Blue Pencil no. 60—Die Schrift unserer Zeit

Front cover of Futura 1. (Frankfurt am Main: Bauersche Giesserei, 1927). Image courtesy of St. Bride Library.

Futura 1., the first specimen of Paul Renner’s groundbreaking Futura typeface contained an essay titled “Futura: Die Schrift für unserer Zeit” (usually translated as “Futura: The Type for Our Time”). The provocative title is well-known, but Renner’s actual text less so. It has never been translated in full into English. [1] An abridged version appeared as “Futura: The Type of Today and Tomorrow” in the first American specimens of Futura (c. 1930). [2] To remedy this lacuna, I asked friends in Germany and Switzerland to help with an English rendition of Renner’s complete German text. They provided me with a preliminary translation using machine programs (Google Translate and DeepL Translator) aided by some human intervention on their part. [3] This “beta” translation is reproduced below, accompanied by images of the essay pages from Futura 1. so that a comparison to the original German can be made. [4]

“Renner: Futura: Die Schrift unserer Zeit” title page from Futura 1. (Frankfurt am Main: Bauersche Giesserei, 1927). Image courtesy of St. Bride Library.

“Futura: Die Schrift unserer Zeit” p. [1] from Futura 1. (Frankfurt am Main: Bauersche Giesserei, 1927). Note the misspelling of unserer in the essay title. Image courtesy of St. Bride Library.

English Translation from the Original German Text
The bracketed blue numbers inserted into the translation of Renner’s text indicate my notes explaining  or commenting on some of his references.

[p. 1]

A NEW THOUGHT UNDERLAYS THIS TYPEFACE. This distinguishes it from all similar-looking artistic sans serifs. [5] Futura does not intend to contribute to the eclecticism of our printing types by personalizing a form uncritically taken from tradition. It is not based on a model at all but led to forms that are similar to the sans serif, by the idea inherent in it.

WE HAVE OUR OWN PERIOD STYLE TODAY. It does not fill up every corner of the country with its buildings, but neither did the styles of earlier periods. The style of a time is always more an idea than a reality; it is always more premonition than present; it is the conception of a world of forms, in which the soul of the time finds its most honest expression. The artists serve this anonymous will to form, which prevails in all areas of life even without them. This is how the buildings of young Europe came into being; but also the noble forms of cars and airplanes, sailing yachts and ocean liners, machines, and bridges. In this world of forms, the historical typefaces seem strange, just as we would be surprised to see a Renaissance ornament on the light fabric that envelops the trained body of the modern woman.

THE TYPE OF THIS TIME CAN NOT BE OBTAINED BY EXTERNAL ADAPTATION OF THE HISTORICAL LETTERFORMS TO THE STRUCTURES OF THE NEW ARCHITECTURE. [6] Letters, too, must follow the arduous path that has led the other arts from the historicism of the past to the new style. When Gottfried Semper declared fifty years ago that art should be the product of utility, raw material, and technology, he was undoubtedly wrong. [7] But this Semperian concept, which today is probably only believed in Moscow, [8] helped art out of the dead end of historicism faster than the wisdom of art and science, for which our time is only now becoming receptive. How was that possible? Because the product of utility, raw material, and technology is, if certainly not art, then the work component of the work of art; this is the task set for the artist, which he must consider, like the sniper his target. [p. 2] It is fatal to every art if it disguises the stock of work with false stocks of work to the point of invisibility; this, however, was the particular danger of an art that began with the wooden construction of the Doric temple translated into stone and ended in the imitation of style and material of the nineteenth century. [9]

“Futura: Die Schrift unserer Zeit” p. 2 from Futura 1. (Frankfurt am Main: Bauersche Giesserei, 1927). Image courtesy of St. Bride Library.

