The Letterform Archive
San Francisco, CA
Website · open by appointment
Here’s another one to add to the mix!
I recently attended an AIGA special event at the Letterform Archive, a nonprofit center that celebrates the art of the letter with 30,000 items in its collection. It’s free and open to the public for individual or group visits. They welcome volunteers and occasionally host discussions over brunch or dinner (food + type?! Sign me up).
About twenty-five people came to this particular event, which was an hour-long presentation of the collection by executive director Simran Thadani followed by mingling and discussion over wine and cheese. The attendees were a diverse audience in terms of age, gender, color, and profession. But in the end, we were just a roomful of type-lovers: nerdy, quiet, excessively polite, in awe. I wish I’d taken a photo of the group but alas. I was distracted.
We gathered in a place that felt simultaneously intimate and grandiose: it was once the home of the collection’s owner and curator Rob Saunders, and the main library was once his living room. It’s not a physically large space, but it’s filled literally from floor to ceiling with eclectic type samples from an impressive historical range.
The collection is fantastic; I was in love! Simran introduced some of her favorites in chronological order, walking around the group each time to give us a closer view and a chance to take photographs.
The oldest item in the collection is a clay cuneiform tablet that could be anything from poetry to a love letter to a receipt for goods or services.
We looked at a Bible printed in Venice in 1476 (about twenty years after Gutenberg), a book of hours from 1480, and a leaf from a 13th century manuscript.
For whatever reason I haven’t been particularly drawn to manuscripts in the past, but Simran’s enthusiasm and love for each of these items was contagious. She spoke fluently and with humor in a down-to-earth style. She pointed out and encouraged discussion around details (remnants of a grid on the page, the rough and smooth side of a leaf), waxed poetic about human expression (she kept it real with the occasional lighthearted expletive), admitted that she “gets goosebumps” when handling items in the collection. You can tell that she really likes what she does for a living.
We looked at a lot of cool modern artifacts too. There’s a book (one of a series, no less) of letter pressed paper towels. It’s a testament to meticulousness and maybe insanity. But there was whimsy in there as well, so I guess the guy had fun making these.
Next, a laser cut artist’s book about Tahrir Square, Al Midan, by Islam Aly. It’s in Arabic until the final pages, where you see in English: The People Want to Bring Down the Regime over and over again. Then, at last: The People Have Brought Down the Regime 6:00 pm Cairo local time on 11 February 2011.
But my favorites were these hand-painted label comps that were found in the dumpster (!) right here in San Francisco, with exquisite details in the illustrations.
Can you spot the tiny party scene in the “Pale Face” comp? Note that the tuxedoed gentleman is a paste-over! There are layers of life and process in all of these, literally and figuratively.
We were a large group so weren’t allowed to personally handle the items ourselves, but Simran informed us that normally visitors are allowed to actually touch nearly every item in the collection. When I asked if they were concerned about preservation, I was impressed by the answer:
Yes, it’s a concern but ultimately, we believe that people learn and enjoy best by engaging freely with materials, not by looking at them from behind glass.