At 4,000 years old, our cuneiform tablet is the collection’s oldest object. Now we know more about the messages it contains.
We like to change things up when setting tables for introductory visits, but most tours begin with an unassuming object that’s by far the Archive’s most ancient. Created in Mesopotamia around the second millennium BCE, our cuneiform tablet looks like a rough lump of hard clay, just big enough to rest in your palm. Closer inspection reveals a surface covered with sharp impressions — marks of what many consider the world’s first full writing system.
From Gutenberg to Granjon, new additions to the Online Archive represent major developments in letterpress printing.
In her recent update, librarian Kate Long mentioned the ways we use the Archive as a teaching tool, especially in our Survey of Type History for the MFA Design program at the California College of the Arts. Now in its third year, the course tells the story of design firsthand through a curated selection of artifacts from our collection. This year, of course, the pandemic is forcing us to meet remotely, which means we’re prioritizing key historical objects for digitization and virtual presentation. The beauty of this pivot is that everyone benefits – even those who aren’t master’s students – because the Online Archive is open to all. As a taste, here are a few recent additions to the site that represent typographic milestones over the first 150 years of letterpress printing.
We miss sharing unexpected gems with you in person at the Archive. In this new series we’ll share them from afar.
A while back, the design publication It’s Nice That invited us to share some of our favorite books for their “Bookshelf” series. It was a nice way to introduce an international audience to a few of the unusual and delightful objects we regularly show in our on-site tours. As we continue to be closed to visitors during the pandemic it’s a good time to reprise that piece, along with more images of the books, and a new selection from Florence Fu, which is not a book at all.
Librarian Kate Long recounts the many ways we use the Emigre collection, and Jon Sueda introduces a new series for experiencing Emigre magazine in the Online Archive.
It takes a long time to do most things well. When I started volunteering at Letterform Archive, the organization had just received its first major donation. Rudy VanderLans and Zuzana Licko of Emigre had gifted their archives containing thousands of objects: books they printed, books they referenced, type development files, type specimens, every issue of Emigre magazine, process work and proofs, and binders holding a few decades’ worth of communication.
New additions to the Online Archive let you reach back to a vibrant period of ornamentation and letterform expression.
As the second industrial revolution hit its stride in the late 1800s and early 1900s, leaps in electrification, manufacturing, and transportation led to rapid changes in Western economies and societies. Advancements in paper making, printing, and typographic technologies followed suit, resulting in cheaper and more plentiful books, new forms of advertising to meet the demands of expanding commerce, and a burst of color and special effects that were previously impossible or too costly to produce. Meanwhile, as populations became vastly more urbanized, artists and printers waxed poetic about country life, incorporating the natural world into their work.
The latest batch of items in the Online Archive represents several dozen highlights from this era in our collection, including work by Will Bradley and Alphonse Mucha, sign painter portfolios from France, early type foundry ephemera, and a remarkable English catalog of wood type.
Our latest update includes items featuring Cyrillic, Hebrew, Indic, Japanese, Pegon, and Persian scripts.
Among the 25 objects just added to the Online Archive are works representing various writing systems beyond Latin. The items are highlights from two events this spring: a master’s seminar in type history that we taught for California College of Arts, and a lecture, “A Brief Typographic Trip Around the World”, hosted by the Center for Book Arts in New York. In a time when a pandemic has hampered most of our summer travel, let our lifelike images take you on a virtual vacation to 18th-century Indonesia, 1920s Tokyo, or India through the ages.
Yiddish work by Kulture-Lige, El Lissitzky, and Natan Altman demonstrates how dreams of a new society revitalized typography.
Judaism and designs of utopia have a long history together. Many Jews have dreamed of a perfect and socially just society, and created art that reflected this desire. Jews played integral roles in the Russian Revolution and in Bolshevik communism, as well as in building intentional communities around the world. Jewish artists expressed their utopian visions in a variety of ways, but many artists such as El Lissitzky and Natan Altman used painting, design, and the abstract shapes of constructivism to illustrate an upheaval of the old social systems and a radical transformation to something new. This coincided with the rise of communism in Eastern Europe, and with talk of protection of ethnic minorities after centuries of pogroms and discrimination.
Our growing collection of posters by the avant-garde Japanese designer are portals to universes never before imagined.
Post-war Japan was a catalyzing backdrop that shaped a generation of artists and designers, including the renowned Tadanori Yokoo (横尾 忠則). Over the span of two decades, the Emperor’s divinity had been absolved, the nation was demilitarized, and US military troops had occupied cities. In 1960, at the age of 24, Yokoo traveled 300 miles from Kobe to Tokyo, to the epicenter of this cultural whirlwind. Tokyo, now home to a rapidly increasing population of over 10 million, was preparing to host the 1964 Summer Olympics while reckoning with violent student protests and riots. There, Yokoo’s practice took root and would earn him a reputation for bridging high and low, pre- and post-modern, and Eastern and Western cultures, and challenging conventions by charging posters with intense emotion. Trailblazing across multiple media, Yokoo responded to absurdities of signs and symbols, tensions between seemingly opposing worlds, and existential questions of the self to offer works that are humorous, chaotic, and deeply autobiographical.
While design is never a panacea for the world’s ills, the work of British designer Abram Games has particular poignance as we face new threats, uncertainty, and disinformation.
Last year we were honored to host a Live at the Archive event with Abram’s daughter, Naomi Games. There’s no better time than now to present a recording of her talk, which focuses on the designer’s unique ability to promote health and safety, raise awareness, and unite people under a common cause.
In the 1950s, Pintori revisualized the typewriter, transforming it from esoteric machine to a charming companion of modern office life.
