Bonjour, mes amis ! This week is for lovers of food and design alike! I recently learned that one of my college classmates, Simran Thadani, was named executive director of an amazing design resource in San Francisco called Letterform Archive. Tucked away in a quiet corner of the city, the luminous space of the Archive occupies the former residence of its founder, Rob Saunders, and then some.
Simran greeted me one sunny afternoon, breezing past the collection of black-light posters from the famed Fillmore and shelves full of clothbound books. Bella, Rob Saunders’s dog, pranced around us excitedly before finally settling for some back rubs.
As one can devise from its name, Letterform Archive is meant to be a resource to anyone in the lettering arts. Visitors can consult and touch even the oldest works. The Archive’s main reading room houses 15,000 items, while the next door annex houses the Tholenaar collection of type–another 15,000 items! Just about any day of the week, visitors and researchers can browse the collection free of charge—and they do. The Archive hosts lectures and weekend workshops, and has a certificate program with Cooper Union in New York. Along with these ambitious undertakings, the Archive is buoyed by a growing number of admirers worldwide.
I asked to see food-related works in the collection, so Simran set aside a number of items, all of them amazing. We began with some extraordinarily detailed, hand-painted food labels. Simran explained that they dated from the 1920s and 30s, and were drafts. After being finalized, color plates would be made so these designs could be printed. The Archive has searched for these final printed labels without luck, so these versions might be the only left for us to know.
From there, we moved to a stunning collection of recipes written by Alice Waters and illustrated by David Lance Goines. The collection was first published in 1968, with proceeds going to fund Goines’s printing press and Chez Panisse. I loved the whole wheat bread recipe’s design with its repeated wheat pattern, but there was also a charming paella recipe adorned with crabs, chicken biryani decorated with marguerites, and others.
If you can tear yourself away from food for a bit, there are antique printed materials there for the exploring! One Dutch letterpress printing from 1846, meant to celebrate the printing trade, featured repeated iterations of different decorative typographical ornaments. It was so detailed, we both took a few extra moments to admire the skill involved in its making.
Simran continued to lay mountains of material before me. There were steamer trunk stamps from the beginning of the 20th century, which allowed travelers to show off their worldliness (and for hotels to get some marketing in), menus from special meals, typeface specimen books meant to demonstrate different typefaces available for purchase, and I can’t remember what else.
Some of the most beautiful pieces we looked at were penmanship instruction books. Overflowing with curlicues and ornamentation, I’m not sure how practical they were, but I loved leafing through the pages.
If you’re in need of some inspiration, love the printed word, or just want to see something super cool, come visit Letterform Archive!
Thanks so much, Simran, for showing me around! Follow Letterform Archive’s Instagram account for updates!
Thanks so much for reading! If you want more, go follow my Instagram account!