A one-of-a-kind wood type collection celebrated in book from UT Press

The Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection resides at UT's design division


The Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection, referred to as The RRK, is an in-depth working study collection of nineteenth-century American wood type owned by the Harry Ransom Center and housed by the School of Design and Creative Technologies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Made up of over 150 typefaces from the 1800s, the collection was established by noted design educator and historian Rob Roy Kelly (1925-2004). Kelly initially began collecting wood type in 1957 for his students to use while teaching at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Over the course of the subsequent decade, he continued to expand his collection, amassing nearly 19,000 pieces of wood type in addition to numerous borders, cuts and ornaments.

In early 1966, Kelly, no longer able to properly maintain and care for the collection, sold it to his friend and MoMA head librarian Bernard Karpel. Later that year, Karpel worked out an agreement to sell it to the Harry Ransom Center, then known as the Humanities Research Center. It arrived in Austin on March 1, 1967.

In 1993, the decision was made to transfer the collection to UT’s Design Division with the College of Fine Arts, where it has remained.

Kelly published “American Wood Type, 1828-1900” in 1969, which provided a comprehensive look at the history of wood type in the United States. In 2010, the publication was reissued and featured a new foreword by David Shields, the RRK caretaker from 2004 to 2012.

Shields subsequently wrote and designed “The Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection: A History and Catalog” (UT Press, 2022). The publication expands upon Kelly’s research as well as chronicles his personal life and history with design. It also presents a comprehensive catalog of the collection including previously unexamined non-typographical materials.

The book is broken up into five sections: an introduction, a look at Kelly’s life and career, an overview of American wood type production, a detailing of the collection’s organizational structure, and a catalog of the collection.

Rob Roy Kelly wood type

Rob Roy Kell wood type
Wood type from The RRK set and ready for printing; Courtesy of the Design Lab at the UT School of Design and Creative Technologies

Regarding the publication, Shields writes: “This book attempts to aggregate the full range of materials and primary sources that Kelly accessed during his research. My intention is to demystify his process and illuminate the full breadth of the collective labor of Kelly’s wood type project. I hope that this book will make the Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection more broadly accessible to the curious, students and scholars alike.”

Today, the collection is under the care of Henry Smith, and is available for research purposes and workshops.

Caleb Bell
Caleb Bellhttp://www.cbellprojects.com/
Caleb Bell is a writer and the curator at the Tyler Museum of Art. Bell’s writing and curatorial practices work to expand the conversation around creativity and connect audiences with art.

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