OUR TIME PREFERS THE ARTLESS STOCKPILE OF TECHNICAL FORMS OVER ANY ART THAT ALLOWS SENSELESS FORMS OR FORMS ONLY COMPREHENSIBLE ONLY TO THE ART HISTORIAN. The technical form is convincing because it seems to be required by its function, its material, and its treatment, and not otherwise. And yet it can be as beautiful as anything in art and nature. But even those whose artistic judgment is distorted understand this beauty. (If the technical style in house-building and household goods still has opponents, it is because of ineradicable snobbery. Especially in the cities that are growing there is a weakness for historical building forms; and the new rich prefer to set themselves up in the arrogant styles of the courtly nobility of earlier centuries, to forget the narrow and cramped conditions in which their forefathers lived. Old culture, which always shines through most brightly where the present has become threadbare, has its charm; but one should not confuse it with this feigned need for recognition).

EVEN THE TYPE OF OUR TIME CAN ONLY BE FOUND BY GOING BACK TO THE PURE WORK STOCK. In the case of handwriting, the work stock is plain to see. Every detail results from the movement of the writing hand, from the peculiarity of the writing tool and the writing material. This is precisely what distinguishes medieval writing from the calligraphy of the recent decadent time: [10] it serves its simple purpose with the self-forgetfulness that is inherent in all great handcrafted art. The later writing masters lack this objectivity; they want to show the skill of their hand. [11] In the case of classical typefaces, the work of the written script is still recognizable despite the completely changed technical conditions of letterpress printing. [12] [p. 3] And even if we find it understandable that the Medicis, who were spoiled by the medieval manuscript, had reservations about printed books in their library, it must be admitted that the interweaving of two technical collections can produce works of great artistic value. [13]

“Futura: Die Schrift unserer Zeit” p. 3 from Futura 1. (Frankfurt am Main: Bauersche Giesserei, 1927). Image courtesy of St. Bride Library.

The Japanese woodblock print and the medieval Dürer are examples of this. [14] They do not reproduce brush and quill drawings mechanically faithful, but with great artistic tact, in such a way that one recognizes both the tool of the draftsman and the woodcutter. We also encounter this rhythm in classical typefaces.

But even in the neoclassical roman, the work is obscured beyond recognition. [15] It is modeled on the lettering of the engravers, but the engraver already had the image of a broad nib-based letter in mind. Now the punchcutter’s burin must follow exactly what the engraver of the model found convenient to cut. The newer typefaces then degenerate completely into misunderstood formalism; forms of writing and engraving are adopted from other typefaces without trying to make their meaning clear.

The best typefaces of our time show the effort to achieve an artistically balanced production of the handwriting by the engraver. BUT THE TYPE OF OUR TIME CAN NOT COME FROM HANDWRITING. Can you reproduce something that you no longer have? Modern handwriting is not legible enough; one has to go back to the example of medieval scribes. The noble art of writing books was abruptly destroyed during its miraculous flowering through the invention of mechanically-reproduced book type. After Gutenberg, there was no longer any art of writing, only calligraphy. And a new book typeface is about as likely to emerge from the artistic-writing trade of our own day as new Latin from the poetic efforts of the classicists. Letterpress printing can only achieve the beauty that is possible for it, its peculiar beauty, which handwriting can never compete with if it stops seeing handwriting as its model. [p. 4]

“Futura: Die Schrift unserer Zeit” p. 4 from Futura 1. (Frankfurt am Main: Bauersche Giesserei, 1927). Image courtesy of St. Bride Library.

FINALLY, THE TYPE OF OUR TIME HAS TO CONFRONT THE INVENTION OF LETTER CASTING. We must get used to the idea that printed type has nothing to do with writing, that it is an imprint of metal (book) sorts, of reading characters that combine to form word pictures. The reading eye does not follow the traits of the individual character, it does not allow itself to be guided by the ductus of the individual form, but rather grasps word images resting on the paper above as they fly. Printed type can, therefore, without losing legibility, dispense with any dynamic that is alien to its function and which reminds us of remnants of the writing hand; it can become static form seen from above.

