The typographic "modern"

Specimens for the typeface Univers, by Adrian Frutiger (1956).

Vestiges of Swiss Typography linger in the air at Yale; meanwhile, a sort of neo-Swiss style is back, particularly in techno music and electronica or on MTV, where young designers see it as “retro chic,” being relatively unaware of its history within the greater history of modern graphic design. This is, I think, because the Swiss Typographic movement has not been properly historicized. But it is also due to the fact that the era of modern typography ended with less of a bang than a whimper. The Swiss method was too extreme, too totalizing, for an American audience, and, soon after its export to the states, the needs of an ever-hungry graphic audience were ultimately satiated by the postmodernists at Cranbook, Michigan, or by the playful parodies of Swiss forms by Wolfgang Weingart. A new humanism was coming to graphic design, ready to replace the icy impersonality of late Modernity with a vulnerability and sincerity unseen since the demise of the Arts-and-Crafts movement at the start of the modern typographic era.

This turn was anticipated as early as 1949, when Gyoergy Kepes, a Hungarian emigre teaching at MIT, delivered an address at Harvard about the role of Functionalism (similar to Structuralism) in “Modern Design.” Kepes writes,

We tend to mistake the slogan for truth, the formula for the living form, the repetition of habit for cultural continuity. Inertia leads us to carry this dead body of lifeless thoughts around with us… Vigilance is needed [to combat] the intentional misuse of words and ideas.

He goes on to remind designers that

[D]esign is not for design’s sake…, design is for man. Man was at the root of [the ancients’] thought, and human function gave direction and measure to whatever they were doing… [Now], we’d rather see what we are looking for… We are passive men, lazy men, armchair onlookers… We must find those feelings in which and through which man’s bonds to nature and to other men can again be experienced… [In doing so], we can bring back the truest meaning of tradition, which is to realize in terms of today a living continuity with the genuine values of the past.

Kepes’ words anticipate the condemnation of Helvetica over 25 years later, when, around the same time, architect Robert Venturi offered this statement to an audience of fellow architects in Berlin during a talk called “Functionalism, Yes, But,”

Functionalist architecture was more symbolic than functional. It was symbolically functional. It represented function more than resulted from function… But the symbolism of functionalist architecture was unadmitted. It was a symbolism of no symbolism… Aesthetic qualities, if ever mentioned, were said to derive from the easy resolution of the never contradictory functional requirements of a program.