A Morning at Letterform Archive
I will confess: I didn’t really know what to expect. Friends who had visited Letterform Archive gushed: “It’s amazing.” “You will love it.” “I could have spent an entire day there!”
Despite their adulation, I still didn’t know precisely what to expect.
According to their website, “The Archive was founded by Rob Saunders, a collector of the letter arts for over 40 years, as a place to share his private collection with the public. We opened to visitors in February 2015 and now offer hands-on access to a curated collection of over 50,000 items related to lettering, typography, calligraphy, and graphic design, spanning thousands of years of history.”
I knew Letterform Archive was home to Type West, a year-long post-graduate certificate program in typeface design. But, still, I didn’t know what to expect. Did they have books? Prints? Posters? Old brochures and paper goods? Metal type? Sketches of typefaces?
The answer is yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes … and so much more!
Letterform Archive invited me to San Francisco to give a talk as part of their Letterform Lecture Series at the San Francisco Public Library. I even taught a workshop at the Archive the weekend before the talk. But, I hadn’t seen the collection since the workshop was held on a weekend and in a different part of the facility. The workshop TA, Kate Long, is also a curator; when she heard I had never seen the collection, she invited me to the Archive for a private tour.
I quickly learned what people meant when they said they could spend an entire day there! First Kate showed us the reading room, which had floor-to-ceiling shelves with books and magazines. Walls without shelves were covered with posters and other type-related artifacts. A large table displayed some of their treasures: original typeface master drawings, a book with Fractur ductus lessons, an illuminated manuscript, books by favorite designers.
Before long Rob Saunders made an appearance (I hadn’t expected that!). We chatted for a while, and he showed us some of his favorite pieces, including a book written in Arabic filled with marginalia notes. I found it funny — and relatable — that he didn’t precisely know what the book’s content was. He simply acquired it because he found it beautiful and interesting.
Next, Kate showed us “the stacks,” which is a separate room filled with shelving that houses books: Books with type specimens, books from foundries, books from wood type foundries, books with anything having to do with type, lettering, and printing. It sounded as if the Archive had become a sort of a home for homeless type-related ephemera because she pointed out boxes of materials that had been donated to the archive but had not yet been catalogued.
Kate picked a handful of samples she thought I’d enjoy taking a closer look at, and we took them to another room to examine. She pulled promotional pieces for early metal cuts of Garamond and Caslon, along with a handwritten book from the late 1300s with the tiniest, yet most ornate handwriting imaginable, and a box filled with individual printed pages from 1471–1496. I later joked that I tried not to drool on the exquisite pages filled with some of the most beautiful letterforms that exist. What was fascinating about those pages is that there were characters no one knew precisely what they meant. For example, there was a three-shaped squiggle after some q’s and thin, angled lines that were only x-height tall (like a slash, but less than half the height). Stephen Coles, Associate Curator & Editorial Director of the Archive happened to be refilling his coffee as we examined the funny three-shaped squiggle. He guessed it could have been a cue for pronunciation, but didn’t know for sure.
The Archive has introductory tours every Tuesday and Friday afternoon. If you have any interest in lettering, typography, calligraphy, or graphic design, and are visiting San Francisco you need to go. It’s amazing. You will love it. I could have spent an entire day there!