Trends in Typography: Gothics Lose Ground

Typographers who can recall the days when sans serif types were of secondary importance in the typographic marketplace are undoubtedly the best customers of their respective hatters. It is beginning to appear that even the younger members of the profession will spend their entire careers under the primacy of the skeleton letters. Is interesting to note, though, that from time to time a small rebellion is mounted.

The insurrection that is now becoming evident in national advertising all probably never amount to a complete defiance of the post-war trend which has elevated the gothic types to such a dominant position. But it is just standard intramural mutiny, since the types now returning to favor are also sans serif, differing from the gothics only in style. Futura is one of them, and even more so significantly, so is Kabel.

The Bauhaus Influence

It was in the mid-twenties that the exponents of the Bauhaus experiments in design were successful in translating their ideas into printer’s types. The architect, Paul Renner, created a radical alphabet which was thoroughly revised by the Bauer foundry and issued under the name of Futura. At the same time the Klingspor foundry produced a sans serif type design by Rudolf Koch and named Kabel.

While both of these types found immediate favor, it soon became evident that the Futura design was the better one. Favoring Futura was the inescapable fact that it represented a more drastic departure from traditional letterforms. Koch, a conventional type designer, was less effective by the “functional” precepts of the Bauhaus and turned out type which was more dependent upon the classic roman forms.

At a time when the “in” typographers on Madison Avenue were wallowing in black ink, with such types as Ultra Bodoni, Broadway, Cooper Black, etc., the new sans serif types represented us sprightly and invigorating advance. Consequently they were an immediate success, and by 1930 they were available from every typefoundry in typesetting machine manufacturer. Futura emerged as the preferred style, being widely copied under a variety of names.

Sans Serif in 1816

Sans serif types were of course not unknown in 1926. When William Caslon IV placed such a tight in his 1816 specimen book, he supplied a very-much-needed type for the then emerging “jobbing” or commercial printer who felt himself to be considerably restricted with the existing typefaces which had been created primarily for the printing of books. During the 19th century the style—misnamed “gothic” here in the United States—became the principal display type.

About the turn-of-the-century many of the gothic types presently available were produced by the foundries. The American typefounders Company, between 1903 in 1908, issued Franklin Gothic, Alternate Gothic, News Gothic, and Lightline Gothic, all designed by Morris Benton. The German gothics which are now known as Standard and Venus emerged during the same period.

All of these types, however, were caught up short by the popularity of Cheltenham, which took the country by storm, retaining its prominence until the twenties as the foremost type for advertising. Another factor which restrain the use of gothics was the rising interest in the classic types under the influence of the private press movement following the example of William Morris at the Kelmscott Press.

New Look in Sans Serif

The gothics received a further setback upon the introduction of Futura and Kabel. Even though cast in the serif was mold of their Bauhaus brethren, the older designs were ridiculed as being Victorian. The typesetter who dare to offer News Gothic when Futura was specified ran the risk of alienating a customer.

The primary reason for this rejection was that the gothics, being modeled upon standard roman letters, retains some of the familiar features of their forebears. There was a certain amount of contrasting strokes, and normal forms of lowercase a and g were maintained.

The Futura design was the very antithesis of the classical roman letter. A monotone, geometric form, pristine in its isolation from the norm, it represented everything that was apparently right for the age and was without question the exemplification of the New Typography. The esteem in which the type was held last into the 1950s, except for a slight falling out in the mid-thirties when the square serif types created a mild flurry.

Fifteen years ago, the gothics were revived, beginning with their extended versions, such as Venus extrabold extended. Almost immediately all of the forgotten styles were in great demand, and those foundries which had held on to their old matrices considered themselves most fortunate.

After several years of revivals, it became obvious that this was no ordinary fad. The typefounders became aware that mere revivals were no longer satisfactory. Thus began the creation of the “new” gothics in series containing up to 20 variations of weight and width.

Naturally enough, the avant-garde typographers—inspired by the Swiss school of design—were most enthusiastic at this turn of events. The tide rolled along unabated, until gothic types were sovereign as the types supposedly most expressive of our era.

Gothic and Antique-Gothic

During this period there have been a few blips on the screen which represent a slight throwback. The types of Hermann Zapf are most representative of this retrogression from the true faith. Optima, Melior, and Palatino have had their moments in the sun, along with Times Roman. Fred Goudy would be amused to know that Goudy Bold has maintained a consistent popularity with distillers.

But by and large, the gothics (or Grotesques, as the Europeans call them) have been in the ascendancy. Every typesetter’s specimen book is expressive of their infinite variety.

Perhaps the turning point is approaching. The obvious lack of variety is beginning to pall. The first tentative steps to at least a personal rejection of the homogeneity of the gothics is taking place, but the typographers seem to be trending cautiously. They turned to Futura, and old love, but they also experiment with Kabel. It is still a sans serif, but many of its unique characters are a reminder of its relationship to roman. Could it be that we might look forward to a slackening of the enthusiasm for the sterile gothics that make every message look alike and seeing a resurgence of roman types once again.

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the November 1967 issue of Printing Impressions.


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