San Francisco’s Letterform Archive is bringing its collections to the world with the launch of an online archive, supported by a new membership scheme. This is an opportunity to access and support the archive’s valuable work, and shows leadership in the sphere of making archives accessible through digital technology.

(Pictured above is Arthur Baker, brush alphabet, 1981.)

Since opening its doors to the public in 2015, Letterform Archive has provided lettering, type and design inspiration to over 5,000 visitors. Their collections span the entire history of the written word, and continue to grow through others’ generous donations. Serendipity is the order of the day with all the materials readily accessible, facilitating the discovery of the unexpected. Expert advice and guidance is also on hand from the dedicated curatorial team.

The archive’s outreach activities also includes a busy events and exhibitions programme, and I was lucky to see some of the material during their pop-up show at the 2017 London Design Festival. This focused on the process of design, showing material that illustrated the sketching and development journey taken during the creation of finished works. It was wonderful to see original pieces from Ross F. George, the man behind the Speedball Text Book, among many other fascinating exhibits. We have also taken participants at our San Francisco sign painting workshops to the archive for an injection of visual stimulation ahead of class. They have returned inspired, but aware that they have only scratched the surface of what the archive holds.

Despite these efforts to get the objects from the archive in front of people, not everyone is lucky enough to live in California, or able to make the pilgrimage. However, the world’s design community is clearly online and this is where Letterform Archive will be setting up their second home in 2019. The digital archive will initially feature over 1,000 of the archive’s most important objects, photographed in high resolution, with more being added as the project develops. The material is supported by an underlying database, making it both searchable and filterable to help facilitate visitors’ process of discovery.

This is a wonderful development for the archive and builds on their general principle of making the material as open and accessible as possible. Evidence of this has approach already exists in the ongoing publication of material via the archive’s social media feeds (viz. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook), and their online archive will consolidate this to present it systematically. It is encouraging to see this turning of the archive inside out to face the world, rather than the ‘closed doors’ approach often taken elsewhere. This should serve as an exemplar of what can be done with archives if the will is there.

While the general launch of the online archive is due in 2019, a ‘beta’ version will be available to Letterform Archive members from next week on 10th December. Membership is a means to provide financial support to the work of the archive, and its different tiers come with various benefits in addition to this early access to the online archive. The video below explains a bit more, with a tiny sample of the archive’s material follows that.

Find out more about the online archive here, and join here.

Lehmann Printing, hand painted beer label comp for Acme Brewing Co., ca. 1930.

Lehmann Printing, label comp for OBCO Pilsener Type Beer (half pencil sketch), ca. 1930.

Lehmann Printing, label comp for OBCO Pilsener Type Beer (half pencil sketch), ca. 1930.

Ross F. George, ink on signboard drawing advertisement for Speedball drawing and lettering pens, ca. 1920.

Ross F. George, Advertising Moods (original artwork for Speedball Text Book), ca. 1920.

Lehmann Printing, gouache maquette for label, ca. 1930.

Lehmann Printing, gouache maquette for label, ca. 1930.

Lloyd Reynolds, Page layout guide, 1967.

Dorothy Shepard, billboard design for Wrigley’s Spearmint gum, 1939.

Susan Skarsgard, 26 of 26: An Edition of Twenty-Six Alphabets, 2009.