The team at Letterform Archive reveal their favourite type-filled books

26 June 2019

Letterform Archive is a museum and non-profit library based in San Fransisco, California. Founded by Rob Saunders, an avid gatherer of the letter arts for over 40 years, the archive was formed primarily as a place for him to share his private collection with the world. Now, after opening its doors in 2015, it boasts hands-on access to a curated selection of over 50,000 items relating to lettering, typography, calligraphy and graphic design. It’s a mammoth acquisition that spans thousands of years of history – quite impressive, some might say.

And back in 2016, we covered the news that type foundry Emigre donated a large trove of rare archival materials to Letterform Archive – which is just an example of how diverse and fantastic its collections really are. So, to give us a glimpse into the inner workings of the archive, here, five members of the team at Letterform Archive each pick an inspiring book that they found in the files. Enjoy!

Rachel Daniels, photographer: Timothy Ely: Scans

Upon first experiencing Scans, a beautifully hand-crafted artist book by Timothy Ely, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was on the verge of finding some kind of lost magic. Within the publication, Ely creates a portal into a secret place, and each turn of the page reveals even more mystery to decipher.

I am delighted by the evidence of material alchemy at work throughout the book, whether it be sewn into his stub binding or fused to his unique pigments. There are die-cut windows, painted paper inlaid in the cover, gold tooling and a curious hand-drawn syntax of marks – known as “cribriform” – used for describing sounds. Illustrated charts, graphs and sacred geometry are all part of Ely’s illusory systems. They are combined with precise topographical maps, defining the pseudo-geographical context from which these secrets are born.

It is like being transported to an alternate universe – just on the edge of the familiar, teasing at comprehension, yet still shrouded in a curious riddle.

Florence Fu, editorial assistant: Gendai Shôgyô Bijutsu Zenshû: The Commercial Artist

I’m particularly interested in east Asian graphic design and typography, so when I stumbled upon the full run of The Commercial Artist at Letterform Archive, I was completely swept away. Published between 1928-30, the trade publication documents the development of modern Japanese graphic design and lettering. This period in Japan witnessed a boom in consumerism following the Meiji Restoration which demanded a need for designers and beautiful advertising – and The Commercial Artist served as a perfect reference.

I like how the series is interested in both the visual expression and the written theory behind graphic design. At the front of each issue is a scrapbook of photographs documenting design in the West and in Japan; the middle sections feature original artwork and lettering by Japanese commercial artists. While the illustrations are signed, it remains a mystery as to who these artists actually were. The issues conclude with essays that analyse best practices for advertising, from how light should be cast on a window display to where the consumer’s gaze might land when passing by a storefront.

Kate Long, assistant librarian: Pavel Eisner: Franz Kafka and Prague

Designed by Ladislav Sutnar, this little book is unassuming but packs a visual punch. I like to show it to visitors that are interested in book design, because it won’t let readers lean too heavily on expectation. Sutnar’s work (of which Letterform Archive holds a large collection) is typically clean and methodical – and Kafka is no exception. The cover is quietly pleasing, with its simple illustrated monogram and gentle colours. But then you open it, and it blows your mind.

Everything you expect to see is there, just not always where you expect to see it. The minimal frontispiece has only a recurrence of the monogram, which might be my favourite detail in the book. We also see that charming mark embossed on the cloth cover. Sutnar was known as a pioneer of information design and he literally wrote the books on designing catalogues, packaging, and point-of-sale. I like seeing how someone who knew intimately all of the rules of design decided to turn them on their heads, leaving us with surprising page layouts. In that regard, this book feels like a tiny, beautiful rebellion. And that’s what I love about it.

Hank Smith, collections assistant: G. Van den Bergh: Twin- and Multiple-Print: Capital Letters

This was one of the first books (really it’s a three-ring binder) I picked up on my very first day working at Letterform Archive. A little over a year later, I’m still not sure I’ve topped it in terms of eccentricity. Capital Letters: Twin- and Multiple-Print (1958) publishes the experimental research of George van den Bergh towards significantly reducing the cost of publications, especially academic books.

What this amounts to is an almost neurotic obsession with maximising the efficiency of paper usage through typographic methods – most of which are novel ideas for printing as much text on a single page at once. Text is set much smaller, and in all-caps, so that lines of text can then be smashed together as close as possible. This inevitably makes legibility a problem, and so at this point, a “reading-screen” is employed to artificially reintroduce line spacing, and on each page, we’re meant to read first all the odd-numbered lines, then shift the screen down one line to read all the even numbered lines. (In some versions, the alternate lines are printed upside down, so the book would be read front to back, flipped around, and then read the other way.) These techniques are then combined with his most eccentric idea: printing alternate texts on top of each other in red and green, and using coloured lenses to filter out one or the other coloured text.

Paola Zanol, collections associate: Wlademir Dias-Pino and João Felício dos Santos: A Marca e o Logotipo Brasileiros

A Marca e o Logotipo Brasileiros is a catalogue by Brazilian designers Wlademir Dias-Pino and João Felício dos Santos, found in the “Marks and Symbols” section of Letterform Archive’s reference library. The book is not only a great way to explore the possibilities of logo design, but it is also a beautiful example of print design. While many logo reference books tend to be in black-and-white, to focus on the mark itself, A Marca e o Logotipo Brasileiros is unique with its dynamic use of colour and unconventional approach in composition. The designers play with multicolour inks and duotone printing techniques to create contrast on the page – green on orange, red on blue, or yellow and black.

Flipping through the book, you’re met with surprises with each turn of the page — everything from prehistoric cave paintings, calligraphy, and tribal tattoos, to acupuncture diagrams, Rorschach ink blots and Paul Klee’s symbolic drawings. Antônio Houaiss, captures the essence of this unique book best in the epilogue: “On the one hand, this book is a rational and thematic catalogue of Brazilian trademarks and logos capable of providing users with a very rich repertoire of specimens of this nature. On the other hand, it goes far beyond this, for it constitutes without favour a precious initiation to the faculty and art of seeing.”

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima. 

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