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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

By the Letter: The Letterform Archive Opens “Without Type”

Posted By on Wed, Jan 20, 2016 at 11:30 AM

"Flemish Book of Hours," Unknown Artist, 15th Century // "Man From Utopia," Rick Griffin, 1972 - COURTESY LETTERFORM ARCHIVE
  • Courtesy Letterform Archive
  • "Flemish Book of Hours," Unknown Artist, 15th Century // "Man From Utopia," Rick Griffin, 1972

It was calligraphy that first drew Rob Saunders to the art form of letters and typography. He has always held a fascination with handmade letters of various kinds, a passion that eventually resulted in him opening the Letterform Archive in Portrero Hill. As the founder and curator, Saunders has amassed over 30,000 unique pieces, and regularly hosts visits for classrooms, design teams, small groups, and individuals.

Over 900 people from 22 countries have visited the Archive since its doors opened in February 2015. The space features one small display case that is ever-changing, and Saunders notes that what’s on the tables day to day “depends on who [is] coming [in].” In short, space is tight, a problem most Bay Area residents can relate to. Saunders cites The Letterform Archive’s small square footage as the main obstacle preventing them from mounting a larger-scale special exhibition.

Help arrived in the form of the San Francisco Center for the Book.

“We’d been talking to the Center for the Book about an exhibit since before we even opened [the Archive],” says Saunders. “Finally we got a slot on their calendar and made them a proposal.”

That proposal became a reality, and on Jan. 22, the Letterform Archive and the San Francisco Center for the Book will open “Without Type: The Dynamism of Handmade Letters,” an exhibit highlighting the history and reoccurring themes of handmade letters throughout time. The first exhibit put on by the Letterform Archive, Saunders calls “Without Type” a perfect overlap of the two organizations’ audiences.

click to enlarge "Buchstaben-Buch," Karlgeorg Hoefer, 1977 // " - Stream Joy" Toko Shinoda, 1980s - COURTESY LETTERFORM ARCHIVE
  • Courtesy Letterform Archive
  • "Buchstaben-Buch," Karlgeorg Hoefer, 1977 // "Stream Joy" Toko Shinoda, 1980s
Pairing work that is separated in some cases by centuries, “Without Type” strives to emphasize the difference and importance between letters made by hand and those that are type (commonly defined as “a repeatable set of letters”).

While typographic work in the field of fonts is certainly an art form in its own right, “Without Type” is focused exclusively on handmade letters. One pairing juxtaposes the late 1960s Fillmore poster lettering of Wes Wilson with the art of turn of the century Austrian Alfred Roller. Saunders describes the similarities in the work of Wilson and Roller as a “visual echo.” This concept served as an organizational principal in curating the show.

“We wanted to bring in a tremendous variety of examples from different times, disciplines, and techniques, but that share something aesthetic,” he says.

While much of the work on display is from artists who have long since passed, living contributors like Wilson are also  represented in the show. One notable contributor is Jessica Hische, a highly sought after graphic designer who has worked with everyone from the email company Mail Chimp to director Wes Anderson.

click image Hand-lettered poster art by Jessica Hische - COURTESY OF THE LETTERFORM ARCHIVE
  • Courtesy of The Letterform Archive
  • Hand-lettered poster art by Jessica Hische
Hische calls the Letterform Archive "one of my favorite things in existence on this side of the country." She says the project allowed her to work a bit outside of her stylistic comfort zone, and recalls how fun it was to thumb through inspirational resources with Saunders after he approached her to design the front and back covers of the catalog that accompanies “Without Type.” While discussing the exhibit's concept, Saunders says Hische expressed an interest in furthering the echo motif. The results are a front cover in the spirit of Wes Wilson and a back cover inspired by Alfred Roller.

Hische’s original sketches and vector art are included in the exhibition too. In addition to appearing on the front of the “Without Type” catalog, her front cover homage to Wilson will also be available as a limited edition, signed print. The connection between Hische’s work, Wilson’s posters, and Roller’s original artwork is precisely what Saunders is hoping to spotlight. Most of the pieces on display are presented as pairs, while a few selections are featured in slightly larger groups.

In total, over 50 pieces will be displayed as part of the “Without Type” exhibition; a number Saunders says could easily have surpassed 100.

“We had a much larger universe laid out,” he says, “so we were able to be a little picky and consider the overall range of the show and how things flowed together.”

Older pieces on display have global origins, like Fortunato Depero’s 1928 magazine cover for Milan’s Secolo XX and 17th century calligraphy from Dutch Golden Age painter and engraver Jan van den Velde. Other contemporary artists featured include Jim Parkinson, famous for designing the mastheads of magazines ranging from Esquire and Men’s Health to Rolling Stone and Newsweek, and Thom Ingmire, a noted calligrapher.

For Saunders, the genesis of the exhibition came from a few select pairings that then led to a larger curatorial undertaking. While the process was initially difficult, eventually things began to take shape. The results are a visual history lesson in handmade letter art, and hopefully an open door for Saunders to continue sharing his vast and unique collection.

“We’re definitely interested in exhibiting the stuff in the archive, both by loan and by curation,” he says. “It’s a question of finding the right collaborators and having good ideas, but yes, we hope this becomes a regular thing.”

“Without Type: The Dynamism of Handmade Letters," at the San Francisco Center for the Book, 375 Rhode Island, Jan. 22 - April 3, Curated by Rob Saunders with Associate Curator Kate Robinson.

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About The Author

Zack Ruskin

Zack Ruskin

Zack was born in San Francisco and never found a reason to leave. He has written for Consequence of Sound, The Believer, The Millions, and The Rumpus. He is still in search of a Bort license plate.

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