A tiny library to cheer on the obscured beauty of type design, the Letterform Archive began as typography enthusiast Rob Saunders’ labor of love. He decided to open his collection to the public, and it only proliferated from there.
Tucked into an airy San Francisco loft, the Archive invites design lovers to come celebrate the art of handwriting throughout history. It’s a collection of over 30,000 artifacts of typography, calligraphy, and graphic design, spanning from ancient times to modern day.
The Archive is equal parts museum, art gallery, and reference library. There are postcards, books, posters, newspapers, drawings, and of course, letters, as well as practically any other written format imaginable.
The collection as a whole interrogates design in writing, both man- and machine-made. A 19th century Korean family tree in Kanji script on yellowed parchment lives next to a 1960s concert handbill with drippy psychedelic font. Man Ray’s scintillating book of poetry and nudes, Facile, sits adjacent to a Victorian children’s penmanship primer.
To truly understand the scope of the project, it has to be seen in person. The painstaking care put into a hand-painted frozen orange juice label from the turn of the century, or the spiderweb-thin lines of ink in an illuminated manuscript give a whole new appreciation for the stylization that went into designing standard fonts. The world of design can be inaccessible by its very nature (it’s not meant to stand out), but luckily for us, Letterform Archive has made their collection and discourse very open to the public.
In 2019, the archive digitized more than 1,000 items, which are available online to members.
Update as of February 2020: The Letterform Archive and Reading Room are closed while they move locations. Both plan to reopen by May 2020.
Know Before You Go
Visits to the San Francisco center can be arranged via email, but Rob Saunders and his team regularly host workshops, lectures, exhibitions, and public events. They have also uploaded hi-res images of many artifacts to their website for your viewing pleasure.