From the Archives no. 26—Helvetica and Univers

During a visit to the Herb Lubalin Study Center at Cooper Union I flipped through some early issues of U&lc. In the first issue (vol. 1, no. 1 1974) I came across a three-page advertisement from Mergenthaler Linotype (labeled an article by them) in which the first page (p. 43) was devoted to an announcement of two new weights of Helvetica. Entitled “Everything you ever wanted to know about Helvetica—but were afraid to ask” (a nod to the popular book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)[1969] by Dr. David Reuben), it introduces Helvetica Thin and Helvetica Heavy by summarizing the history of Helvetica and explaining the need for these new weights.

It is an interesting text. In explaining the roles of Eduard Hoffmann and Max Miedinger in the development of Neue Haas Grotesk (later renamed Helvetica) it mentions Hoffmann’s supervision of Hermann Eidenbenz’s design of Haas Clarendon (1951). “Haas Clarendon stands to earlier Egyptians and Clarendons in much the same way that Helvetica stands to earlier Gothics and sansserifs [sic]. The two faces appear to be the work of the same mind, demonstrating the force of Hoffmann’s ideas and his central part in the creation of these two designs,” it says. The text aptly compares the Hoffmann/Miedinger collaboration to that of Stanley Morison and Victor Lardent in the creation of Times New Roman: “…so Max Miedinger did the work that made Edouard Hoffman’s [sic] conception a reality.”

The chronology of the transformation of Neue Haas Grotesk into Helvetica and from foundry type to Linotype matrices given here is slightly different from what is commonly accepted today.


In 1961, the parent company of HAAS [sic], D. Stempel AG at Frankfurt, picked up the design for production in Germany. They made a few changes in narrowing the bold face and adapting the italic, so that italic and bold could be duplexed with the basic design on Linotype matrices, which were released in 1963. Unable to market a new Stempel face under the name New Haas Grotesque [sic], they looked for a name that would embody the spirit of the type and settled, at Walter Cunz’ suggestion, on Helvetica. At first, Hoffman [sic] was shocked, declaring that Helvetica was the name of the country [Helvetia was the Roman name for Switzerland] and unsuitable for a typeface. Stempel used it anyway—and several months later HAAS adapted it for themselves.

In 1964, Stempel’s American parent company, Mergenthaler Linotype Company, with Linotype & Machinery in England, recognized the value of the design and manufactured it for the Linotype.”

It was actually Linotype GmbH (known informally as German Linotype), not Mergenthaler Linotype, that was Stempel’s parent company. It had a majority interest in the foundry since 1941 and took it over entirely in 1985. Linotype’s official historyThe advertisement does not say so, but the American/English version of Helvetica for the Linotype was not available until early 1965.

The advertisement goes on to explain the erratic Helvetica family, describing some of the confusion over the names of individual members. “Since the original design, Helvetica has grown into a large series with condensed and extended versions in four weights: Lichte or Light; Helvetica Roman; Helvetica Halbfett, literally to be translated as half fat, Bold on the machine and photocomposition versions but Medium or Semi-Bold on the handset; and Fett, literally translated as fat, or Black on the machine and photocomposition versions but Bold on the handset type.” What is missing here is Helvetica Bold no. 2 (Helvetica Halbfett no. 2), designed in 1973, that further muddied things.

“Since the series [of Helvetica weights] was not planned as a whole from its conception,” the advertisement goes on to say, “as was the case with Univers, the series is not as uniform as Univers. When selecting a typeface the perfect forms of Helvetica in the normal widths and weights are the obvious choice if only a few versions are needed. Where a broad range of weights, widths and italics are required in a single job, Univers is the logical choice.” This astonishing endorsement of Univers, in an advertisement devoted to Helvetica, can only be explained through an understanding of the complex company history of Linotype, Stempel, Haas and Deberny & Peignot (the foundry that created Univers). In 1972 Haas took over Deberny & Peignot, thus uniting the rivals Helvetica and Univers under one roof. Since Stempel had a part interest in Haas—the connection that led Neue Haas Grotesk to become Helvetica—Univers became available for manufacture on the Linotype machine by German Linotype. This occurred, with the slope of its italics changed from 18° to 12° to fit the demands of duplexing, in 1974. And thus Univers ended up as a Mergenthaler Linotype face alongside Helvetica.

Note: Eduard Hoffmann’s name is spelled Edouard Hoffman and Neue Haas Grotesk is rendered in English as New Haas Grotesque throughout the advertisement.