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Epicenter of Ephemera: Letterform Archive

Written by in Books, Collections, Inspire

Rob Saunders’ Gift to the World:
Letterform Archive in San Francisco

The ‘Ali Baba Cavern of Type Design,’ a one-stop full-service museum for teachers, researchers, students, designers, and kern nerds.

Rob Saunders has been building his personal collection for 40 years (yes, his entire adult life). His 15,000-ish typographic treasures include books, journals, posters (1,000), type specimens (1,200, including some duplicates now being deaccessioned), and ephemera. He founded Letterform Archive (a.k.a. the Archive) in 2014 as a nonprofit center, miraculously available to… the whole world. Literally and figuratively. Analoggily and digitally. Take a gape.

Personalized Tours
Letterform Archive’s two lofts on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill are open “to all who love letters.” By making an appointment, you are guaranteed a tour tailored to your interests. The materials on view are captivating; the cityscape view through the UV-filtered windows is breathtaking. Ordinarily, archive collections are not flooded with natural light, but this one is. Everything about it is extraordinary. Use this link to make an appointment: Wow!


Archival black box of Piet Zwart blotters served up for my personal enjoyment.

On my second visit to the Archive, I boldly take my folderful of old French advertising blotters for show-and-tell. Saunders smiles and suggests that I might enjoy seeing the Piet Zwart blotters… and presto-pronto, an archival black box simply labelled “Piet Zwart” is served up for my delectation. (See photo above).

Such extraordinary hospitality—ingenious attentiveness to your aesthetic fulfillment—is a hallmark of the Archive. Technically, we are visitors, but we are treated like guests. I chatted with Saunders and executive director Simran Thadani about their approach, and then I asked a handful of appreciators for their impressions.

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Jan van den Velde, Sieghel der Schrijfkonste, an engraved handwriting sample book from 1605. The Archive travels with, and has even loaned, antiquarian 400-year-old objects; the organization’s ambition for its materials is that they are accessible and usable above all else.

Have fun, will travel: Saunders comments, “We are becoming a place that is able to serve a large, even global, community by bringing the collection to our audience wherever they are. We are open to taking materials and duplicate books on the road, not only to book sales and exhibitions, but also to presentations, lectures, and classes. We take a creative approach to how we share our holdings, because we are not a typical library. We are administratively serious, but we can, and do, consider every opportunity to provide greater access to our materials. We are acutely aware that for every person who comes here there are many who would love to, but cannot—or will visit only once. They, too, can learn from and be inspired by our collection. And we work hard to design new ways of for people to experience it.”

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Delight is in the details: Image from a 19th century manuscript. Click to enlarge. By accessing and zooming in on the raw file, you will be magnifying the image about 30x.

Swell show & tell: The Archive’s digitization initiative relies on a powerful 100MP digital camera. All images are shot under raking light—that is, rather than shining light on the objects straight on, the light comes from an angle, enabling the camera to capture texture, depth, shadow, and detail. For other items,  a straight-on image is preferable. In these cases, the Archive is able to scan on demand at 600dpi, giving high-resolution images without “chatter.” Perfect for type designers who need to see contour up close, without shadow.

The Archive painstakingly and exquisitely documents its holdings. Cataloging and listing is under way, with Librarian Amelia Grounds leading a team of employees, volunteers, and interns in managing and organizing materials. Take a look at the Archive’s main gallery which features high-resolution photos or scans of dozens of items. Browse by date, the earliest being 1120, the latest being 2003. Select recent acquisitions are displayed in a separate series, “This Just In,” complete with background narrative and high-resolution captures you can download.

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Title page of “I’m going but I am,” 12 poems by JC van Schagen cut in paper by Juriaan Schrofer, Arnhem, 1984. Click to enlarge. By accessing and zooming in on the raw file, you will be magnifying the image about 30x.

Awing diverse audiences: Simran Thadani, who goes by Sim, celebrated her one-year anniversary at the Archive on June 10. She reflects, “It has evolved so quickly from an idea in Rob’s head three years ago to something with broad global reputation today. On the one hand, we are a resource for book artists, academics, librarians, collectors, lettering artists, calligraphers, and designers—the community of people who already ‘get it.’ On the other, we welcome people who aren’t that familiar with this type of collection—visitors who have never touched a 16th-century book, never dreamt that a cuneiform tablet could be at their fingertips. We particularly welcome students with a visual interest but who haven’t enjoyed first-hand experience with such work.”


A specimen of Monotype’s Gill Sans, 1928.

Using the collection: During a conversation with Jean-Baptiste Levée, a Parisian type designer who serves as an advisor to the Archive, I refer to the Archive as the “Epicenter of Ephemera.” He outdoes me with his mots justes: the “Ali Baba Cavern of Type Design.” We agree it is a one-stop full-service shop for resources, teaching, and research. Levée is looking forward to seeing the Archive’s catalogue accessible online. He has visited once, and adds, “For my research, I know that having a direct, welcoming contact with the team will be of tremendous help to pinpoint a resource and utilize the iconography.” 


Type designer, lettering artist and  Archive Board member Sumner Stone (standing at left) leads a workshop in the Archive’s Monotype Classroom. Stone designed Letterform Archive’s logotype, a suspended firework of red A’s that seems to burst with love of lettering.

Visiting for inspiration: Obviously, the Archive is a valuable resource and treat for San Francisco designers. Kim Urbain’s design studio is around the corner; she read about the Archive in the AIGA newsletter and promptly scheduled a visit. “Sim and Rob took turns presenting the work, and it was fabulous,” she says. “Just seeing these things is inspirational. When you can personally view a Paul Rand 60s print, it reminds you that the message, not the ‘design,’ is paramount.”


