Futurist bookdesign

A book with a metal binding, and held together by two large metal bolts. This is an account of the futurist movement up to 1927, Depero Futurista, by Italian artist Fortuna Depero (1892-1960). It summarizes all that the Italian futurists stood for, a love for machinery, a desire to break with tradition, and a passion for experimentation. A movement that intended, in the words of Filippo Marinetti, to ‘destroy all museums, libraries, academies of every kind’, did not revert to traditional forms of typography for their printed work. The text of Depero’s book is formed into geometric shapes, and words are placed obliquely on the page. The whole is presented on different types of paper and in various colours. It was Marinetti who had given the push for the typographical experiment in poetry. “The Futurist will begin by brutally destroying the syntax of speech. […] My new array of type, this original use of characters, enable me to increase many times the expressive power of words.” Having taken notice of Stéphane Mallarmé’s aesthetically shaped poems, as in ‘Un coup de dés’, Marinetti put the idea into overdrive.

Living above a printing shop, he soon started experimenting with all the tools he could lay his hands on. He started cutting up wooden letters, inserting lead scraps into the printing plate to achieve a wild collage of words and letterforms, which are more reminiscent of the guts of a petrol-filled engine than the pleasing round shapes of Mallarmé’s poems. The use of pamphlets, magazines and papers (many of the early futurists had been involved in the emerging advertising business) made an impact. Soon young poet-typographers from all around Italy took up the challenge, filling magazines such as L’Italia Futurista (1916-1918) with parole in libertà poems, many of which were inspired by Marinetti’s Zang Tumb Tumb. Most of these poets had not enjoyed any training in typography. Credit for their work must go to many nameless local printers who turned sketchy ideas into reproducible lead forms.

By the late 1920s, much of the gusto of the movement was lost. Many young artists had died at the front and, under the political influence of Mussolini, Futurism had become the artistic wing of Fascism. Nevertheless, the futurists made a lasting impression on the world of typography. Nearly every twentieth century movement that attempted to liberate typography from its traditional bonds and limitations was inspired by the work of these young Italian artists. Their experiments had elevated the printing press from its modest role as a machine that could reproduce works of art only to the same level as the brush or chisel. The press became a means to create the work of art itself, and in the process cleared the way for a whole new profession to emerge – that of the graphic designer.

Marinetti’s masterpiece is the sound poem ‘Zang Tumb Tumb’ (usually referred to as ‘Zang Tumb Tuuum’). It is an account of the siege by the Bulgarians of Turkish Adrianople in the Balkan War, which Marinetti had witnessed as a reporter. The poem appeared in excerpts between 1912 and 1914 in various journals before being published as a book. Dynamic rhythms, parole in libertà (words in freedom), and striking onomatopoeias, are accompanied by a revolutionary use of typefaces and graphic arrangement. They are applied to express the noise and chaos of modern warfare, and evoke the screeching of trains, the rattling of gunfire, or the impact of explosions. Marinetti was a vigorous performer and he used to sweep audiences away by the vitality with which he declaimed ‘Zang Tumb Tuuum’. It remains a seminal work in the history of experimental print and typography.