Art + Design

Design Desk: A Visit to the Letterform Archive in San Francisco

In mid-August fellow Chronicle designer Ryan Hayes and I visited the Letterform Archive in San Francisco. I had stumbled across the website before, but when a coworker passed the link along to me I felt like it was time to make an appointment to see this intriguing collection.

Once there, Ryan and I met the hospitable and extremely knowledgeable curator Rob Saunders, who, although in the middle of a large book project, generously gave us some time and showed us around his impressive collection.

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There were several other people visiting the Archive that day. Among them was Sumner Stone, the hugely influential type designer, lettering artist, and graphic designer, who had recently conducted a type workshop with the Letterform Archive.

One of the main reasons that I had stumbled across the website for the Archive in the first place was because I was looking for information and imagery from the career of W.A. Dwiggins, the 20th century letterer, illustrator, type designer, and book designer. Mr. Saunders has a particular affinity for and expertise on the career of Dwiggins. He made sure to tell us that he had material in his large collection from many other significant designers and periods of design history, but we spent the majority of our brief visit looking through gorgeous printed works and handmade originals from the expansive career of Dwiggins. Rob took time to give us context for many of the pieces and talk us through some of the innovations and achievements in Dwiggins’ work that these pieces represented.

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Here is one of Dwiggins’ most iconic and well-known book designs; a gorgeous limited edition version of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. It was packaged in a slipcase, with stunning printing in several colors on the exterior as well as the interior, with illustrations and bold, geometric decoration by Dwiggins. It is a breathtaking book.

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The strange abstract geometric patterns on the front cover and interiors represent an innovation that is a one of several hallmarks of his career. Rob explained to us how Dwiggins had developed the technique for using a library of handmade stencils cut into transparent celluloid to create these compositions, and even showed us an original illustration created by Dwiggins as an example of this technique (below).

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Before being hired by Alfred Knopf as the lead designer of his relatively new publishing house in the late 1920s, Dwiggins was already a prominent figure in the advertising and commercial art field, making work for a wide range of clients. Here is one example of his stunning hand-rendered concepts, including penciled-in notes of client feedback, for what I took to be corporate letterhead or correspondence stationery of some kind:

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The final printed piece is the last card in the series.

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Another impressive and fascinating piece in the collection was a treatise, written and designed by Dwiggins, that is his critique and (hilariously cranky) recommendation for an overhaul of American currency and other official printed ephemera:

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It included Dwiggins’ own designs, as a proof of concept, for an imaginary nation called “Antipodes.”

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In addition to the materials from Dwiggins’ career, Rob gave us a very tiny taste of the other treasures and incredible artifacts he has collected from other periods and legendary figures in the history of design and typography. Here are a few examples:

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This appears to be an edition of the play Pastor Fido, printed by Giambattista Bodoni in 1793.

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This is an extremely old book which holds a collection of various examples of lettering styles and calligraphy techniques.

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And this is a tiny volume of exclusively hand-illuminated vellum sheets. There was no mechanical type in it, and the micro-scale was pretty astonishing.

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Finally, I asked Rob what the oldest piece in his collection is. He replied, “How about something from around 2,200 BC?” and then produced a cuneiform tablet that he allowed us to handle and ogle to our heart’s content.

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Neil Egan
Senior Designer

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