Futura Shock at Ikea, and Its Flat-Pack Heritage

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Call it a tempest in a VÄRME teapot.  Critics are protesting the new catalogue typeface of the global furniture chain Ikea. As TIME Magazine reports:

Branding has been a large part of the Swedish chain's success -- what urban dweller today, whether in Atlanta or Kuala Lumpur, doesn't recognize that bright blue warehouse, glowing like a beacon of fine living, at the side of the highway? And its signature typeface, a customized version of Futura, has long been an integral part of that brand. But with its 2010 catalogue now arriving in mailboxes, the supplier of headboards and coffee tables to the world's thrifty and trendy has switched to what it sees as a more functional typeface: Verdana. In the process, it has provoked an instantaneous global backlash, the kind that can only happen on the Internet.

What bothers the protestors is that Futura was an influential 1920s font that had long entered the modernist canon, whereas Verdana, released by Microsoft in the 1990s, is designed for optimal monitor display. As the official Microsoft typography site puts it -- using Verdana:

This isn't merely a revival of classical elegance and savoir faire; this is type designed for the medium of screen.

But that doesn't matter to some critics, who are using the Internet to protest technological change intended to optimize design for the Internet.

Verdana is a landmark in its own right. Its chief designer, Matthew Carter, is one of the world's most honored typographers. He also designed Georgia, the typeface you are reading now.

I asked my friend Charles Bigelow about Verdana. He's a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a former MacArthur Fellow, who co-designed the font Lucida Sans in 1985 -- a breakthrough in type engineered to be legible on screen as well as in print. His verdict (from a longer e-mail):

. . . even at a large size, Verdana has a clear, crisp look.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the face when used
in print. It has a different graphical style than Futura,
or Helvetica, or Lucida, but that's a good thing. It shows
the originality and creativity of the artist who designed
it. It is a great accomplishment. We should admire originality
and creativity in fonts, just as we do in music, art, and
literature.

The problem that most screen-optimized fonts have in print
is that the big x-heights, the wide shapes, the open spacing,
the careful reduction of fine details, all combine to make
the text image look too big, too strong, too aggressive,
and too simple. One way around this is to compose the text
at a smaller size than would be used for print-optimized
typefaces. As the printed text point size gets smaller,
the screen-optimized faces begin to look more amenable
in form, finer in detail, more subtle in texture.

In the specific case of the Ikea catalog, another issue
is that the same font is used for both text (small sizes)
and display (big sizes). This one-font-for-all-sizes
approach to design reduces the graphical complexity of
the typographic image. Many graphic designers and
typographers prefer to use different faces for text
an display, to create more complex harmonies and contrasts
in the type image.

Certainly, there are many beautiful books printed in one
typeface, such as Garamond or Baskerville, at different
text and display sizes, but those faces were designed for
traditional printing, not optimized for screen display,
and they have many subtle and charming features that emerge
in different ways at different sizes.

If Ikea had used Verdana only for the text sizes, and a
different typeface for display, or vice-versa, the flap
might never have occurred, because the typographic image
would have been more complex, more nuanced, and less
likely to attract or arouse strong criticism. 

And then there's the question of whether Futura was ever quite appropriate for Ikea in the first place. To some critics, Ikea's undeniably successful focus on cost-cutting and global sourcing compromises the ideals of interwar design. One of them, David Barringer, comments:

IKEA clearly tips the Bauhaus balance in favor of business. IKEA's success, however, might prove that consumers care less about the Bauhaus emphasis on lasting value and a humane society than they do about buying cheap stuff right now.

Ellen Ruppel Shell has made a similar point on this site. And as the critic Stephen Bayley recently wrote in the Guardian, flat-pack shipment of easily assembled furniture actually is 150 years old, the innovation of the (still existing) originally Vienna-based bentwood chair firm Thonet. Nineteenth-century globalization in this case was based not in Asia but in the forests of Central Europe, where skilled, strong men steamed and bent chair parts that were stacked and crated, to be reassembled (depending on the model) for elegant parlors or backwoods dives: 

Thonet_-_Mundus.gifSource: Wikimedia Commons

I wonder what images, and typefaces, will evoke early 21st-century Ikea 150 years from now.

Top Photo Credit: www.flickr.com/photos/colouredinks/440471470

(IInadvertently the original post omitted thanks to Steven Heller for the link to David Barringer's blog.)

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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