World’s Biggest Typography Instagram Now Has a Gallery in San Francisco

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If you go to the Letterform Archive Instagram page right now, you’ll probably see all of your coolest and best-dressed friends listed under the “Follow By” section. For four decades, Letterform founder Rob Saunders has collected exceptional examples of the letter arts from around the world. The more than 75,000 pieces in the collection range from “typographic ephemera” from 1930s Germany to a wide range of typefaces from a 1780s printing press to an equally ancient book from Indonesia containing a majestic illustration of a buraq, a winged creature resembling a horse. For artists, designers and versatile dreamers, it’s a wonderland. Online archives make most of these documents easily accessible.

Letterform Archive has been open to visitors since 2015 – welcoming, by their calculations, “10,000 visitors from 30 countries, including students, practitioners and admirers of letterform from all creative backgrounds”. While COVID put a temporary halt to that, Saunders and his team were busy planning for the debut of this new space in Dogpatch. The first exhibition will focus on typography from the highly influential Bauhaus school, founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar, Germany, in 1919. “We either show things we have or things we want,” Saunders says. This show represents the old; an upcoming exhibition on graffiti arts will focus on the latter.

Here we talk to Saunders about the archive, his future, if SF has a semi-official font, and what typeface he thinks is best.

InsideHook: Why is now a good time to open a gallery?

Rob Saunders: We always wanted a gallery. Our old location – which is only about six or eight blocks from where we are now – consisted of three living work lofts that were in the same lobby, but were terribly inefficient. We were running up the stairs and going in and out of locked doors with books all the time. We knew we had to leave – in the end our landlord kind of forced us out. Gallery space was one of the criteria we had for a new space.

It’s quite small, but it’s a nice space in an old industrial building. It was just an ambition we had for a while — to have a gallery and to be able to share the collection with the public in that way.

Joost Schmidt/Letter Archive

Why start with Bauhaus typography?

Well, we are in the centenary of the school, which operated from 1919 to 1933, even though the typography workshop was not created until 1925. There have been many anniversaries [events] this happened around 2019, but we wanted to dive deeper and also address a slightly broader timeframe.

It’s also a strength of collecting, something I’ve been collecting for a very long time.

I’m sure you could have done anything you wanted in the world of art or design. Why the art of letters?

it started, you know, like a lot of passions: I was very young. Calligraphy was the gateway drug. I started doing it at 18, and I got pretty far down this rabbit hole, which led to typography and graphic design. Then I studied that and was an educator for a while right out of college. [Saunders taught at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and Tufts University.]

Did you practice calligraphy at 18? I don’t know many 18-year-olds who make that choice.

I had a tutor who was learning it at Northwestern and introduced me to it, and I was just fascinated by it. I bought a set of Osmiroid pens, which is a fountain pen with sharp tips, and started playing. It was a pretty deep rabbit hole. I probably did my 10,000 hours of calligraphy in about two or three years.

Do you remember the first piece you bought for the collection?

I don’t even remember when it started — I was just a student buying books. It’s not like flipping a switch and all of a sudden you’re a crazy collector. Many of the books were completely normal – just regular new books. It took a while before I started collecting from the antique market. I can tell you, because I coded my books. “I did it religiously when I first started collecting — which means I can look in a book and see when I bought it, and for how much. There are things in the Bauhaus living room that I acquired in 1981.

Postcard 3 of Wassily Kandinsky, Weimar State Bauhaus Exhibition 1923 (Karte 3, Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar Ausstellung 1923), lithograph from 1923.

Wassily Kandinsky/Letterform Archives

Do you remember the last time you saw something that made you stop dead in your tracks?

It happens almost every day here. I get surprised by shit all the time. The collection has exploded so much that I see things every day that I have never seen before.

Something in particular ? Something super special?

I can think of a couple of things – some new ones and some that I discovered in the collection. Just yesterday I was browsing through four or five albums of late 19th century and early 20th century matchbox covers from Sweden, Japan and Belgium, all from the same factory, which exported them all over the world. But I do not know ! I might have looked away and said Russian constructivism.

Do you find it as rich, creatively speaking, as it has ever been?

It’s a complicated question. I’m optimistic about Dogpatch, the arts district here, because it’s more affordable. But everything is racing beyond creatives and freelancers, in particular. It is a systemic problem.

I’m optimistic. When we opened, we did not anticipate the interest we generated in volume – nor in demographics; it’s much younger than we thought. It’s actually focused on people who, for example, have had an all-computer graphic education, and they’re craving [print].

As you know, San Francisco has a very rich design history. Turns out it was, I think, a great place to open the archives, because New York is a bit crowded as a market. San Francisco is surprisingly rich in design and the younger generation is amazing.

Bauhaus typography at 100 pounds.

Bauhaus typography

What do you hope the archives will be doing in a year or two that they’re not doing now?

Honestly, nothing – we do enough for a year! We plan to expand some programs. The biggest thing we will face next year is the transition from kind of [Covid-induced] state of hibernation at [the archive] be fully open to the public again. Everyone will be masked and [collection access] is not as risky as, for example, a class or an introductory visit with 20 people around a table talking to people. These services will therefore open next year. But we’ve been very busy – we’ve been preparing books, we’ve done a lot of digitizing and cataloging for the online archive, and we’ve been planning openings.

Do you think San Francisco has a typeface, like Helvetica is associated with New York?

Some cities have ordered fonts – Minneapolis comes to mind, and many cities in Europe. I don’t believe New York or San Francisco ordered a font, and I don’t think either really suggests one, per use case proliferation, do they? They are both quite varied and typographically rich environments.

Is there a typeface that you find yourself coming back to – that helps you think better?

Syntax. It’s been a favorite for nearly 40 years, and I’ve used it on and off for a variety of things.

Actually – I don’t know. I had to drop something. It’s an impossible question.

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