The lifeless, rectangular slabs of metal we type on these days were preceded by tools with personality. Sculptural, colorful, and often weighty, typewriters were transformative machines that shaped modern industry and communication in the 20th century. The Italian brand Olivetti, founded in 1908, was among the many key players in the market and was unique in the way they saw approachable design as core to their identity. Part of Olivetti’s success is owed to Giovanni Pintori, who was the company’s art director from 1950 to 1967. Pintori’s color palettes, shapely abstraction, and smart use of the grid conveyed both the mechanic power of an Olivetti device and the joyful ease one should feel when using it.
For over 50 years, Stauffacher lived a singular life at the heart of San Francisco’s creative community. Now, his legacy lives on at the Archive, and his wood type prints are the subject of our third book.
Some rooms convey history all by themselves. They tell stories about the people who live in them before those occupants even utter a word. Jack Stauffacher’s studio in San Francisco was such a place.
A rare set of Japanese trade publications serves a visual feast of modern graphics and lettering, as well as a study of early-20th-century interactions between Japan and the West.
The early 20th century in Japan witnessed a collision of emerging and residual forces. Tensions between past, present, and future shaped typography, lettering, and other areas of design. Leading up to the Shōwa period (1926–89), as a result of the nation’s modernization and growth of commerce, businesses recognized the value of advertising to consumers in a visually appealing way.
The budding interest in creative advertising and the rise of commercial retail led to a 1920s–30s boom in design trade publishing to satisfy the growing demand for rich reference materials. In 1926, Hamada Masuji (濱田 増治) and a group of colleagues, including Sugiura Hisui, Watanabe Soshu, Nakada Sadanouke, and Miyashita Takao formed the Association of Commercial Artists. Together, with Hamada serving as the Editor-in-Chief, they published The Complete Commercial Artist, a 24-volume collection of trade publications on commercial design.
Jakob Erbar’s least known typeface went silent in World War II. David Jonathan Ross used a specimen at the Archive to bring it back to life.
One look at the web or our phones these days and it’s obvious that a certain style of typeface dominates contemporary design: the geometric sans serif. It feels like nearly every company, from tech startup to multinational corporation, is finding safety and clarity in the genre’s circular rounds, sharp corners, and clean finish. Meanwhile, there’s also a growing hunger for things that are handmade and handwritten, authentic and imperfect. These universal desires for mechanical order and human warmth are pulling in opposite directions.
Lautsprecher (German for “loudspeaker”) is a virtually unknown metal typeface from 1931 that somehow hits tones both geometric and calligraphic, right at a time when we’re tuned into those very frequencies.
Dozens of title treatment sketches by the renowned lettering artist and designer have found a home at the Archive.
There are designers who choose to master their craft for a specific industry. And then there are designers, like Michael Doret, who refuse to stay in one lane. Doret brings his lettering talent to a range of clients: designing logos for sports teams, fast food chains, titles for comic books, children’s animations, drama movies, and typefaces. He sees each project as a unique design challenge: embracing the differences and running with them to come up with the most exciting solution possible. To put it simply, nothing is out of Doret’s reach. In 2018, Doret donated half of his working archive to Letterform Archive and the other half to the Herb Lubalin Center in New York. We are honored that Doret’s final proofs for early movies, as well as developmental sketches and inked comps for Disney and Pixar animated features, have found a home in our growing collection of processmaterial.
For the second year in a row, we’re collaborating with Astro Studios on a San Francisco Design Week exhibition. This time, we’re taking you back to the 1990s.
The Archive is excited to partner up with Astro Studios for our second SF Design Week exhibition on Thursday, June 27. Digital Revolution: Designing in the ’90s explores the impact of technologies on design created in this transformative period — the decade when Astro Studios got their start. To celebrate Design Week and Astro’s 25th anniversary, we’re doing a special collaboration, featuring some of Astro’s most notable projects from their early years alongside posters, type specimens, magazines, and ephemera from the Archive’s collection.
The diagrams, illustrations, models, and methods used to teach people how to make letters can be as engaging as the resulting letters themselves.
Earlier this month we participated in the LetterWest Conference with a mini exhibition using hi-fi captures from objects in our collection. Historical instructional material can be found throughout the Archive, from the regal copybooks of Baroque writing masters, to informal lettering manuals for mid-century modern advertising. Here are a few highlights spanning the last three centuries.
Hundreds of items from Rand’s archive, including process material and personal copies of his work, encapsulate a radiant career.
When visitors make requests for Letterform Archive tours and research visits, we hear one name more than any other: Paul Rand. We’ve always had a few special things to show them: brand guides for IBM and NeXT, packaging for Selectric font elements and Producto cigars, and some key poster and book designs. The latest addition, however, brings us a significant collection from his own archive, giving visitors unprecedented access to his work.
Dating back to 1985, specimens of Ahn’s digital type represent the origins of exploration and play found in Hangul design today.
Ahn Sang Soo is often recognized as the father of contemporary Korean type design, and for good reason. His first typeface designed in 1985 broke the molds of Hangul’s traditional design and paved a path of experimentation for the young script. An alumnus and now a professor and Head of the Graphic Design department of Seoul Hongik University, he’s made major typographic contributions in both design and discourse. In 2012, he founded the Paju Typography Institute (PaTI), an alternative design school, as well as AG Typography Institute, an organization that’s dedicated to not only the design of new typefaces, but research, writing, exhibitions, and book design. He’s also published several design books and translated seminal works on typography by Jan Tschichold and Emil Ruder into Korean. Since AG’s founding, Ahn’s original designs have expanded and new faces have been developed. Throughout his career, his typographic lens has also been applied to print magazines, visual arts, photography, poetry, architecture, and more — altogether representing Ahn’s legacy, and his emphasis on the importance of design, research, and play.