Types and Letters: Nothing Better

Posted inThe Daily Heller
Thumbnail for Types and Letters: Nothing Better

Rob Saunders, a former children’s book publisher, is the founder and curator of the Letterform Archive in San Francisco. After collecting type and typography documents and artifacts for 40 years, he thought long and hard about what to do with the collection. When he talked to appropriate institutions there was a lot of interest, but very little in the way of plans or assurances about how the materials would be used. It felt likely that the collection would just disappear into a larger institution where design is just one of many subjects. Then, in 2012 he met a recent MFA graduate in type design from the Royal Academy in The Hague who helped organize the collection. But the real impact of her internship was bringing her friends to see it. “Their passion and knowledge were major catalysts in developing the idea of the Archive. It became clear that students and young designers were an underserved constituency when it comes to accessing inspiring artifacts from the history of graphic design.” I asked Saunders (who was in New York with Simran Thadani, executive director) to talk more about the Archive and the current exhibition built upon the collection, “Without Type: The Dynamism of Handmade Letters” (on view at the San Francisco Center For The Book).


How do you go about acquiring materials, and what is the goal of the acquisitions?This has changed through the years. In the early days, most material came from dealers, and I developed good relationships with many of them. I would spend all my free time scouring bookshops, flea markets, estate sales, etc. The internet changed everything. Now it’s possible to access the stock of dealers all over the world, as well as bid live on all the important book auctions worldwide. EBay is a useful resource for certain things—for example psychedelic posters and mid-century design ephemera.

I am always looking for things that I find inspiring and innovative. Now that the collection is a public resource I’m also making a conscious effort to fill in holes.

Your current exhibit is “Without Type.” A provocative title for a type archive. Do tell more?Actually, as a letterform archive, handmade letters are a key focus of what we do. After all calligraphy is the root of all early type, and even today many of the best ideas for new typefaces come from handmade letters.

la danse 2018

Jessica Hische.

What is the scope of the exhibit?Aside from the basic constraint that all the letters are handmade, the show is comprised of groups of pieces that echo each other visually despite being from quite different times, places, disciplines or cultures.

There is more interest than ever before with letterforms and typefaces. What do you think accounts for this?Everyone has a favorite font these days, because we all select them all the time, even if only for a word processing document or presentation. The evolving sophistication of typography and design on the web has increased the demand for skilled typographers in the tech community, and raised the visibility of type among laypeople. As a result of all this, design and branding have become something of a spectator sport even among nondesigners, and lettering hobbyists abound.

What are the long-term plans in terms of collecting and exhibiting?Having doubled in 2015 with the addition of the Tholenaar collection of type specimens, in the near term we’re focused on processing and sharing what we already have. We’re still adding, but judiciously, and we’ve started to get some really nice donations of material. As for exhibits, we’re interested in doing them regularly, but given the limits of our current space, we need to do it in collaboration with compatible institutions.

la danse 2017

Ben Shahn, 1964.

la danse 2016

Rick Griffin, 1972.

la danse 2015

Paul Neu, 1924.

Letterform Archive is located in the Potrero Hill district of San Francisco, and is open to the public. To schedule a visit, please click here.

Enter the 2016 Regional Design Annual today for a chance to be featured among the country’s best design work in Print magazine.