Hail Helvetica!

The crisp Swiss typeface Helvetica turns 50 this year, and to mark that occasion it’s becoming the first typeface to enter MoMA’s permanent collection, in the shape of an original set of 36-point lead letterforms. (The museum, however maintains its own official type, “MoMA Gothic,” a variation on Franklin Gothic.) Today, MoMA opens “50 Years of Helvetica,” a design show including vintage New York City subway signs, an excerpt from Gary Hustwit’s 2007 documentary Helvetica, and, yes, an American Apparel ad. What makes this neutral font (not to be confused with Microsoft’s pale imitation, Arial) so universally beloved, showcased on everything from the Crate & Barrel catalogue to nineties house-music album covers?

It communicates without imposing itself,” says the show’s curator, Christian Larsen. “It’s the face of postwar modernism.” The subway-map designer Massimo Vignelli is one of Helvetica’s biggest cheerleaders — but it wasn’t always so popular. “For postmodernists, Helvetica became the typeface of conformity, because it was adopted by so many governments and businesses,” says Larsen. “Interestingly, though, it’s going through a revival; younger designers are subverting the clean, corporate aesthetic, coupling it with cheeky images.” The curator admits to a slight preference for Univers but notes, “The New York subway system is so easy to navigate — I think that’s because it’s Helvetica.”
Karen Rosenberg