FUTURA HAS DARED TO ATTEMPT THIS FOR THE FIRST TIME. Futura has robbed the lowercase letters of their dynamic movement from left to right, giving them the calmness that has always been inherent in capitals. [16] And it has gone one step further. It has reduced the lowercase letters to the formal principle of the simplest, most elementary surfaces, to which the Roman capitals owe their easy comprehensibility, and thus a quite different élan, namely of a spiritual kind. The capital letter now no longer falls out of step with the lowercase letters, due to its own rhythm and foreign shaping; this is an advantage that is especially beneficial for the German language with its amassment of capital letters. [17]

The joining of the characters by means of in-strokes and out-strokes [18] is not for the convenience of reading, but for the convenience of writing. Print can do without them. The fact that in the visual arts the sum of the parts becomes a unified whole that can be conceived as a unit is not brought about by the external connection of the parts, but by their construction and by a happily chosen relationship of the parts to each other. It is not just small ticks, but rather the “spiritual bond” that connects many individual forms into a coherent form. [p. 5] Futura has therefore tried to present the form of each character in the simplest, plainest way possible, without regard for the basic stroke components that are peculiar to the writing tool. Now, even with Futura, the strokes—measured under a magnifying glass—are never exactly the same. But this difference doe not have its basis outside the work of a printing type, and not in the memory of the appearance of a written script. The difference in the thickness of the strokes is that all the strokes appear equally thick and the image of the page does not show any dark spots. Thus the typeface has become particularly suitable for bringing out the difference between a Light [mager], Bold [halbfett], and Black [fette] weight as an ELEMENTARY COLOR DISTINCTION, without reliance on the cramped emphasis that clings to the thick stroke of the pen. [19]

This is the concept behind Futura. No concept is realized for the first time without the rest. But the concept is correct. It is at least so today.          PAUL RENNER 

“Futura: Die Schrift unserer Zeit” p. 5 from Futura 1. (Frankfurt am Main: Bauersche Giesserei, 1927). Image courtesy of St. Bride Library.

Front cover of Futura: The Type of Today and Tomorrow (New York: The Bauer Type Foundry, Inc., c.1930). Image courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

American specimen text
Prior to the text above, the only English translation of Renner’s essay was an edited version that appeared in the first two specimens of Futura produced for the American market. The earliest of them, titled Futura: The Type of Today and Tomorrow, was a portfolio consisting of a folded sheet with an abridged translation of the Renner essay, an 8-page signature showing Futura Light and Futura Bold, and six sheets showing the Futura typefaces in sample designs. Its design and format mimicked Futura 1. [20]

I am reproducing the text of Futura: The Type of Today and Tomorrow below both to make it more widely available and to enable a comparison with Renner’s original text. Once again I have inserted bracketed numbers in blue to signal notes about the text,

“Futura: The Type of Today and Tomorrow” p. [1] from Futura: The Type of Today and Tomorrow (New York: The Bauer Type Foundry, Inc., c.1930). Image courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

[p. 1]
THE FIRST IMPRESSION OF  “FUTURA” MAY BE THAT OF A GOTHIC LETTER. [21] The type expert, however, will soon discover a difference in design which sets it distinctly apart from all sans serifs of similar appearance, for a new idea has been embodied in this type. It has not been developed from a prototype. It has assumed a similarity to the sans serif letters through its innate qualities. It does not aim to contribute to the eclecticism of type forms by personal interpretation of a traditional letter.

IN FINE AND APPLIED ARTS WE HAVE DISTINCT MANIFESTATIONS OF A CONTEMPORARY STYLE. It does not fill every corner of the land and has not in former periods. A style is always more of an ideal than a reality. It is always conception rather than actuality. It is the conception of a world of forms in which the genius of the period finds ultimate expression. Artists serve this anonymous command for a new form which would ultimately advance with or without the artist’s help, – just as a new architecture has arisen; just as the designs of automobiles and aeroplanes [sic], sailing vessels and ocean steamers, machines and bridges, have been evolved. In this world of form, “period” type appears as alien as a renaissance ornament on the light fabric covering the athletic form of the woman of today. [22]

THE TYPE OF OUR TIME CANNOT BE ATTAINED BY SUPERFICIAL ADAPTION [sic] OF THE LINE AND MOTIF OF MODERN ARCHITECTURE AND APPLIED ART TO THE FORMS OF A TRADITIONAL LETTER. Typography must also follow the irksome path which led the other arts out of the eclecticism of the past into a new style. Our period prefers raw material and purely technical forms to any design based on historical motifs understood only by the historian and student of art. The technical form convinces because its function is evident: its material and handling indicate that it was created for a definite purpose. It can be as beautiful as any phenomena in art and nature and its beauty understood even by those whose artistic judgment has been distorted.

