Collector's Edition

The excellent Letterform Archive, based in San Francisco, is a treasure trove of typographic delights—today, Stephen Coles from the Archive shares a selection of five fascinating recent acquisitions...

Letterform Archive is a nonprofit centre for education, inspiration, and community, with a collection of over 40,000 items related to lettering, typography, calligraphy, and graphic design. Since opening to the public in early 2015, we’ve welcomed nearly 5,000 lovers of letters through our doors in San Francisco, but we recognise that not everyone can visit in person, so one of our core missions is to preserve and digitise the collection, sharing hi-fi images worldwide through social media, Archive publications, and – in the near future – a comprehensive online archive. Here are a few recent acquisitions from the last year.

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Piet Zwart, Compositions with type, rules, and letterpress furniture, pencil signed.

Dutch designer Piet Zwart (1885-1977) was trained as an architect, but is best known as a pioneer of twentieth-century experimental typography and photomontage. He preferred to call himself a “form engineer” because he was such a strong believer in functionality, standardisation and machine production. Letterform Archive’s founder Rob Saunders began collecting Piet Zwart thirty years ago, but his collection has been substantially enhanced over the past year with newly acquired material, including both commercial work and personal explorations like these.

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Emigre logo on paste-up board, 1983

In 2016, Letterform Archive received a major gift from the renowned type foundry and publisher Emigre, Inc (Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans), including rare archival material in various media, such as a complete run of Emigre catalogs, development files for original Emigre typefaces, and audiotapes of unedited interviews with Emigre magazine designers and contributors. The collection also includes printed sheets, posters, ephemera, and paste-ups, such as this original art for the Emigre logo, a clever modification of the 1930s typeface Empire. Note the clipped strokes and slanted segments, perhaps alluding to the accents in the word “émigré”, which are not officially part of the company’s name.

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Aaron Marcus, Directions for Genesis 1 and 2, 1973

Aaron Marcus, Soft Where, Inc., Vol. 1, West Coast Poetry Review, 1975

Letterform Archive’s holdings include material from all over the world, but a sizeable portion comes from creators in the San Francisco Bay Area, such as Emigre (mentioned above) and computer graphics artist Aaron Marcus. Marcus is one of the earliest experts in human-computer interaction and has a distinguished technology career, but he continually explores the fields of culture, language, and visual communication. His recent gift to the Archive includes conceptual art that is both beautiful and thought-provoking. This piece makes use of a circular chart from a mechanical recorder to plan “a ritual chant” (i.e. group performance art). The chart was later republished on the cover of a literary magazine.

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William George Sutherland, Plate 1 of The Sign Writer and Glass Embosser, 1898

One of the most popular objects among our guests is William George Sutherland’s The Sign Writer and Glass Embosser, a rare technical manual from the turn of the twentieth century. Consisting mainly of decorative alphabets, this large-format book was meant primarily for use in signage, with chapters dedicated to various methods of decorating on glass including gilding, embossing, etching, and enamel painting. The volume includes a portfolio of 32 lithographed prints, 16 in colour with occasional gold, by Kleinertz of Manchester. This plate demonstrates a variety of lettering styles along with dimensional effects.

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W. A. Dwiggins, slipcase for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Random House, 1929

We plan to publish several books featuring highlights from the Letterform Archive collection. The first is an illustrated biography of William Addison Dwiggins, written by Bruce Kennett with a foreword by Steven Heller. Dwiggins was a skilled illustrator, lettering artist, and designer of books and typefaces. Despite his expansive output and reputation, his story hasn’t received a comprehensive treatment until now. (The book is still available for preorder.) This Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde slipcase contains a special edition of the book, designed and illustrated entirely by Dwiggins. The 1929 project led to more work from Random House and added to his growing prominence in the publishing world.

Rob Saunders of the Letterform Archive will be in London this September to present a pop-up at the London Design Festival—you can read more about the event here. To get news and hi-fi images of other recent acquisitions, join the Letterform Archive mailing list.