Peanut butter ad for the Kelly Peanut Company, designed by Lehmann Printing and Lithography Company, 1920 (all images courtesy of Letterform Archive)

San Francisco’s Letterform Archive, founded in 2015 by collector Rob Saunders, houses a collection of over 60,000 graphic design items, from as early as 900 CE (labeled “Exodus Manuscript Fragment as Binding”) to as recent as 2019 (a monograph on designer Jennifer Morla published by Letterform Archive).

Letterform, which has been open to the public since its inception, has been expanding the archive’s audience through public lectures and workshops, in addition to its postgraduate certificate program in type design. In early April, it went a step further by opening the archive digitally to the public, expanding its reach and availability of its materials — a project long in the making that just happened to coincide with the closure of public spaces across the globe due to the spread of COVID-19. The digital Letterform Archive has made nearly 1,500 objects accessible to browse online through over 9,000 high-resolution images.

Digital archives can be challenging, even for experienced researchers who are well-versed at navigating finding aids. But, much like the material it catalogues, Letterform Archive’s virtual presence centers design, for a browsing experience unlike that of most online archives. The website’s opening page is a visually rich selection of images that each lead to more detailed information. The cataloging project was started by librarian Amelia Grounds and assistant librarian Kate Long over two years ago; it required them to create a language that fit both the materials and the visual vocabulary of graphic designers. As Long notes in a news post on the archive’s website, “We want to create an intuitive experience for designers — not teach them a new lexicon.” Working within existing cataloging and data standards, Grounds and Long found ways to add and connect traditional metadata priorities (such as book author) with designers’ interests (such as typeface and cover designer).

Philip Grushkin, artist paste-up of book cover design in colored pencil on board

The archive is also browsable by six categories: people, firms, disciplines, decades, countries, and formats. While people, decades, and countries are more universal, firm, disciplines, and formats show the work of nuanced cataloging behind the smooth interface. Disciplines available to browse include Graphic Design, Lettering, Illustration, Packaging Design, Visual Language, Typography, and Computer Graphic.

These disciplines encourage lay users to consider the visual properties of items they would perhaps otherwise overlook. For example, searching by packaging design generates a brightly colored 1920 label for the Kelly Peanut Company’s peanut butter, featuring yellow, orange, and green rays emanating out from the circular Dixie Brand logo like a rising sun against a dramatic black background, as well as a series of long vertical 1930s coffee labels for Van Nelle’s coffee beans using an art deco font and a bold orange, white, and blue color scheme, and a range of other beverage and food labels. Searching by firms, users can select the well-known Pabst Brewing Company and find three ads from 1937 featuring their slogan “So much more refreshment when you say PABST,” as well as the famous designer and company Olivetti, or institutions like SFMOMA in San Francisco and the Jewish Museum in New York.

“Cover Your Head” poster by ACTUP! NY, designed by Mark Fox for Black Dog Agency, 1992

For those interested in book design and digital publishing, the archive’s rich holdings include preparatory mockups and cover designs by Philip Grushkin, who designed for Random House, Alfred A. Knopf, and Abrams Art Books (the latter as art director); Alvin Lustig, who designed for New Directions; and sketches for cover designs by corporate designer Paul Rand. The sketches reveal the analogue process of design in the mid to late 20th century. Grushkin’s mockups for books such as Uli Beigel’s Victoria at Night: and Other Stories (1957) and Robert McLaughlin’s The Side of the Angels (1947) include sections marked off with masking tape, hand-drawn letters collaged onto white boards, and pencil notes about margins and colors, while Rand’s mockups show colored collages for Fortune magazine and his mockups for the Yale University logo. (Also in the archive are examples of popular final book covers, such as Grushkin’s design for Betty Smith’s 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Lustig’s illustration for Gertrude Stein’s 1909 story collection Three Lives.)

The unveiling of this digital collection comes at a time when many people are looking for ways to engage with art at home. Many are also, perhaps for the first time, becoming aware of the role design plays in daily life: As we view our friends and colleagues in a grid on a screen, make use of digital backdrops for privacy, tune into media presentations featuring PowerPoint slideshows, or get PSA updates through graphic logos, we learn about corporate design aesthetics and the way design delivers information.

Pabst beer ad, designed by Dorothy Shepard, 1937

Searching by format, the archive’s poster collection showcases a number of propaganda and political resistance posters, such as the 1940 design for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, which encouraged women to “TOGETHER Serve with our fighting army,” and ACTUP! NY’s black and yellow 1992 minimalist poster proclaiming, “COVER YOUR HEAD WEAR A CONDOM!” In 2019, Letterform Archive held a public lecture (available to watch in full on the site), Designs on Democracy: The Roles and Responsibilities of Graphic Designers in the Trump Era, featuring Sabiha Basrai, who spoke about the process of political design and her work with Alliance of South Asians Taking Action. As a digital web collection, Letterform Archive offers viewers a selection of materials to contemplate the visual depth of design, as well its political, social, and cultural impact on our lives and the world around us.

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Megan N. Liberty

Megan N. Liberty is the Art Books section editor at the Brooklyn Rail and co-founder of Book...