Letterform Archive reopens with major Bauhaus exhibition

Revolutionary art school’s legacy: To show design is the world we live in

By Max Blue

Special to The Examiner

Letterform Archive reopened in San Francisco Nov. 13 with its inaugural exhibition “Bauhaus Typography at 100,” which finds one unique institution examining and consecrating the legacy of another.

Because it’s so pervasive, design is an art form that isn’t appreciated as often as it is engaged with: We see an ad, but we don’t always take the time to consider its artistic merit. You’re reading this article, but you aren’t looking at the typography.

The Archive hopes to change that. And what better place to start than with one of the most foundational schools of design?

Letterform Archive first opened in 2015, making public the lifelong private collection of its founder and executive director Rob Saunders. The collection features over 75,000 graphic design objects (think: brochures, technical manuals, postcards) with an emphasis on typography spanning historical periods.

“I’d always imagined that [the collection] would go to an institution,” Saunders said, “but what I found was that institutions wanted the collection but wouldn’t promise to do anything with it.”

Previously housed in a residential building on Mariposa Street, Letterform Archive has relocated seven blocks southeast to a commercial space on 3rd Street.

“We were up to about 5,000 square feet and bursting at the seams,” Saunders said. “The board had been talking about [moving] for a while and then the landlord told us we had to get out.”

In addition to housing the physical archive, the new 7,000-square-foot space features classrooms for the Archive’s postgraduate certificate program in type design, a photography studio for digitizing the archive and a gallery for hosting the ambitious new exhibition program.

The gallery is intended to engage a wide audience beyond professional graphic designers and niche enthusiasts. How typography and design function in the world is something the co-curators of the Bauhaus show, Saunders and collections assistant Hank Smith, clearly emphasize.

“Whether we’re versed in it or not,” Smith said, “a lot of the Bauhaus aesthetics are so familiar, because it’s become such an influential model and is so often imitated in the products and images all around us.”

Herbert Bayer Postcard 11, Weimar State Bauhaus Exhibition 1923 (Karte 11, Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar Ausstellung 1923), 1923 Lithograph. (Courtesy Letterform Archive)

Herbert Bayer Postcard 11, Weimar State Bauhaus Exhibition 1923 (Karte 11, Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar Ausstellung 1923), 1923 Lithograph. (Courtesy Letterform Archive)

The Bauhaus was one of the most revolutionary design schools of the 20th century. It opened in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, and moved to Dessau, then Berlin, where it closed in 1933 under pressure from the Nazi regime. The dispersal of faculty and students had the unintended effect of disseminating the school’s ethos of design throughout the world, making Bauhaus a cross-cultural and international phenomenon.

Featuring over 150 original pieces and only a single reproduction, the exhibition is supplemented with a robust online version of the exhibition and Letterform Archive’s first physical exhibition catalogue. The exhibition pulls on the connective threads between the school’s curriculum and the work of the faculty, and also highlights contemporary designers with pieces made as recently as last year.

Because there was no typographic workshop in the Bauhaus until 1925, much of the work on view features hand lettered type, printed lithographically. Herbert Bayer’s “Postcard 11, Weimar State Bauhaus Exhibition” and Paul Häberer’s “Postcard 13, Weimar State Bauhaus Exhibition,” both 1923, exemplify the early principles of Bauhaus design, featuring hand carved typography and emphasis on simple, striking geometry. Felix Klee’s “After All, Dessau!,” 1927, is another handmade work, implementing type in a different way. The collage features two photographic figures and newspaper type atop water-colored, geometrical patterns. The piece was originally a letter Klee sent to Karla Grosch, presumably in celebration of her appointment to the Bauhaus faculty as a gymnastics instructor.

Several members of the Bauhaus’s faculty and student body worked in commercial design, many creating covers for lifestyle magazines like Fortune and Die Neue Linie. Prominent artists and faculty members working in commercial design included Lázló Moholy-Nagy Herbert Bayer, as well as Irmgard Sörensen-Popitz, perhaps the only woman to emerge as a professional designer from the Bauhaus.

Felix Klee’s “After All, Dessau!” (Und doch, Dessau!), 1927, is a collage and watercolor artwork on exhibition at the Letterform Archive. (Courtesy Letterform Archive)

Felix Klee’s “After All, Dessau!” (Und doch, Dessau!), 1927, is a collage and watercolor artwork on exhibition at the Letterform Archive. (Courtesy Letterform Archive)

A more recent example of the Bauhaus’s influence can be seen in Takenobu Igarashi’s “The Irigashi ABC Book,” 1988, in which the designer created an alphabet in conversation with Herbert Bayer’s 1925 “Universal Alphabet.” The book features both Beyer’s and Igarashi’s letters, the Japanese designer riffing off the work of his Austrian counterpart to create an architecturally inspired variation on the “Universal Alphabet,” drafting letters that could easily pass for futuristic buildings.

This artist’s book is perhaps the closest the show gets to a traditional work of art, and even still it isn’t worth more than about $500. Perceived value and artificial scarcity are major drivers of the art market, but they don’t apply to graphic design.

“It’s harder to tell the kinds of narratives that create value about something that had that very pragmatic, everyday purpose in its original conception,” Smith said.

The narrative this exhibition tells isn’t about the rarity of the works on view — most exist in multiples — but the physical reality of the market we exist within as consumers. By highlighting the essential elements of design and offering viewers a cursory history of the Bauhaus, Letterform Archive makes a convincing case for engaging with design more intentionally. Because it isn’t just design: It’s the world we live in.

IF YOU GO: “Bauhaus Typography at 100”

Where: Letterform Archive, 2339 3rd St., Floor 4R, S.F.

When: Through April 27, 2022, Thursday-Friday 3 p.m.-8 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Tickets: General $10, Student & Senior $5, Under 12 Free

Contact: (415) 802-7485, letterformarchive.org

Tours of the Archive and research visits will be available beginning in 2022.

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