“Futura: The Type of Today and Tomorrow” p. [2] from Futura: The Type of Today and Tomorrow (New York: The Bauer Type Foundry, Inc., c.1930). Image courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

THE TYPE OF OUR TIME CAN EVOLVE ONLY FROM A RETURN TO BASIC ELEMENTS. In the case of handwriting the tools are clearly evident. Every peculiarity is the result of [p. 2] the writing hand, of the characteristics of the tools and materials used. The very fact that the writing of the middle ages serves a simple, utilitarian purpose with the consequent self-oblivion which characterizes all true craftsmanship, distinguishes it from the calligraphy of the period of decline. The court hands of later periods lack this very essential: their aim is a display of skill. [23]

The characteristics of the writing hand still predominate in the incunabula in spite of entirely altered technical conditions brought about by the invention of printing. And, although we can understand the Medici, accustomed as they were to the beauty of the medieval manuscript, hesitating to add printed books to their library, we must on principle acknowledge that works of high artistic merit can ensue from interlocking two entirely different techniques.

The woodcuts of the Japanese, as well as of Durer, serve as examples. These do not reproduce the brush or quill drawing with mechanic faithfulness, but display such outstanding tact that one readily recognizes both: the hand of the draftsman and that of the wood engraver. We encounter the same tact in the works of masters of early printing.

The degeneration of printing type begins as early as the latter part of the eighteenth century when punch cutters of the time begin to imitate in relief a technique belonging strictly to intaglio. [24] They thereby conceal to an unrecognizable degree qualities innate to relief-printing, injecting characteristics foreign to its material components. Still later types completely degenerate into misunderstood formalism. Styles of writing and intaglio-forms are adapted for other types without any effort being expended to explain their sense and meaning. The best types of recent times display an effort at harmonizing the freedom of the manuscript hand with the technical preciseness of the punch cutter. But a renascence of the medieval manuscript letter does not symbolically express the spirit of our time nor can modern handwriting serve as an inspiration for a contemporary type. From the modern calligrapher one would just as readily expect a new type as one would expect a new latin from the poetic efforts of the classical philologists. For cut type we refer again and again to the examples of the classic hand of the medieval scribe whose [p. 3] art was suddenly thrown from its peak by the invention of printing. Printing can attain its own individual beauty, with which handwriting can never compete, only when it ceases seeing its prototype in handwriting.

“Futura: The Type of Today and Tomorrow” p. [3] from Futura: The Type of Today and Tomorrow (New York: The Bauer Type Foundry, Inc., c.1930). Image courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

THE LETTER OF OUR TIME MUST FINALLY ACCEPT THE CONSEQUENCES RESULTING FROM THE INVENTION OF TYPE CUTTING AND CASTING. We must ultimately familiarize ourselves with the idea that printing from type has nothing whatsoever to do with handwriting. [25] It is an impression from metal letters: symbols that form themselves into word images. The reading eye does not follow the continuity of a type design but grasps, bird’s-eye-like, groups of word images mirrored on the paper. Printing type can afford therefore, without loss of legibility, to repudiate dynamic tendencies – reminiscences of the writing hand – and assume more abstract, static forms, adequate to its nature.

FUTURA ATTEMPTS, FOR THE FIRST TIME,  TO PRESENT THE FORM OF CHARACTERS IN THE MOST ABSTRACT MANNER CONCEIVABLE, a letter without hairline and the heavy strokes which are innate qualities of writing tools. Through the magnifying glass the letters of Futura are never of quite equal weight. This difference is not due to technical inadequacies, not due to the recollection of manuscript letter. These variations, derived from the recognition of optical illusion, bring about an equal distribution of color. Gradations of the classic letters cannot be achieved without convulsive efforts innate to the heavy penstroke. Futura stresses more emphatically the distinctions between its light, medium and heavy faces. These are the underlying thoughts of Futura. We are fully aware of the fact that no thought can be realized to perfection on the first attempt. However, the thoughts are correct… At least today.         Paul Renner

Renner’s essay in German is approximately 2000 words long while the American version is a little less than 1300 words, or only about two-thirds the size of the original. [26] Thus, much of what he said was excised for the American audience. The section on Semperian theory (p. 1) was significantly cut down; the entire paragraph beginning “OUR TIME PREFERS THE ARTLESS STOCKPILE OF TECHNICAL FORMS…” (p. 2) has been deleted; the discussion about the relationship of calligraphy and type (p. 3) has been rewritten and shortened; and the explanation of Futura’s radical design of the lowercase to harmonize with the capitals (p. 4) has been severely truncated.

