Spring 2003

Homage to ‘The Beatles of typefaces’

Helvetica: Homage to a typeface

Edited by Lars Müller
Lars Müller Publishers, Euro 26

This small (164 mm x 124 mm) but substantial hardback is a provocative visual essay dedicated to the typeface everybody loves to disdain. After a short introduction that sings the praises of this ‘shift worker’ among typefaces, designer-publisher-editor-author Müller presents an entertaining sequence: 64 French-folded leaves of Helvetica in action. Examples range from Paul Rand’s children’s books to the French political posters from 1968; from sober functionalism (Hartmann, Rambow) to 21st-century re-invention (Neville Brody’s recent designs for Issey Miyake, Norm) via playfulness (Thonik, Experimental Jetset) irony (Form, Designers Republic) and deafening volume (nl.design).

Müller has also collected some brief comments, set in small type at the side or foot of a page, that create a running discussion with the images: ‘Helvetica is The Beatles of typefaces’ say Experimental Jetset, under a spread of recent rock / pop album covers. Müller places a frosty Erik Spiekermann remark about ‘the apathetic path of least resistance’ under a 1970s poster by Peter Bradford using stretched and twisted uppercase Helvetica as its sole component. There are paeans from Makoto Saito and Alexander Gelman, and gruff dismissals from Wolfgang Weingart and David Carson, while J. Abbott Miller compares Helvetica’s uppercase ‘R’ to Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Man in the Polyester Suit. Future generations of typespotters may curse (or thank) him for this vivid insight.

A parallel book is hidden away inside the folded pages – the reader prepared to tear the perforations can enjoy a poetic sequence of spreads showing photographs of everyday examples – official, vernacular – of the typeface. In these uncaptioned pictures, Helvetica is a weary urban worker, often showing signs of distress. But where others might feel despair, Müller celebrates, stating in his brief introduction that ‘Helvetica is the perfume of the city.’

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