Thousands of graphic design classics available in Letterform Archive's first online collection


Left: Alvin Lustig, Catalog for World Inventors Exposition (1947). Right: Michael Doret, IDEA magazine cover (1976)

The Letterform Archive brings together an online collection of branding, illustration, type and packaging treasures for a whole new audience.

While we love following what artists create with their digital devices, Digital Arts doesn't shy away from more traditional creations made with human hands. We're also a fan of seeing what human hands made in the past continuing to influence creators in the present day; fitting neatly into both brackets is a new online collection that digitises pioneering design work from the 20th century.

This offering of old treasures for a brand new audience comes from the San Francisco based nonprofit library and museum Letterform Archive (LFA). Don't be misled by the name, though; the 50,000 strong online archive goes well beyond type and incorporates ephemera like book covers, posters and even product design, and stems from the LFA's popularity with the many creatives who've walked through its doors since 2015. 


Left:Danne & Blackburn, NASA Graphics Standards Manual (1976). Right:Dorothy and Otis Shepard, Card for The Isthmus, Santa Catalina Island (c. 1930s)

Left: Symphonia Graphica specimen booklet, Società Nebiolo, Italy, 1935. Right: Alessandro Butti and Aldo Novarese, Nebiolo Type Faces: Tipos de Imprenta, Società Nebiolo, Italy, c. 1965. 

"We regularly see today’s digital designers drawing inspiration from analog artefacts, whether it’s a class visit or a corporate team workshop," associate curator & editorial director Stephen Coles and librarian Amelia Grounds tell us in a joint interview from the LFA.

"So many designers are limited to what they see online in low resolution or in a tiny image in a text book. We love to witness the epiphanies generated when guests see the original works in real life, at full scale, and can touch and turn pages."


Left: Cover by William Addison (W.A.) Dwiggins. Right: Cover by Philip Grushkin

Two covers by Philip Grushkin

Items in the Online Archive include fabulous book covers from Philip Grushkin, advertising work by Otis Shephard and type designs from Ross Frederic George (Ross F. George), some of which, as you'll see below, reminds us of the classic Superman font used in DC's original Action Comics. A lot of the pieces cover classic styles from the pre and post war periods, but there are also sketches from Disney & Pixar logo/title designer Michael Doret, and some intriguing '80s and '90s work from the Emigre type foundry.


By Ross F. George

By Ross F. George; the designer was also the inventor of the Speedball pen

Amelia and Stephen tell Digital Arts that the digitisation process took over three years, doing photography in-house using standards developed in consultation with E.M. Ginger of 42-Line, a leader in the digital imaging of rare books and artwork.

"With raking light, premium camera equipment and very high resolution files, we produce images that are as lifelike as possible," they explain.  "Our goal is to capture the physicality of the object: paper texture, artist corrections, and metal type impressions."


Van Nelle’s Planeet coffee tin, designed by Jacob Jongert (c. 1930s)

Page from Emigre #7 (c. 1980s)

"Even if their work is purely digital our visitors can learn a lot about disciplines like information and identity design from groundbreaking analog material. With the Online Archive we try to bring as much of that experience to the internet as possible."


By Otis Shepard (c. 1960s)

The Letterform Online archive will go live in 2019; Digital Arts was lucky to enjoy a beta version that's also currently available to LFA members and anyone wanting to join the Archive.

Read next:  Thousands of Historical Watercolours to be Available Online in a Digital Archive

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