Susan Merritt purchased the Archive’s duplicate copy of a 1962 type specimen for Berthold’s Akzidenz Grotesque (marketed as “Standard” in the U.S.).  She wrote about Letterform Archive in the AIGA newsletter after her first visit.

“I regard Letterform Archive as a museum,” adds Urbain. “They don’t have the space to exhibit everything, so they have to be selective. But they do have a huge conference room table for arraying many works at a time—and at your fingertips.”

Joel Benson of Dependable Letterpress heard Saunders speak two years ago at the Colophon Club (a thriving society—with no website—of printers and other book lovers). “I went to the first open house—not a good time to see anything specific but still an opportunity to witness the impressive volume of this collection. The Archive’s highest value is its accessibility—anyone can visit it.”

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Charles Gilbert, Prières Chrétiennes pour Monsieur de Bonneil, Paris, 1689, calligraphic manuscript on vellum. This is a fine example of a Book of Hours, a portable-size devotional text. It was created for the French royal family by an accomplished calligrapher, and is decorated in gold throughout.

Saunders recently shared with Benson a photo of Fillmore rock posters from the 60s that Saunders had taken at the new SFMOMA. Letterform Archive owns prints of most of the posters in the exhibition. This pleases Saunders, and it pleases Benson too: “If I want to closely examine such posters, rather than contending with the crowds at SFMOMA, I can arrange a private viewing at Letterform Archive.”

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Wes Wilson, Fillmore Auditorium handbills, 1967.  The Archive has about 150 psychedelic posters in its collection.

Growing archive: Emigre, Inc. announced this month the donation of their archive to Letterform Archive. The gift from the renowned type foundry includes a complete run of the eponymous magazine (69 issues, published between 1984 and 2005), as well as paste-up boards and press sheets. Letterform Archive will transfer to digital media Emigre’s invaluable collection of cassette-tape interviews with design luminaries and artists. Similarly, many of Emigre’s earliest typeface-development files are unreadable with contemporary software. The plan, says Sim Thadani, is “to port over the typeface files to newer software, such that future audiences will have access to these otherwise medium-bound artifacts.”

Letterform Archive also acquired the extensive Jan Tholenaar collection from Amsterdam in 2015, doubling its holdings. Such acquisitions are testament to Letterform Archive’s growing international reputation as an important and innovative custodian of graphic and print treasures from around the world.

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Society of Calligraphers stationery, with calligraphy by W.A. Dwiggins, circa 1925.

Fresh impressions: Letterform Archive is not just about the past; it is also creating new publications. First up, a new monograph about artist and designer William Addison Dwiggins (1880–1956) by Bruce Kennett. The book is lavishly, lusciously illustrated with more than 1,200 Dwiggins samples, most from Letterform Archive collection. To preview the book development, join the Archive’s Dwiggins mailing list.

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Volunteer and lettering artist Laura Serra sorting through a collection of printed currency notes.

Educating the next generation: Designer Bob Aufuldish also heard Saunders’ talk at the Colophon Club two years ago. “In his talk Saunders presented an illustrated overview of Letterform Archive. I was gobsmacked by the depth of the collection.” So he decided to take some of his students from California College of the Arts to see it. “I had a sense of what I’d see: treasures! But what made the experience really special was that Rob asked each of us what we were interested in and then brought out either that exact object or something beautifully related. And we could handle everything.”


Bob Aufuldish recalls, “Almost as a kind of joke, I asked Rob Saunders if he had Bodoni’s Manuale Tipografico. And he did. It is part of the Tholenaar collection. I paged through it at my leisure, and it was an  intoxicating experience.”

Aufuldish describes the collection as the history of graphic design as told by graphic ephemera. Rooms full of accessible materials that could’ve been discarded but were not. “These artifacts were so beautiful and compelling that someone kept them. As everything becomes dematerialized, it’s crucial that we still be able to reconnect to physical objects.”

Aufuldish comments that the breadth and depth of the collection is especially important to design students because “It provides the sweep of design and type history, not the just the ‘greatest hits’ they see online or in books. The collection reveals the details, the texture, the beautiful ‘mistakes.’ For me, what I loved most about our visit was being able to show my students that not all headlines in Bodoni’s Manuale are well letterspaced.” Ah, the beauty of imperfection.

Now, that’s amore.


The 15 ft. long display ledge is splendid for rotating mini-exhibits, easily switched out. Shown here is a selection of type specimens and ephemera from Monotype, in celebration of an event the foundry recently hosted at the Archive.


  1. 06

    This museum will become one of SF’s “hidden gems” on par with SF’s many others: Community Garden at Fort Mason, Ashbury Park at the peak of Haight Ashbury, Maiden Lane off Union Square, the Japanese Tea Garden in GG Park. Ephemera to some; treasure to others. While I bet Mr. Saunders endured a lot of eye-rolling and criticism from people who watched him amass this collection (hoarding is one term some might use), his foresight created this collection. The Girard Collection in Santa Fe is another such personal collection that probably cost Mr. Girard a lot of angst.

  2. 06

    I seem to remember that Rob Saunders organized a trip to The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library when we were both college students. Quite wonderful & memorable. It appears that Letterform Archive will be memorable for many more. Thank you to the writer – Alyson Kuhn – for letting us know about this and making it accessible via her profile.