Rob Saunders, a former children’s book publisher, is the founder and curator of the Letterform Archive in San Francisco. After collecting type and typography documents and artifacts for 40 years, he thought long and hard about what to do with the collection. When he talked to appropriate institutions there was a lot of interest, but very little in the way of plans or assurances about how the materials would be used. It felt likely that the collection would just disappear into a larger institution where design is just one of many subjects. Then, in 2012 he met a recent MFA graduate in type design from the Royal Academy in The Hague who helped organize the collection. But the real impact of her internship was bringing her friends to see it. “Their passion and knowledge were major catalysts in developing the idea of the Archive. It became clear that students and young designers were an underserved constituency when it comes to accessing inspiring artifacts from the history of graphic design.” I asked Saunders (who was in New York with Simran Thadani, executive director) to talk more about the Archive and the current exhibition built upon the collection, “Without Type: The Dynamism of Handmade Letters” (on view at the San Francisco Center For The Book).
Your current exhibit is “Without Type.” A provocative title for a type archive. Do tell more? Actually, as a letterform archive, handmade letters are a key focus of what we do. After all calligraphy is the root of all early type, and even today many of the best ideas for new typefaces come from handmade letters.
What is the scope of the exhibit?
Aside from the basic constraint that all the letters are handmade, the show is comprised of groups of pieces that echo each other visually despite being from quite different times, places, disciplines or cultures.
There is more interest than ever before with letterforms and typefaces. What do you think accounts for this?
Everyone has a favorite font these days, because we all select them all the time, even if only for a word processing document or presentation. The evolving sophistication of typography and design on the web has increased the demand for skilled typographers in the tech community, and raised the visibility of type among laypeople. As a result of all this, design and branding have become something of a spectator sport even among nondesigners, and lettering hobbyists abound.