For over 40 years, graphic designer Rob Saunders has been collecting books, periodicals, maquettes, posters, and other ephemera that reflect his passion for letterforms and graphic design history. As his collection swelled to 15,000 pieces he started to consider its destiny. Realizing that other designers would benefit from access to the materials, in 2014 he established the Letterform Archive in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill district. Saunders, whose background also includes teaching and publishing, serves as the archive’s curator.
Rob Saunders, curator of the Letterform Archive, gladly shares N.V. Nederlandsche Kabelfabriek Delft, the Dutch Cable Manufactory catalog (NKF) designed by Piet Zwart in 1928
Saunders shows the loose leaf insert that was included in the original NKF publication but is now missing from most copies
An inside NKF spread shows Zwart's bold typography, generous use of white space, and intuitive yet structured approach to layout.
Information graphics and photomontage are among the techniques that Zwart used to communicate the client's message in the NKF catalog
Saunders compares individual designs within a collection of 40 monthly calendars on ink blotters designed by Zwart to promote Bruynzeel from the mid 1930s to the mid 1950s
Promotional ink blotters designed as monthly calendars by Zwart for Bruynzeel demonstrate visual diversity within a common theme
Detail of a Bruynzeel ink blotter designed by Zwart
Detail of a Bruynzeel ink blotter designed by Zwart
In 2015 the archive’s holdings more than doubled with the acquisition of the Jan Tholenaar collection, which spans from the year 1500 into the second half of the 20th century. This extensive collection, which was shipped from Amsterdam in nine crates weighing over six tons, adds hand-written manuscripts, early printed books, and a stockpile of 8,000 international foundry and printer type specimens. “The Tholenaar collection is probably one of the top five collections of its kind in the world,” said Stephen Coles, editor of Typographica and a Letterform Archive board member who was onsite the day I visited.
It’s important to Saunders that the collection is organized in a design-centric manner that’s easy to access and allows for browsing and discovery. Individual type specimens, for example, are stored in transparent sleeves reinforced by black matte board and arranged alphabetically by face in flip bins. With this system one can comfortably glance through the assortment and make a selection.
Saunders shows off the design of an original letterpress printed type specimen from the Tholenaar collection
Original type specimens, like this one from the Tholenaar collection, are packaged in transparent sleeves and eventually will be stored in flip bins
Saunders explains that when duplicates occur as with these two examples, extra copies will be sold to raise funds for future acquisitions
Illustrator Laura Serra helps document and process items from the Tholenaar collection
In the main reading room a two-story wall is loaded with seminal design journals like U&lc, Emigre, Typographische Monatsblätter, Wendigen, and Ver Sacrum. “Periodicals are such a great snapshot in time,” Saunders told me. “They’re extraordinary examples of design and production.”
Executive director Simran Thadani (left), Saunders, and I examine materials in the Letterform Archive's main reading room, which contains an impressive sweep of periodicals opposite a display of framed posters. Milton Glaser, Lucian Bernhard, Joseph Binder, Alexey Brodovitch, Jean Carlu, Otto Baumberger, Man Ray, and Paul Rand are among the designers whose posters are exhibited
Photograph by Calvin Woo
Kate Robinson, collections associate, shows me examples of “kupfermondaag” prints from the Tholenaar collection. She's excited that the archive is the catalyst for bringing together people from different letter fields—graphic designers, typographers, type designers, calligraphers, book artists
Photograph by Calvin Woo
Saunders also values work that demonstrates process. “Whenever we find it, we get it,” he says, like original hand-rendered lettering by T.M. Cleland, Oswald Cooper, Mortimer Leach, and William Addison Dwiggins. Saunders has had a longtime interest in Dwiggins, who’s credited with coining the term “graphic design.” His work is a focal point of the archive. There are five scrapbooks filled with Dwiggins ephemera, correspondence, and letterpress-printed proofs of some of his typefaces as well as other experimental faces that were never released (Electra, Caledonia, Charter, Eldorado, and Winchester are among them). Other excellent examples of process are an El Lissitzky mock-up for the cover of Veshch 3 and a unique collection of 200 small hand-painted label maquettes from Lehmann Label & Lithography Company.
