Visiting the Letterform Archive & Arion Press


I’ve been hard at work on my 100 day project, 100 Bay Area Gems, which involves both 1) illustrating and sharing my favorite spots in the Bay Area and 2) going around to more places on my bucket list to see if they might qualify as new gems! I’m very happy to share two of these outings today. Last Thursday, I brought my friend Do-Hee to visit the Letterform Archive in Potrero Hill, and after lunch I headed over to the Presidio to tour Arion Press and M & H Type Foundry. Both were fascinating and inspiring! See more on each below.

The Letterform Archive is located in a couple live-work lofts, so taking their intro tour is like being in a bottle episode (in a wonderful way), where everything happens in one room and the story comes to you. The free tours happen every Tuesday and Thursday and are led by each of the different staff members. They pull a variety of materials from the archive and place them all on the giant table in the living room, and they narrate their way through them. Our tour guide was Stephen Coles, and I found his enthusiasm for type really delightful.

Here’s Do-He casually handling a 4000 year old tablet.

Somewhere between letterpress and digital printing there were transfer prints and photo prints. Here’s an example of film that could be used to transfer letterforms via light.

A sample artwork page for the very popular Speedball writing manuals designed to teach people to make cool letters and buy more pens. And the logo design behind Emigre, a magazine created by a husband-and-wife type foundry team.

A very cheery vintage newspaper ad.

Lots of Paula Scher posters. I recognized her work from watching “Abstract: The Art of Design” on Netflix. :) And one of my favorite items we saw: an art book by Irma Boom that has nothing but white pages, blind debossed with a variety of designs in honor of Chanel’s 50th anniversary.

So many great materials.

A very delighted Do-Hee luxuriating in font heaven.

Thank you for the wonderful and inspiring tour! I hope Do-Hee makes up a research project so we can come back for another visit soon. The archive also hosts workshops, salons, and other events, so perhaps I’ll be back for one of those.


Second on this letterform appreciation tour: a visit to Arion Press / M & H Type Foundry / The Grabhorn Institute (which are all different arms of one business). They offer tours at 3:30 each Thursday. We start upstairs and learn about Arion Press, which used to be Grabhorn Press, started in 1919 by the Grabhorn brothers. The younger brother then joined forces with Andrew Hoyem in 1966 and then formed the company Arion Press in 1974. It’s a very boutique press operation, making only three books a year, with runs of 400 or fewer.

The press has only produced 111 books total; the 112th is in progress (which we’ll see later in the tour). But we start off in their small library room which contains copies of every book they’ve made.

Here’s a special art book by the artist Jim Dine (whose niece I went to high school with! Random connection).  They made 75 of these boxed editions with the sculpture on the front. They are priced at $3,500 each. Some of Arion Press’ books go for almost $13k each.

Here is book #110 on display: a very long scroll with woodblock prints and paper sourced from China.

Next we headed downstairs to tour the press & foundry parts of the operation. As you can imagine with the selective projects and short runs, these books are actually produced with letterpress and traditional printing methods.

In addition, they own M & H Type Foundry which is the largest and oldest type foundry in the country. Book press and type foundry really go hand in hand! It was started in 1915 as part of the Panama Pacific International Exposition. Type foundry means they actually create the little metal letters that are used in letterpress printing. There are several fonts that they can still make from scratch whenever needed, but there are many more that they cannot fabricate themselves, so they have shelves and shelves of those stored away in their shelves.

Here’s where the type gets made. The man in the back is one of their interns who’s learning to operate these monotype machines.

Bins of lead.

The monotype machine is actually two machines. Here’s the input part of it, which works kind of like a typewriter to record the letters that you want made in sequence. It makes holes in the paper that’s wrapped around the cone up top.

Then you take the paper scroll over to the main monotype machine, and it serves as a template similar to a player piano, telling the machine which letters to churn out. It’s called monotype because the letters come out one piece at a time.

Here’s the plate that serves as a mold for making all those letters.

Back over to the book production side, we see some of the test pages that went into the printing of their current project, Eugene Onegin. The book comprises the original novel in verse written by Pushkin in Russian; a transliteration of that verse; and the translation into English by Nabokov. That means three different sets of typesetting printed on to each page.

It was cool to see the actual book in progress! Here is a bookbinder sewing the very first copies of this book by hand. When it comes out, there will be just over 300 copies.

Lots to see and appreciate in this tactile book production world!

Find out more about the Letterform Archive here.
Learn more about Arion Press and M & H Type Foundry here.
Follow along with my 100 Bay Area Gems here.


Anna Wu is a wedding and portrait photographer based in San Francisco. She compulsively documents and blogs all of her daily adventures. Follow her on instagram and view more of her professional work at