A Life in Letters

Fifty years ago, in Switzerland, two gentlemen designed something so revolutionary that it would symbolize an era—literally. Their creation, the Helvetica typeface, became so pervasive in the second half of the twentieth century that few people paid it any attention at all. But that’s exactly the point. To celebrate the semi-centennial of Max Miedinger and Edouard Hoffmann’s quietly iconic letterforms, MoMA has composed a very fitting tribute. Located in the third-floor Philip Johnson Architecture and Design Galleries, 50 Years of Helvetica enlightens visitors with more than 25 pieces that highlight the typeface’s unique design characteristics and impact on society. Ranging from the beloved 1970 New York Subway Map, designed by Massimo Vignelli, to a present-day advertisement put out by American Apparel, the installation politely introduces newcomers to the art of typography. In addition to the exhibition’s core body of work, MoMA displays some original lead forms of the Helvetica typeface from 1956 to ’57, which comprise the first typeface forms of any kind bought for the permanent collection. And, as part of this exhibit, the museum will also screen Gary Hustwit’s 2007 documentary film, Helvetica, which intriguingly spotlights the typeface’s prevalence in everyday life.  “Because it’s so ubiquitous, people have ignored it, and that’s one of its strengths,” explained Christian Larsen, the curatorial assistant at MoMA who organized the exhibition. “It communicates cleanly and clearly; it’s very swift, it’s universal and it’s rational. The way it’s drawn just makes a lot of sense.” The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, www.moma.org