The final printed cover of Veshch 3 (left) beside the framed mock-up by El Lissitzky (right)
Original hand-painted label maquette from Lehmann Label & Lithography Company of San Francisco. All of the art, including the lettering, was painted by hand using gouache! The maquette served as a proof for client approval. Corrections were indicated in pencil
Label Photographs by Calvin Woo
Back side of a label maquette from Lehmann Label & Lithography Company of San Francisco. Founded in 1911, Lehmann was one of the largest manufacturers of labels in the world
This label layout incorporates a halftone image of the Hotel del Coronado that the artist used as a template and painted over
Capsicum, which includes bell peppers and chili peppers, appears to have been used to spice up this ginger ale product
Lithiated? It seems that the mineral lithium or lithium salt, which was considered to have medicinal value, was added to this product
In this example of a label maquette the artist painted the thinner strokes of the script lettering in a lighter color to make those strokes appear thinner
A 2014 promotional calendar by 42-line features the Lehmann label collection of the Letterform Archive
Detail of artwork and lettering from a high-resolution image reproduced in the 42-line calendar
This detail from a high-resolution image reproduced in the 42-line calendar reveals thick layering of gouache
My discovery of the day was the Vienna Secession’s 1903 Ver Sacrum calendar. Each month features a unique woodcut illustration by one of 10 different artists opposite a full page of Alfred Roller’s nebulous lettering that charts the days of each month. I had only seen the November spread reproduced in a book and wasn’t aware that the entire issue is actually a calendar. It’s like Saunders said, “One of the best things about having access to originals is that you realize how great they are all the way through.”
The June calendar of Ver Sacrum with border and lettering by Roller
Woodcut illustration for the month of April is by Koloman Moser
January spread of 1903 Ver Sacrum calendar, woodcut illustration by Ferdinand Andri, decorative lettering and borders by Alfred Roller (top); October woodcut by Karl Müller, decoration by Roller
This all-the-way-through revelation is also demonstrated in Piet Zwart’s brochure for the Dutch PTT (Post, Telegraph, Telephone) that explains its services to children and Ladislav Sutnar’s promotional booklet for Canterbury Printing Company that anticipates future modes of transportation. The PTT piece is a storehouse of photomontage, overprinting, and dynamic typography that surely challenged gravure printing technology in its day. In the Canterbury booklet, Transport—Next Half Century: 1951–2000, Sutnar uses data visualization and graphic models to represent transport for pleasure, local airlift, airliners, and air cargo based on original material from his son Cita, who was an aviation engineer.
The PTT booklet cover designed by Piet Zwart illustrates the three communication components of the PTT (post, telegraph, telephone)
Inside spread of the PTT booklet designed by Zwart employs photomontage, overprinting, and dynamic typography in a compact layout
Inside spread of the PTT booklet designed by Zwart discusses change of address procedures and items that are not allowed to be mailed
Ladislav Sutnar's Transport—Next Half Century: 1951–2000 booklet in 1950 for Canterbury Printing Company features vehicles for land, water, and air (top); Designs for future airliners of 1960, 1970, and 2000 (bottom)
Sutnar visualizes an air cargo system that includes a trailer unit, cargo-copter, and an airport that's laid out according to prevailing wind
Sutnar graphically demonstrates a concept for a robot-controlled intercontinental rocket for overseas mail that travels at a speed of 2500 miles per hour
Saunders intends to reproduce facsimiles of some of these more unusual pieces and publish and sell books through the Letterform Archive, starting with a biography on Dwiggins by Bruce Kennett. Collection-based instruction is also a key mission of the archive. Lectures, workshops, and collaborations with area schools are underway. This year New York’s Cooper Union and the Letterform Archive initiated Type@Cooper West, a postgraduate certificate program in typeface design that expands on Type@Cooper introduced in New York in 2010.
Eventually, the archive’s holdings will be digitized and high-resolution images will be available online. But I agree with Coles that “It’s also important to actually visit and see things first hand.” There’s really nothing like holding an original piece of design history and browsing through the pages from beginning to end. There’s no telling what you might discover.