The typeface you probably think of when you think of stencils – the one used as shorthand for anything that needs to look military – was originally designed by Robert Hunter Middleton in 1937, and spent the remainder of the twentieth century achieving its own tiresome ubiquity. A dozen years earlier, however, the artist and theorist Josef Albers had started his own investigations into stencil lettering.
Albers, who had studied painting and achieved some prominence as a maker of stained-glass windows, taught at the Bauhaus for ten years where he further developed his lifelong interest in abstraction and geometric forms. In 1925, he applied some of his theories to the letters of the alphabet, reducing them to shapes constructed using only the square, the quarter circle, and the triangle created from dividing the square diagonally. An essay, written around the same time, discusses both his rationale – essentially that elegant fluidity was no longer relevant to the fast-paced, increasingly mechanised world of the twentieth century – and his methodology.
Type designer Paul Renner, a contemporary of Albers, was equally interested in geometric forms, but where Albers approached the issue as a modernist painter interested in theoretical abstraction, the more classically-minded Renner brought with him a detailed knowledge of the history of type. His best-known creation, Futura, was released in 1927 and ninety years later is still widely used. In 1929, he applied the logic of stencils to Futura Black, a face that refines and expands upon the more rigorously experimental ideas put forth by Albers.
While the American stencil types developed from practical necessity – the letters needed to be broken down into isolated blocks if they were to be used as a mask for spray paint – the German tradition of Schablonenschriften exemplified in the work of Albers and Renner was largely aesthetic. In the following decades, stencil letters would experience periods of greater and lesser popularity, but they have remained a constant (although never dominant) element within Berlin’s vocabulary of post-war signage.
Stencil letterforms were ideally suited to the lightboxes that emerged in the sixties and seventies; here it was necessary to remove the shape of the letter from the opaque metal so that the light behind it could shine through. While the counters in more traditional faces had a tendency to disappear (or at least migrate), stencil characters offered far greater stability. Yet the fact that stencil faces were designed to function in a negative context has not prevented numerous elaborately-constructed ‘positive’ examples from appearing.
Stencil faces may no longer convey the futurism that Renner and especially Albers had initially envisaged, but they have too much of their own distinctive charm to be considered merely retro. Examples can still be found throughout Berlin – some vintage, some modern – and it seems unlikely that they will ever disappear entirely. At their best, they suggest a future that never quite arrived.
If you don’t already, you should follow us at @Berlin_Type on Twitter, for your daily dose of typographic goodness from Berlin.