To me anyway, Helvetica is a kind of paradox – it is both old and modern. When you stop to consider that this font has roots that go all the way back to the Bauhaus movement of mid 1920s (Germany), in terms of years anyway, it is very old. When you consider the Bauhaus style or international style with it’s stripped down (un)ornamentation, it is also very modern. The Bauhaus movement was by the way, the most important design movement of the twentieth century.
It is amazing to me that the Bauhaus style and as a result, Helvetica developed at all. Bauhaus ideas began to emerge during Germany’s most turbulent prewar period. Enormous political and economic upheavals and then a few years later, the disdain of the Nazis, created conditions that only left one option for it’s best people – leave to the New World, while the going was good. This was an important development because while Europe was still stuck with their old medieval guild and old job protection systems, the New World (U.S mainly) was more fluid, responsive and quick to exploit business advantages. In other words, more modern. The New World also wasn’t clinging to the style of the 19th century days of colonies and empires. It didn’t have that kind of baggage.
What really made Bauhaus and the fonts, furniture, graphic design and the architecture styles they created truly modern was the philosophy directly behind it. As it relates to fonts they insisted that typography should be used as an instrument of communication only. No extra eligible swirls or decoration for them. Just clean organization of ideas. That is the spirit of Bauhaus and that is what makes it modern. They applied that simple functionality to their furniture, architecture and graphic design as well, becoming a blueprint for the modern world. A completely new world born out of the new emerging, thrusting energy of the 1920s. A world of growing mass communication in radio and print. A world that was really speeding up, kind of like now.
Like to get a better visual of the Bauhaus style, take a trip to your local Ikea.