Many of these changes seem to be for the better as Renner’s arguments are sharper in the American version, though much of what he is saying remains oblique or only fully understandable to a German audience.

1. Renner’s essay is not included in Futura: The Typeface edited by Petra Eisele, Annette Ludwig and Isabel Naegele (London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2017). One small portion is quoted in “Between Antiquity and the Avant-Garde” by Isabel Naegele (see p. 33), but it is taken from a version included in Die Form vol. 2, no. 4 (1927), pp. 109–110 rather than from the specimen. Another small portion is quoted in “New Frankfurt — New Architecture” by Petra Eisele and Isabel Naegele (see p. 81). Other quotations by Renner about the ideas behind Futura in the book are taken from “Paul Renner on his typeface ‘Futura'” in Börsenblatt für den deutschen Buchhandel vol. 94, no. 220 (20 September 1927), pp. 1134–1135 and “Über die Schrift der Zukunft” in Typographische Mitteilungen vol. 25, no. 8 (August 1928), pp. 189–192.
2. The cover of Futura: The Type of Today and Tomorrow [with no date provided] is reproduced at thumbnail size on p. 331 as part of “Futura and American Advertising” by Steven Heller in Futura: The Typeface edited by Petra Eisele, Annette Ludwig and Isabel Naegele (London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2017). But Heller says nothing substantive about the introduction of Futura to the United States and ignores Renner’s essay entirely.
3. Since the translation is not fully polished, my friends wish to remain anonymous. I welcome corrections as well as suggestions for a more felicitous or accurate translation.
4. The text of both the beta English translation from the German in Futura 1. and the abridged English text in Futura: The Type of Today and Tomorrow have been set justified to mimic the original justified setting of both type specimens. Unfortunately, I have not been able to recreate the flush right position of Renner’s name at the end of each text.
5. The reference to “artistic sans serifs” seems to be a swipe by Renner at Erbar Grotesk by Jakob Erbar (Ludwig & Mayer 1926) rather than a complaint about Art Nouveau sans serifs such as Secession (Berthold 1900).
6. The “New Architecture” refers generally to the “Neues Bauen” movement in Germany in the 1920s, but more specifically to the Neue Frankfurt activities of architect Ernst May. See the publication Das neue Frankfurt (1926-1933). For Renner’s link to May see “New Frankfurt — New Architecture” by Petra Eisele and Isabel Naegele in Futura: The Typeface edited by Petra Eisele, Annette Ludwig and Isabel Naegele (London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2017).
7. Gottfried Semper (1803–1879) was a German architect and art critic. His most influential book was Der Stil in den technischen und tektonischen Künsten oder Praktische Ästhetik: Ein Handbuch für Techniker, Künstler und Kunstfreunde (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag für Kunst und Wissenschaft, 1860) [Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts; or Practical Aesthetics translated by Harry Francis Mallgrave and Michael Robinson (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2004)]. Semper’s theory of art was derived from Greek classicism.
8. Renner is probably referring to the “rigorously functional design” of Constructivist architects in Soviet Russia after the 1917 Revolution.
9. Renner is referring to a theory originated by Vitruvius that the triglyphs and metopes of Doric stone buildings derived from beams in earlier wooden temples. This theory influenced the historicism of late 19th century architecture.
10. The “calligraphy of the recent decadent time” suggests a critique of the mannered lettering of Jugendstil and Secessionist artists between 1895 and 1914. However, see note 11.
11. “[L]ater writing masters” wanting to “show the skill of their hand” is clearly a description of the French and Dutch writing masters of the Baroque era, such as Jan van de Velde (1568–1623) and Louis Barbedor (1589–1670).
12. Classical typefaces are Renaissance-Antiqua (using the nomenclature of the DIN 16518 system) types such as those of Francesco Griffo and Claude Garamont.
13. Lorenzo Medici preferred the luxury of handmade books to printed ones prior to the 1490s.
14. Japanese woodblock print are ukiyo-e. “[M]edieval Dürer” woodcut prints refers to the work of Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528).
