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Alan Kitching’s life in letterpress will brighten up your bookshelves

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was never interested in printing, the first thing I’d say when I came in to the studio in the morning was ‘I’m not interested in letterpress printing, I’m interested in what you can do with this stuff’” says Alan Kitching, one of the world’s foremost practitioners of letterpress typographic design and printmaking. Renowned for his expressive use of wood and metal letterforms in creating visuals for commissions and limited edition prints Kitching lives and works at The Typography Workshop in Kennington, south London, which he shared with designer, writer and partner Celia Stothard (deceased 2010). To celebrate him, Laurence King published a long-awaited monograph that documents the work of this amazing practitioner Alan Kitching.

Spanning over fifty years, this lavish volume leads us from Kitching’s first typographical experiments under the auspices of mentor Anthony Froshaug to his most iconic creations at The Typography Workshop. It covers his years designing alongside Derek Birdsall, as well as his time teaching letterpress at the Royal College of Art, and showcases his most colorful and expressive pieces, including his prolific work for The Guardian.

Kitching’s work hangs in private collections and galleries but it has also featured on everything from magazine and book covers, postage stamps and theatre posters, to wine labels, billboards and signage.

Written by John L. Walters, the editor of Eye, the international review of graphic design, and a man who edited Pulp since 2014 it documents Kitching’s influence on a generation of typographers and designers. This is an extract of the monograph as it was published in Creative review on his RCA Years. “…Also in 1988, Birdsall recommended his colleague to the Royal College of Art, and Kitching became a visiting tutor in typography, working two days a week. Birdsall was professor of graphic design at the RCA for little more than a year, and it is a time he remembers with mixed feelings: “The best thing I did in my brief stay at the RCA was to ask Alan to take over the letterpress department. He did this with great flair, infecting the whole college and introducing several generations of students to the beautiful craft of letterpress printing, keeping it alive and transforming it into a new art form.”

It was a good moment, which Kitching describes as “a time of exploration, of restarting”, yet he was more confident than he had been as a teacher the first time round [he previously taught at the Watford School of Technology with graphic designer Anthony Froshaug]. He knew that the RCA students were of a high calibre and committed to design, so he tried to eschew the ‘evangelistic’ approach of his twenties, when he was still ‘spreading the good word about Froshaug’. He became more relaxed – he had less to prove – and he enjoyed the company of the students. He taught them how to use the letterpress studio, and he learned from them, too. “Teaching is a bit like giving a performance,’ he says. ‘You have to get them on your side, and draw them in.”

The appointment came at a perfect time for Kitching, professionally, personally and historically. It brought him into contact with a large number of ambitious students, many of whom would go on to have considerable impact on the British graphic design world (and later the international scene) over the following decades. They included Andrew Stevens and Paul Neale of Graphic Thought Facility, Henrik Kubel and Scott Williams of A2/SW/HK, Maja Sten and Maki Suzuki of Åbäke, Michele Jannuzzi and Richard Smith of Jannuzzi Smith, Silke Klinnert of Wink, Jonathan Barnbrook and Anthony Burrill.

Kitching maintained a relationship with the college until 2006. He recalls: “When I briefed the students at the start of the first workshop, I always stressed that we were not learning to be printers.” This may have come as a big surprise to those who had a more romantic, self-expressive view of the printing workshop. But Kitching always made it clear that they were designers, that he was interested in “the actual composing of the type, not even ‘typesetting’”. His purpose was to show the students how one could design using the fixed-size type system of pica/point measurement in conjunction with rules and spacing materials to make an intelligent composition within the demands of the brief. “This was always the way I personally worked,” he says. “What’s the job about? What do the words say and mean?”

Jonathan Barnbrook encountered Kitching during an unhappy first year at the college, and found that he disagreed with almost everything he said: “What I liked about [Kitching] is that he had a really strong opinion on what was typography and what wasn’t. For instance, he couldn’t accept that anything 3D could be typography, and he couldn’t accept it when I put type upside down. It was right back to ‘what is typography?’ in its purest form, and I think design education needs more people who are committed to a point of view, not just student facilitators. It helped me define my own view of typography … and at a time when computing was just starting to influence design, it reminded me that with his interest in letterpress, it was all technology that needed to be understood and worked with directly to get the best results.”

Richard Smith remembers attending Kitching’s class on the day Margaret Thatcher resigned as the British prime minister, Thursday 22 November 1990: “The first business [that day] was an interim crit with Alan, on a brief he had set with the title: ‘From the Incunabula through to Max Bill and Josef Müller-Brockmann, the Right Angle has Reigned Supreme.’ A theme redolent with history; a historic day.” There was general chatter and hubbub about the news, and Smith remembers that Kitching silenced the students with these words: “You may have heard some news this morning about Mrs T. That has nothing to do with us: we are designers.”

The Swiss designer Michele Jannuzzi recalls researching the RCA’s tutors and coming across Kitching’s name: “It was in the pre-internet era and the pictures one could gather were scarce, but what I did find in the library immediately spoke to me [in] a language of boldness, clarity and excitement.” When he came to London to study at the RCA, Jannuzzi showed Kitching his work: “With patience, Alan sat me down and, one by one, unpicked all the names of the designer-typographers I was trying to imitate in my work. It was just a simple list of names that ended with something that sounded like: ‘D-yo-r-own-thin-.” Although Jannuzzi found it difficult to understand Kitching’s north-eastern accent, the admonition that he ‘do his own thing’ rather than copying his heroes has stayed with him.

Andrew Stevens, co-founder of Graphic Thought Facility (GTF) with Paul Neale and Nigel Robinson, says Kitching encouraged students to trust their instincts. He believes this has stayed with them: “The discipline born of creating compositions within the defined context of what was available from the type case rendered the endless chin-stroking possibilities afforded by the then-nascent digital typesetting as ponderous and slow. He is a man of great character and integrity and I feel privileged to have been taught by him.”

Anthony Burrill is now well known for his letterpress posters with such simple messages as ‘Work hard and be nice to people’. He attended a series of Kitching’s one-day workshops at the RCA: “Alan’s teaching technique was very relaxed. He introduced us to the type, pointing out his favourite fonts and giving little nuggets of information along the way. He taught us how to tear paper rather than cut it, and explained his fondness for red and black ink above all others. Of course, it was in the pub that Alan gave us his best advice; he was always happy to chat and give advice over a pint.”

Danish type designer Henrik Kubel first met Kitching on a school study trip to The Typography Workshop in the mid-1990s, when Kitching sported a handlebar mustache. Kubel remembers asking him if he could buy one of his posters, at which Kitching laughed and said that he could not afford it. Kubel says: “Many years later I received a poster as a gift from Alan and Celia. It is printed in the most delicate colors, yellow and soft pink with metal type in grey on top. It is framed and on display in our design studio – I look at it every day and I think of Alan, his great work, friendship and wry wit!”

A Life in Letterpress by John L Walters is published in two forms by Laurence King: a Collector’s Edition. The priced £200, limited edition of 200 copies only, includes a hand printed letterpress signed print, numbered and wrapped round the book to form a jacket. More info is at laurenceking.com.