How Feminist Artists Reclaimed Futura from New York’s Mad Men
BY ARIELA GITTLEN
AUG 11TH, 2017 12:52 PM
What do the Nazi Party, NASA, Wes Anderson, Forever 21, Louis Vuitton, Ed Ruscha, and Barbara Kruger have in common? All of them have favored the same font—Futura, the geometric sans-serif typeface designed in 1924 by German designer Paul Renner.
It was the first commercial font to combine the classical proportions of the letters on Roman monuments with the simple geometry of the circle, triangle, and square. “Renner wanted to design a typeface specifically for the industrial age, stripping away all ornament,” says Douglas Thomas, a designer, historian, and assistant professor of graphic design at Brigham Young University. “He was trying to answer many of the same questions as his contemporaries in the Bauhaus such as Josef Albers and Herbet Bayer, who also made experimental typefaces based on geometry.”
Several years ago, Thomas began to wonder: Why had Helvetica—another trusty sans-serif—landed in the spotlight, while the cultural impact of Futura remained largely unexamined? Futura, he notes, was more historically popular, more closely linked with modernism, and, in the eyes of many, a more beautiful alphabet.
So Thomas decided it was time to give the font its due. His forthcoming book, Never Use Futura, is titled after a frequent graphic design school admonition. Students are instructed to avoid the typeface, in order to keep their work from seeming derivative or cliché. But, charmed by its perfectly circular O and dagger-sharp M, many of them go on to use it anyway.
On the surface, it seems strange that a typeface as heavy with historical baggage and as widely used as Futura is still irresistible to designers. More than 90 years after its creation, it is a fixture of Western visual culture—appearing everywhere from book covers to butter wrappers to BEWARE OF DOG signs.
Futura is the Forrest Gump of typefaces, a silent witness to an improbable number of the 20th century’s greatest triumphs and most terrible foibles. It appears on a military order announcing the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II and a Nazi labor permit dated 1943; decades later, the first men on the moon deposited a plaque that proclaimed, in all-caps Futura, “WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND.”
By the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Futura had become so ubiquitous—particularly in advertising and corporate identity—that a group of fed-up art directors took out a full-page ad calling for the industry to boycott Futura Extra Bold Condensed. They labeled it “the most overused typeface in advertising history.” (Nike and Absolut Vodka were a few of the biggest offenders.)
This oversaturation in the commercial sphere, says Thomas, made it a perfect tool for artists criticizing runaway capitalism. “Futura is the lingua franca of 20th-century advertising,” he explains. “So if you’re trying to critique commercialism, what better than to use the same visual language as the advertisers themselves?” Women artists were particularly adept at using the tools of advertising (including their typefaces) to critique its structures. “I think it’s a helpful corrective,” Thomas continues. “If you think of 1950s ‘Mad men’ using Futura to target women in a stereotypical housewife mold, I think it’s very significant that in the 1980s and ’90s, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and the Guerrilla Girls were turning these typographic messages back on advertisers.”
The Guerrilla Girls did this explicitly by creating posters with headlines like “When Racism & Sexism Are No Longer Fashionable, What Will Your Art Collection Be Worth?” and “Do women have to be naked to get Into the Met Museum?” (both from 1989). Using a potent mix of humor, statistics, and Futura Bold Extra Condensed, the Guerrilla Girls aimed for a wide audience. Like advertising, their work was mass-market, provocative, and ultimately disposable.
Kruger is less thorough in her embrace of advertising techniques than the Guerrilla Girls, but no less forceful in her feminist and anti-capitalist critiques. Once a graphic designer at Condé Nast, she is well-versed in the visual language of print advertising. Her short messages (“I shop therefore I am”; “We don’t need another hero”) suit the slickness of Futura Bold Oblique, and can initially be mistaken for cheeky ad copy. Her signature visual style, adopted in the early 1980s, situates white text inside a red box overlaying close-cropped, black-and-white photographs of women. By borrowing the visual tropes of advertising, then subverting them, Kruger draws our attention to both the tools and the underlying messages of consumerism.
“Kruger’s use of language is sharp and astute, but what if she’d used Times New Roman or Comic Sans instead?” says Thomas. “Her work would still be witty, but it wouldn’t have that same punch. It wouldn’t immediately tie back to the original advertisements by using the typeface of so many mass consumer brands. By using Futura, she makes that connection clearer and the criticism all the more pointed.”
In the end, it seems that Kruger was right to ignore that design-school maxim: “Never use Futura.”
Actor-cum-artist James Franco is at it again. In a new video commissioned by Sotheby’s for their Artist Response series—in which the auction powerhouse invites artists to create a work in response to one of their selling exhibitions—Franco chose to focus on “Glazed: The Legacy of the Della Robbia,” reinterpreting Italian Renaissance sculptures with clear goo. Lots and lots of clear goo.
The somewhat bizarre video, which clocks in at four minutes, portrays models assuming the poses of the sculptures on display in the exhibition, and being covered in a clear, sticky substance that pours in slow-motion from an unknown source above their heads.
“I was immediately struck by the vibrancy and shine of the glaze of the Della Robbia sculptures in this show, especially the human forms frozen in time as icons,” Franco explained in a press release. “To mimic and modernize these sculptures, I wanted to create living icons emphasizing the glazing process.”
One of the scenes from James Franco’s video for Sotheby’s. Photo courtesy Youtube.
The exhibition from which the video takes its inspiration, “Glazed: The Legacy of the Della Robbia,” displays 19 terracotta sculptures created by the Della Robbia family during the Renaissance in Florence. Franco’s re-staged interpretations include The Annunciate Virgin (1505/1510), Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, Blessing (1510/1520), and a coat of arms from 1510.
“For centuries, sculpture has been used decoratively and as iconography. The Della Robbia family created sculptures that take on both of those roles,” Franco said. “I filmed them in slow motion so the viewer relishes in the passage of time and can imagine the tangible feeling of the liquid covering each living sculpture.”
Actor-turned-artist James Franco has revealed that he was able to combine both his passions in his latest project.
His latest Hollywood film, Why Him, is a romantic comedy about an eccentric tattooed young internet billionaire, played by Franco, who falls in love with the daughter of Bryan Cranston’s character. The comedy follows the ensuing feud which unfolds between the two men.
The multi-talented actor—who has no real ink—personally designed much of the body art that adorns his character. “I drew some of them,” he told the US breakfast TV program Today. “And I don’t think this is [a] spoiler, but there’s a big tattoo on my back of the whole family.”
Bryan Cranston’s character in front of James Franco’s painting in the new romantic comedy Why Him. Photo: screenshot via YouTube.
He also revealed that numerous paintings featured in the movie are in fact versions his own artworks. “There’s a bunch of kind of silly paintings on the wall… some of them have been sold. They’re just replicas of the ones that have been sold.”
This isn’t the actor’s first foray into the realm of fine art. He suffered high-profile embarrassment in April 2014 when his homage to legendary photographer Cindy Sherman, which was controversially exhibited at New York’s Pace Gallery and widely panned by critics.
James Franco’s artworks in the new romantic comedy Why Him. Photo: screenshot via YouTube.
The Oscar-nominated actor also participated in a charitable project to raise money for the AIDS charity RED, giving fans the chance to win an artwork of their choice painted by Franco, in exchange for a donation of at least $10.