15. Neoclassical typefaces are Klassizistische Antiqua (using the nomenclature of the DIN 16518 system) types such as those of Firmin Didot, Giambattista Bodoni, and Justus Erich Walbaum.
16. Renner is describing his attempt to resolve the inherent tension between roman capitals, derived from inscriptional models, and roman lowercase letters, derived from pen-made forms.
17. The German language capitalizes all nouns. See A History of the German Language through Texts by Thomas Gloning and Christopher Young (London and New York: Routledge, 2004) for the history of this practice. This distinctive aspect of German influenced Herbert Bayer and others in the 1920s who advocated for a unicase typography. Renner may have had Bayer’s Universal Alphabet, first proposed in 1925, in mind when he made this claim for Futura.
18. A better translation might be “entry and exit strokes”.
19. Renner specifically means the broad-edged pen which makes thick and thin strokes as it moves through space. See The Stroke of the Pen by Gerrit Noordzij (The Hague: Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten, 1982) on the distinction between how a broad-edged pen and a pointed pen work and the implications each has on he appearance and development of letterforms.
20. This description is based on Futura: The Type of Today and Tomorrow (New York: The Bauer Type Foundry Inc. [1930]) at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (call number Z250.5.F88 B38 1930X). The specimen was printed in Germany.
21. “Gothic letter” in an American context refers to 19th century-style sans serif types such as News Gothic, Trade Gothic, and Franklin Gothic.
22. Although Renner is probably commenting on the type revival trend—led by American Type Founders, the Monotype Corporation, Stempel, and others—that had been gathering steam since 1914, “‘period’ type” would have had a different resonance to an American audience. It would have been linked with “period typography,” a typographic approach in which typefaces were chosen based on their historical associations with the content of a design. Period typography was commonly discussed in American trade publications of the time, especially by E.G. Gress, editor of The American Printer. His writings on the topic were subsequently gathered in Fashions in American Typography 1780 to 1930: With Brief Illustrated Stories of the Life and Environment of the American People in Seven Periods and Demonstrations of E. G. G.’s Fresh Note American Period Typography by Edmund G. Gress (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1931).
23. Court hands are informal documentary styles of writing as opposed to formal book hands. The term is most often associated with English handwriting of the Middle Ages and Elizabethan period. But Renner is more likely to have had in mind the later baroque calligraphy of Van de Velde, Barbedor, and the 18th century English writing masters such as George Shelley than Secretary hand. Or, he may have been thinking of the fraktur calligraphy of Johann Neudörffer the Elder (1497–1563)—author of Ein Gute Ordnung und kurtze unteruct—and the calligraphers of the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg monarchy. Their hands are described as Kanzlei (chancery).
24. Renner is pointing out the shift in the design of typefaces that is commonly associated with the work of Firmin Didot and Giambattista Bodoni in the last quarter of the 18th century. Their typefaces, now described as Neoclassical, show the influence of writing with a pointed pen or lettering engraved into copper plates with a burin. For an example see Kurtze und gründlich Andweisung nach er neuesten Art zierlich, zu Schreiben (plate following “Avis au Lecteur”).
25. The relationship between calligraphy and type has been a contentious one with some type designers (e.g. Sumner Stone) asserting the importance of understanding calligraphy as a foundation for type design and others (e.g. Zuzana Licko) seeing it as irrelevant for contemporary practice. In Renner’s day the link between calligraphy and type design would have been especially associated in Germany with the Gebr. Klingspor foundry and their designers Rudolf Koch (1876–1934) and Walter Tiemann (1876–1951).
26. This word count is approximate. It is based on the old copyfitting method of multiplying the number of words (defined as five characters) in a sample line multiplied by the number of lines in a text.