The Sunday Essay: Eisenhower Chic

I’ve become obsessed with fonts. Well I suppose it’s a bit disingenuous to say that I’m obsessed with fonts in the plural because, really, it’s just one font. The specific font that has become the object of my obsession is called futura. If you look at it, it’s nothing special. No curly serifs, no super-hero boldness. It’s actually quite plain. And that’s the thing I love about it. Like any font, it has a creator. In this case, the guy’s name is Paul Renner, a Prussian-born German designer and the author of two prominent books about fonts with strangely reflective names, which translated to English are: “Typface as Art” and “The Art of Typeface.”

Renner was an interesting guy and not just because he devoted his life’s work to developing typefaces. He was also an early and outspoken opponent of the Nazis and was arrested and released in 1933, when he began a period of ‘internal exile.’ Of course, this was after his most famous work of typographical design was completed. Renner released Futura to the world in 1927 as a (pardon me oh pun gods) bold experiment in geometrical design. It’s hard to imagine a font being radical, but so it was.

Still Renner’s back story has nothing to do with my fascination with Futura. In fact, I was completely unaware of this history until after I began writing this essay. I was on the third sentence when I decided to look up the history of Futura and delayed getting into the meat of this by writing about it. That Futura’s history is interesting is appropriate since history, or at least a certain conception of it, is the reason I like the font so much. It’s the kind of thing that reminds of another time, one that seems so cool, so enticing like a memory, but one I never lived and my dad might only faintly remember. Its precisely because of this implied nostalgia that the partnership of Caudal Partners, of Chicago, and the Draplin Design Company, of Portland, Oregon, chose the font for use in creating Field Notes.

I’ve written about Field Notes before. I love them. They are small, exceedingly handy notebooks that have been on sale for consumers since 2009 in order to make them feel like they live in 1950. “Inspired by the vanishing subgenre of agricultural memo books, ornate pocket ledgers, and the simple, unassuming beauty of a well-crafted grocery list,” goes the story printed on the inside back cover of each 48-page memo book, “an honest memo book worth fillin’ up with good information.” Leaving aside the obvious questions about what a not-so-well-crafted grocery list might look like and just how a memo book can be honest, I find myself inexplicably drawn to Field Notes as a brand. Part of it is purely aesthetic. The books are simple and I like simplicity. While striving in their self-righteousness, they are, nonetheless without pretense, the kind of thing that (like the Swiss Army Knife I’ve carried for more than 15 years) I like to have around me because they make me feel like I’m exemplifying the qualities I cherish most – industry, usefulness, preparedness and steady plainness. These are the same qualities, it turns out, Renner was shooting for when he designed the aforementioned Futura.

That these qualities call to mind the era in which America’s Greatest Generation settled down, had 2.2 kids, a white picket fence and a new Chrysler in the driveway is no mistake. That these things appeal to people born in the post-hippie through yuppie eras of American history – those most subjected to the bombardment of information from the technological age is also no mistake. They they probably don’t appeal to people of America’s Greatest Generation is beside the point. Field Notes is just one of a whole raft of products and cultural touch points that demonstrate what I like to call a Mistaken Case of Nostalgia (MCN). These are nothing new. As long as there have been records of a previous time, there have probably been people pining for it. Antique collectors, classic car enthusiasts. People who like old records and people who take swing dance lessons. All are affected by MCN.

But what strikes me as interesting is that people who got into swing music in the mid-1990s and people who bought ’57 Chevys in the 1970s were doing so to augment the modern times they lived in. I went to a swing dance class with my wife when we were in college. We listened to Benny Goodman and learned a little two-step. It was fun. It was like a traveler taking on a local custom for a momentary experience of the place he is visiting before returning to his own land and resuming life. There was something to return to. Radiohead for me, Leonardo DiCaprio for her. We augmented our thoroughly modern lives with the occasional dalliance in the past. This was before the internet was what it is, before you could be transported on a key stroke.

As time has marched on and our access to information has grown exponentially, it seems to me like we have become more and more fixated on this idea of temporal acceptance. Field Notes is just one thing. There are all kinds of products and outlets that seem desperate for escape from modern times and are using the most modern of means to provide it. Look at the rise of sites like The Art of Manliness for example. This site is a portal for thoroughly modern men to learn the ideals, skills and practices of Victorian and early to mid-20th century men. Get on there and you can learn leadership lessons from Dwight D. Eisenhower, the proper use of Victorian-era calling cards, a primer on the workings and use of a shotgun and the benefits of using a push-wheel lawn mower. Are any of these things necessary? Probably not, but the fact that they are published and read demonstrates a certain feeling of being lost.

