It’s a dream playground for lovers of graphic design: rare periodicals like Massimo Vignelli’s brand manual for the New York City subway, drawers of catalogues and brochures that Lou Dorfsman art directed for CBS, and close to everything—from logo sketches to magazines like U&lc—that Herb Lubalin designed in his lifetime.

What’s even better than seeing these design classics in real life? At the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography, you get to touch them all. Located at the basement of The Cooper Union’s newest shiny stainless steel complex is this archive of some of the most significant pieces of mid-century graphic design from the United States and Europe.

The center officially opened three decades ago in the university after the unfortunate passing of Lubalin. Friends and family wanted to preserve the legacy of the influential American graphic designer as well as other Cooper Union alumni, and so created what was then one of the first graphic design archives in the United States.

“It’s amazing that they were forward-thinking in creating a space for design,” says Alexander Tochilovsky, the center’s curator since 2010. “Now we’re so conscious of how documentation forms the core of this archive, but they were even thinking about that then.”

Ellen Lupton, the center’s first curator, recalls a lack of interest in design history at the time. Tasked with running what was a “hidden and remote” gallery space in the original Cooper Union building, she programmed exhibitions and published brochures not just about Lubalin, but on topics ranging from the Bauhaus and design theory to graphic design from The Netherlands.

“At the time, Lubalin’s style was no longer in fashion, so when we exhibited his work we focused more on the linguistic play and underlying structural sensibilities of the work than on the candy-coated voluptuousness that makes Lubalin so intriguing and fresh to a new generation today,” she said.

In 2009, the center moved into its current space, which, although smaller, brought its now expanded design collection out from the gallery’s cabinets and into the open archive it is today. A collection that started with just Lubalin’s portfolio has today grown through donations into a massive trove of designs from the ’50s to the ’90s, featuring the works of eminent designers including Push Pin Studios, Paul Rand, and Tibor Kalman. Lubalin’s collection makes up just about 20% of the center’s collection of over 20,000 materials today, but remains its most complete.

Unlike typical archives where collections are carefully protected and watched over by their archivists, the Lubalin center resembles a design studio with its materials lying out in the open and a curator who implores you to explore and pick things up. One could start with the drawers of works arranged by individual designers or dive into the center’s themed collections that allow for a “serendipity of finding” designs you might not have been interested in seeing at first.

“Because of the nature of how the archive is set up, it’s almost easier for us to give access to the entire collection,” Tochilovsky says. “The magic of this archive is that there is so much other work of people we don’t know the names of.”

This was how Tochilovsky first noticed the center had some rare and beautiful mid-century pharmaceutical booklets from an unknown designer. He eventually pinpointed them to Alexander Ross, and with the works of others curated the center’s 2011 “PHARMA” exhibition, examining graphic design’s important role in the pharmaceutical industry from the 1940s to today.

Besides annual design exhibitions, the center has also given birth to significant design history projects, such as Unit Editions’ 2012 monograph on Lubalin. Thanks to the center, the publisher was able to photograph the designer’s entire collection and interview his friends. “Without archives, Unit Editions could not function as a publisher of historical books,” says its co-founder Adrian Shaughnessy. “What’s to happen to the work of many of the designers who came to prominence in the second half of the 20th century, if there aren’t well-run archives collecting this work?”

Archives have also become important in this digital era for parsing through the muddy avalanche of designs online, Tochilovsky says. Not only do spaces like the Lubalin center help verify the origins of historical works, they allow people to touch and handle actual design objects. The curator notes how more designers today are preserving their own work and collecting that of others, which inadvertently raises the value of design.

But beyond archiving design for the sake of the profession’s history, Tochilovsky also believes design is provides “proof of what’s happening” in a particular period. Over the years, he has expanded the collection to include record covers and pulp paperbacks that may not necessarily be the works of famous designers, but showcase the range of design work in an era.

“Graphic design is a form of communication and almost everything we encounter on a daily basis is communication… In order to understand what transpires and to see the markers of history, you interact with pieces that were designed,” he says. “There are other places like libraries that collect materials and paper, but through graphic design you get an incredible sense of what’s going on.”