Friday, May 8, 2009
Helvetica House, Garamond House
I was looking at real estate listings last night, and recognizing that most of the houses I liked were too expensive and most of the houses I could afford were covered with vinyl siding. And that got me to wondering about the state of the art in prefabricated housing, so I got to poking around online and discovered that IKEA, the "flat-pack" furniture store giant, has partnered with Skanska, the international construction administration giant, to create flat-pack housing.
The BoKlok system, as they call it (supposedly Swedish for "live smart"), comes in two flavors: row housing of multiple-sized units, and six-unit apartment buildings. Several thousand have been built, and people who live in and near them seem to think they're quite nice, and certainly affordable.
But when I visited the website, what I was most struck by was their logo. Anyone who's ever been in an IKEA store recognizes almost everything about that logo instantly. The square text box, the blue and yellow corporate colors, and especially the all-capped, tightly-tracked Helvetica font.
The 20th century was really the Helvetica century in design. We embraced the clean, the sharp, the unadorned, the bold. We were done with the serif-font past, done with the fillips and gewgaws of our embarrassing Victorian history.
One of the things that's so appealing about Helvetica architecture is that it implies simplicity and purity in the context of our lives, which have gotten so hectic and overcrowded. Most of us don't lead Helvetica lives -- my Bjursta dining table is covered with mail, my Roger chairs are grey with cat hair, and my Unni rug needs vacuuming. My Ikea Modern furniture mocks me, an assembly of austere monks who disapprove of my scattered and unfocused ways.
Personally, I'm more of a Garamond person. Garamond is a comfortable font, with strong distinctions in stroke weight, differently sized serifs at the tops of strokes for different letters, and nice broad feet where each letter comes down to its baseline. It's well-educated, not ostentatious, and somewhat amused at the prentensions of a perfect life. Helvetica is strict and unyeilding, Garamond is easy and welcoming.
Helvetica is also, in journalism, the font of headlines: forthright and authoritative, calling out the news in six words or less. The ideas, the intellectual life, are in the Garamond of the body text. Nobody would bother to read a newspaper set in Helvetica throughout; the lack of serifs make long engagement with the text uncomfortable. And it may be no coincidence that Helvetica architecture is equally unsuited to daily life, though it photographs wonderfully for those strict and idea-free images of the design magazines.
Font choices tell us a lot about people. Grafitti taggers spend months perfecting their dense and cryptic lettering, simultaneously calling out to us and rejecting our easy understanding; gangsters and lowrider clubs take on Old English for its motif of excess and its artificial history and class connotations; and car numbers in NASCAR are always italicized, as though the characters are being pulled into distortion by the raw speed of the cars.
So here's a test. Pick about six fonts, and find men's clothing, women's clothing, a car, a chair, and a house that suit that font. It won't be hard.