“From style guides for Coca-cola, book design in the 16th century, or the hand written origins of some of the world’s most famed fonts, the Archive collects, preserves, and tells the story of the importance and fascination with letters” —Juxtapoz
I found out about the Letterform Archive on my flight back from Europe to San Francisco. One of those extremely long, uncomfortable flights where you think about all the exciting things left to discover and to achieve in a place far from home, but that’s supposed to be your “new home”.
Fortunately, San Francisco is plenty of places to discover, experiences to offer, special people to get to know. Between these pearls, the Letterform Archive was one of the first ones I really wanted to check out. I’ve read about it in a British Airways’ magazine, and I noted down name, address and website, “The largest private collection of letters art in the USA”. The description didn’t cheat.
The Letterform Archive was founded by Rob Saunders, a graphic designer, teacher and publisher who collected admirable products of letters art for over 40 years, finally establishing the Archive (of which he’s currently the curator) in 2015. Saunders says in the interview for eyeondesign, “Periodicals are such a great snapshot in time, they’re extraordinary examples of design and production”. Indeed the collection of over 40.000 items is curated with a design-centric approach that aims to encourage browsing, discovery, and to be visually pleasant and easy to access.
This approach was very clear in their (free!) guided tour. When I get there, the big table at the center of the spacious room is covered with many different items, neatly arranged within a narrative line.
Actually, the tour develops around the table. Stephen Cole, Associate Curator and Editorial Director of the Letterform Archive, shows us the most antique example of writing of the Archive: the receipt of a sale dated 2000 years ago, and carved on stone, coming from the Middle East. The first examples of writing in the history of civilization are related to finance, even before to religion.
The second document picked by Cole is a bible, indeed. Precisely two kinds of biblical texts; the first one is a 1400’s manuscript, the second one is one of the first printed by Gutenberg, in 1450. The difference isn’t immediately perceptible, and Cole helps us to notice the well-done effects of Gutenberg’s printing press, resembling handwriting. The types of Gutenbergs’ printing press were realized slightly different from each others (for example, you could find many t in one page that were not identical, like they are instead in the modern printing) in order to recall the quality of uniqueness belonging to manuscript documents.
Together with observation, comes the explanation of the processes and technologies used to create each document. Like the Phototype machine used to print the Black Panthers’ magazines and posters. Cole tells us: “the necessity of material defines the formal outcome”. This is as true as it is for painting. We can think about Picasso’s Blue Period, due not only to the meaning expressed within the paintings (sadness, depression, melancholy), but also to the good deal the painter got in buying blue paint in bulk. Artists start from the medium, therefore artworks and the media are extremely connected, both on the physical and conceptual levels.
The tour concludes with more artistically experimenting products, such as the works of Romano Hänni, Philip Grushkin, Eduardo Pauluzzi.
The Letterform Archive gathers valuable works of lettering, typography, calligraphy and graphic design; it boasts items coming from all around the world. In fact, one of the last acquisitions consists in the Jan Tholenaar Collection from Amsterdam, “one of the top five collections of its kind in the world” Cole affirms. Only this collection alone possesses 8,000 international foundry and printer type specimens, spanning from 1500 to the second half of 20th century.
The Art of Lettering links graphics with design, it expands the meaning of words through visual perception. Not only language is a primary tool for communication; it reveals the way the world is organized, and viceversa, the way we organize the world. Indeed the words we use indicate much of ourselves —how we think, what we feel, what’s relevant to us and so on. At the same time, the language we use to communicate shapes our mentality and our intellectual functions. Lera Boroditsky, cognitive scientist and one of the main contributors to the Theory of Linguistic Relativity, explains this concept at TED.
The vital importance of knowing a language and all its parts (like the words, the grammar, the pronunciation, the tone of voice) is very clear to who speaks multiple languages. In fact, it is what really got my attention when I moved to San Francisco from Italy. Although I already spoke English, the gap between me and the rest of the people, on the communicational level, was something very real. This is how and why I made Funny Words, a series of surrealistic images playing with English pronunciation and words’ meaning.
The Letterform Archive celebrates the power of written language preserving precious documents, that show the birth and develop of the Art of Lettering. The non profit art center represents a unique example, in San Francisco and in the world, of the necessity for humanity to preserve language, and to express its potentiality through innovative ways throughout history.