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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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.

Schedule a visit to Letterform Archive.