Can Wes Anderson’s Archer-y Skills Hit the Bullseye?

Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson

This week marked the release of the first promotional poster and trailer for the new Wes Anderson film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. This second film of Anderson’s to include the word Hotel in the title follows the misadventures of a crafty concierge (played by Ralph Fiennes) who mentors a young lobby boy in Europe between the two world wars. Anderson has cultivated a loyal fan base over the course of his career, due mainly to his charming narrative wit and his meticulously appointed visual universe. From a design point of view, almost every detail seen in his films is specifically chosen to evoke a clear emotional tone—even down to the selection of typefaces. In fact, not since the likes of fellow auteur directors Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen has a filmmaker so carefully considered their choice of type. With Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson has made yet another typographic decision that has designers trying to ascertain its significance: Archer.

But before diving into the ramifications of such an intriguing selection, a historical recap of the director’s ardent relationship with type is in order.

The first half of Wes Anderson’s career is easy to identify—just look for an extra-high frequency of Paul Renner’s Futura Bold. The extremely popular geometric sans-serif, designed in 1927, has always been a favorite of Anderson’s. Perhaps the use of Futura was a nod to Kubrick (who favored the extra bold cut), or maybe the prominent visual impact of the clean, forceful letterforms simply helps to underscore the distinct deadpan delivery of Anderson’s characters. Either way, it’s hard to miss Futura’s omnipresence in Anderson’s early work.

Just a few of the many examples of Futura seen in The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore

Just a few of the many examples of Futura seen in The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore

The choice seemed like a great fit. By the 1990s, Futura (despite its name) had the cultural cachet of being quaintly retro—it was, after all, the typeface used on the lunar landing plaque. And though we aren’t often given exact dates or time periods in Wes Anderson’s films, they each bear their own nostalgic brand of yesteryear. The honeymoon continued on through The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), and with the semi-revisionist aid of both Criterion and inspired fan art, the link between Anderson and Futura became that of folk legend. The typeface earned a place on the Wes Anderson bingo card, and the relationship increasingly became a part of the hipster vernacular.

In the minds of Wes Anderson fans everywhere, he owns Futura!

In the minds of Wes Anderson fans everywhere, he owns Futura!

For a while it seemed that Wes Anderson would not be able to unhook himself from Futura’s pointed vertices. However, with his fifth feature film, The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Anderson began to expand his typographic arsenal. Darjeeling was the first film in which Anderson requested a custom typeface—a partial-inline sans-serif designed by Boris Dworschak. Next, the stop-motion adventure, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), introduced a surprising use of Helvetica. (His earliest use of Helvetica came with any book cover design in The Royal Tenenbaums not written by an actual Tenenbaum.) And Moonrise Kingdom (2012) showed us what can happen when Anderson actually goes sans-sans, and trots out a custom script typeface designed by Jessica Hische.

Jessica Hische designed the custom script typeface for Moonrise Kingdom

Jessica Hische designed the custom script typeface for Moonrise Kingdom

Whatever his typographic choice, Anderson has consistently brought it to the audience’s attention. Whether they’re aware of the typeface’s name—or even the difference between the words “typeface” and “font”—is irrelevant. Anderson raises the role of type in cinema to that of a character with its own lines to deliver.

So, why Archer? Why now?

Archer was designed in 2001 by Hoefler & Frere-Jones. It has the credibility and sturdiness that slab serifs are known for, yet with a tinge of friendly invitation. It was originally commissioned for the magazine Martha Stewart Living, and upon its release to the general public in 2008, became extremely popular and overused. Many designers spent time on the critical fence complimenting Archer’s exquisite design and lamenting its unfortunate overuse. In a 2010 column on Scott Hansen’s blog, ISO50, Alex Cornell asks, “Is it just a matter of time before the next summer blockbuster uses Archer for the movie poster?”

Even Archer's promotional screenshot on H&FJ bears a similar color palette to a Wes Anderson film

Even Archer’s promotional screenshot on H&FJ bears a similar color palette to Wes Anderson’s films

While its “summer blockbuster” status is yet to be determined, The Grand Budapest Hotel’s marketing materials have now brought us to Cornell’s prophetic dilemma: Will the wunderkind slab rise to the occasion and lend its hospitable elegance to promote a film about a bustling, ritzy hotel? Or will Archer’s ubiquitous implementation prove a misstep for Anderson, who has for so long held the respect of film geeks and type nerds alike?

It’s perplexing that Anderson would now opt for an established typeface. One with baggage. And one so anachronistic with the film’s setting (1930s Europe). The decision to break the mold and apply a decorative flourish to Moonrise Kingdom’s titles seemed to announce the director’s desire for typographic experimentation. His quirky cinematic style firmly entrenched, Anderson played a gambit, and won. Hische’s delightfully ornate letterforms expertly illustrated Kingdom’s adolescent lavishness.

So why not continue in the vein of custom type design?

We know this: Wes Anderson is too fastidious to make a design decision so prominent without considering the fallout. Perhaps the friendly demeanor of Archer is meant to allude to the hospitable service you’d receive while staying at the Grand Budapest? Maybe Anderson hopes to give Archer an injection of mid-career hipness à la Pulp Fiction-Travolta?

Regardless, it remains probable that Anderson is making what he feels is an artistically-sound decision, and will leave it to the nay-sayers and conspiracy theorists to sort it out amongst themselves. He’s not one to shy away from owning something with a troubled past. Remember the campaign “Art Directors Against Futura Extra Bold Condensed?”

And to anyone who puts too much stock into the idea of “Wes Anderson, Type Designer,” he would probably reply by paraphrasing Bert Fischer from Rushmore, saying, “No, I’m a Director, but a lot of people make that mistake.”

The Grand Budapest Hotel arrives in March of 2014, so the design community will have ample time to debate the merit and the impact of Anderson’s choice. ♦

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You can view the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel by clicking on the poster.

Promotional poster for The Grand Budapest Hotel, opening March 2014

Promotional poster for The Grand Budapest Hotel, opening March 2014

About the Author

Patrick Gosnell is a graduate student and teacher at Texas State University San-Marcos. He has a background in fine art photography, and currently focuses on international typographic practices. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and daughter. You can follow him on Twitter or check out his blog, TYPEATX.

8 comments

  1. Pingback: Can Wes Anderson’s Archer-y Skills Hit the Bullseye? | The Rushmore Academy
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  4. Matthew

    For what it is worth and this may indeed be a stretch, as Jay points out above, Wes Anderson has referenced the word Archer before. He has suggested that his favourite films were created by director Michael Powell and writer Emerich Pressburger, who called their production team The Archers. This is no small point as every one of Anderson’s films are literally riddled with references to The Archers’ movies. In fact, Grand Budapest looks to take these references to the next level as the film itself seems very much in the vein of several movies from this particular style including Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus and The Earrings of Madam De. I believe Anderson has even named one of his characters in the new film, Madame De.

    Excellent essay by the way, thank you!

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