the American specimen of Venus, Futura and Kabel Rundschrift, which are courtesy of The Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography, New York.