Extract from Alan Kitching: A Life in Letterpress by John L Walters

A beautiful new book by John L Walters on the life and work of typographer, designer and letterpress master Alan Kitching is published by Laurence King this month. In this extract, Walters examines Kitching’s departure from Omnific, the studio he founded with Derek Birdsall and Martin Lee, to concentrate on working in letterpress, and also his influence on a generation of designers.

The period between 1989 and the early 1990s has acquired historical significance for all kinds of reasons, writes John L Walters. In politics it was the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution in the former Czechoslovakia, the end of Communism and, as some would have it, the start of the ‘end of history’. In popular music, the shift from recorded performance to electronically produced tracks gave rise to so-called ‘rave culture’.

Communications were changing, with the impact of fax machines and, later in the 1990s, email. In the worlds of design, printing and publishing, new computer-based technology was sending out ripples of change, affecting work practices and the relationships between designers and clients. The notion of desktop publishing, in parallel with the concept of samizdat publishing behind the fraying Iron Curtain, was challenging the roles of traditional printers, publishers and typesetting houses: a start-up ’zine might use Letraset or primitive computer typesetting, while established, profitable titles still sent their work to typesetters.

Yet for a small design company, a computer was still eye-wateringly expensive, and for a printer or repro house, choosing what large-scale kit – scanners, laser-setters, and so on – to invest in or upgrade to was a similarly fraught business. Yet everyone knew, after a decade of rhetoric about the ‘mighty micro’, followed by talk of the imminent ‘information superhighway’, that big changes were around the corner.

Broadside number 1, range of stationery, 1988
Top and above: From Alan Kitching's Broadside series of works, created in the 1980s and 90s
Top and above: From Alan Kitching’s Broadside series of works, created in the 1980s and 90s

Alan Kitching had been a partner in Omnific for ten years, and a designer for nearly two decades. He decided it was time to change tack: “I couldn’t just sit at a desk, like Alan Fletcher could, or Derek Birdsall, and design something. I was never in their league. In order for me to go forward as a designer, I had to go back to something I knew.”

In June 1988 he announced his resignation from the Omnific partnership. Birdsall and Lee were taken by surprise. When they asked him what he was planning to do, Kitching simply said: ‘I want to buy the press and the type and go and print.’ The three men quickly came to an agreement, and Kitching took his share of the company in the form of the complete printing set-up, including the proofing press and the type in its cases, worth approximately £26,000. Although Omnific had acquired the equipment a few years earlier, and Birdsall had used it to make a few small cards, Kitching had been the main person to use it.

The 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.”

Brazilian Rainforest, edition print, 1999
Brazilian Rainforest, edition print, 1999

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?”

Poster for the National Theatre, 2002
Poster for the National Theatre, 2002

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.”

Ad for Kew Gardens, 1999
Ad for Kew Gardens, 1999

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.”

Cover for The Guardian Weekend Magazine, 2001
Cover for The Guardian Weekend Magazine, 2001

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 moustache. 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 colours, 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!”

Poster for Central School of Art and Design, 1969
Poster for Central School of Art and Design, 1969

This is an extract by A Life in Letterpress by John L Walters. It is published in two forms by Laurence King: a Collector’s Edition, priced £200, which is a limited edition of 200 copies only, and includes a hand printed letterpress signed print, numbered and wrapped round the book to form a jacket; and a hardback version priced £75. More info is at laurenceking.com.

More from CR

The Tempest – according to the True Originall Copy

Designed by David Pearson, a new Penguin edition of Shakespeare’s The Tempest presents the text of his last play in its original spelling – the result is an uncluttered and direct experience of the playwright’s unrivalled language.

The Internet of Things needs to be designed – by designers

In the second in our series of essays by leaders in the field of wearable tech, Kim Gustafsson and Fredrik Timour from Swedish start-up Neue Labs explain why they want to put the tools to create wearable tech into the hands of anyone with an idea

The best in Polish book design at LBF 2016

Intrigued by the great work on display at the Polish Book Institute’s stand at the London Book Fair, art director James Jones began tweeting some of his favourite covers. We asked him to collect together some of his highlights to share on CR.

Lecturer Design Management

Kingston University

Design Assistant

Cultureshock Media