We live in an age with no time, a time with no age. Take a stroll through the mall and stop in the GAP. What do you see? Khakis and shirts that look like they were pulled from the wardrobe department of “The West Side Story” and neon clothing for women in weird shapes that recall 1987. Everything there is derivative a time in the not-so-distant past. And speaking of the mall, if it’s anything like where I live, it doesn’t have a roof on it because sometime in the last decade, developers and retail experts decided that people needed a new shopping experience. And the only new shopping experience was a very old one. So they pulled out of the malls that were built in the 1970s, 80s and 90s and built small cities complete with upstairs apartment complexes and first floor retail, replicating the exact kind of downtown shopping experience that was destroyed by the advent of the mall.

This was a reaction. It was a reaction to e-commerce. Amazon, which started off unassuming enough, was ripping away market share. Big retailers got into the online world, but numbers weren’t quite as strong. Still malls were dying and something needed to be done, so they build cities. And I have to say that, like Field Notes and The Art of Manliness, I like the experience of shopping at places like Cleveland’s Crocker Park (pictured). And all for the same reason and that is this: I feel disconnected from the time in which I live.

That’s right, I am a huge sufferer of MCN. I have it bad. If the condition were one that caused hospitalization, I’d have been locked up in sixth grade, right around the time I was making promises to myself that I would single-handedly bring back big band jazz while watching “The Sandlot” for the fiftieth time. What does it mean to feel disconnected with the time in which I live? Well, it means I don’t feel like I’m living in any time in particular. I sit for most of the day in front of a very nice computer I hardly understand and do work that hasn’t really changed that much in two centuries. I buy things online or with my credit card and don’t know the name of a single person who has served me food or taken my money in a long time. I find myself pining for the Eisenhower days, the ones everyone seems to remember so fondly. A time when America was moving forward. When Disney was building rides that took you into the future, when the road ahead seemed bright and shiny. I don’t know what the road ahead now looks like. Mostly because it hasn’t been built.

In the opening seen of Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO show “The Newsroom,” Jeff Daniels’ character loses his mind on stage during a journalism symposium and talks passionately about America has fallen from its once-prominent position in the world. He talks about the way American used to be and described is as a place and time of purpose and meaning. He talks about possibility and potential and seems to address the fundamental fractiousness that seems to define the country today. That fractiousness is also a sentiment of disjointedness, disconnection and a feeling like that of being lost.

That is sort of how I feel. I quite literally have the world at my fingertips and yet I cannot experience it any more than if I had never known it existed. That’s why I’m drawn to old things. That’s why I’m drawn to new things that seem old. It’s why I love listening to Nick Waterhouse. It’s why I browse through the Best Made Co. website every week and read The Art of Manliness. It’s why I subscribe to magazines and buy physical copies of books I already own my kindle. It’s why I carry my Swiss Army Knife, wear Wayfarers and write in Field Notes. It’s why I’m so obsessed with the Futura font. Because I think I secretly wish to be live in a time when the future was something other than what it has become at present. When experiencing something meant smelling it, feeling it, tasting it – not just projecting it on a flat screen. I’m not anti-technology. I love technology. What I’m anti is anxiety, dislocation and purposelessness.

Hipsters may try to be cool, but I think behind every ironic mustache is a complete lack of irony. I can’t count myself among that particular group for a lot of reasons, not least of which is my aversion to skinny jeans. But I think I can understand them. I can understand the foodie who wants to grow a garden. The Offerman disciple who wants to make his own furniture. The dreamer who opens up a shop, makes their own goods or devotes their lives to helping people learn, to the best of their ability, how things used to be done. It’s a mistaken case of nostalgia, but also an important one. It’s about quality and tangibility in a disposable digital age. It’s about making the giant world we can see but not touch smaller. It’s about feeling like you belong to something at a time when most things – media, fashion, social networking, etc… – seem to be about you and only you.

I don’t pine for the 1950s. I don’t want to live in a world before Civil Rights, before Jonas Saulk, before Michael Jackson. But I do wish I lived in a time that had an age, an age that had a time. I wish to be a part of something unifying. I’m sure years from now, the people of the future will look back on now with reverent eyes. Maybe they’ll buy antique iPhones and Prius replicas. And maybe they, like me, will not understand why those of use who lived it don’t feel the same pull backward.

Then again, maybe they won’t feel like me. Maybe they will simply forget. Or maybe they’ll blend in. Maybe, by then, they’ll have their own fonts to obsess over.

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