A Life in Letterpress: The story of design great Alan Kitching

By John L Walters | 19 May 2016

From the British Library to Tate Modern, Alan Kitching is one of the world's finest letterpress typographic designers and printmakers. John L Walters, his biographer, tells some of his story

A photo of a colourful letter press design by Alan Kitching
Alan Kitching at work© Philip Sayer
“My first encounter with the work of Alan Kitching was when I bought a T-shirt screen-printed with his colourful woodletter logotype for the Clerkenwell Festival of 1996. Later, I realised that I had seen his work before – on book jackets and magazine covers, and in the signs and stationery for King’s College London, my alma mater. But this was the first time I’d really looked, and I liked what I saw.

In the London of the mid-1990s, Clerkenwell was buzzing with all kinds of interesting endeavour – including my music journal, Unknown Public. It was full of publishers, journalists, charities, recording studios, repro houses, photographers and design practices, as well as quirky shops, cheap cafes, nice pubs and the Marx Memorial library.

It is where Kitching, formerly one of the anonymous ‘backroom boys’ of British design, transformed himself into the internationally successful artist-designer he is today. Many working designers, whatever their field of practice, recognise the power, authenticity and formal beauty of Kitching’s work. Many more non-designers, like me in 1996, respond instinctively to his ‘big letters’ without necessarily knowing much about the practice and history of typographic design – of composition – that lies at the core of Kitching’s vast archive.

A photo of a colourful letter press design by Alan Kitching
Advertisement for Kew Gardens (1999)© Alan Kitching, courtesy Laurence King
His work, made solely from the ‘founts’ (his preferred term for fonts), inks and presses in his possession, speaks to people young and old, professional and amateur, seasoned insiders and wide-eyed neophytes. The career of Alan Kitching has a trajectory all its own, with no antecedents and few pretenders to his throne. It lies in a kind of parallel art world, even though his editions hang in private collections and on the walls of galleries.

Student designers get excited when they discover his maps and posters on social media sites. The burgeoning enthusiasm for such dying arts as letterpress (along with bicycles and old-fashioned barbers) within the ‘hipster’ community has provided a new fan base for Kitching’s prints as examples of an arcane craft.  Yet Kitching has neither a secure slot within the matrix of the international art world, nor a comfortable place within British design and graphic art.

He has long been something of an outsider, though certainly not an ‘outsider artist’. For more than two decades, Kitching was a quiet presence on the London scene, standing at Anthony Froshaug’s elbow, teaching, printing and laying out texts while the newly recognized practice of graphic design established roots in the sophisticated analogue culture that spanned the time from the swinging 1960s to the yuppie 1980s.
 
A photo of a colourful letter press design by Alan Kitching
© Philip Sayer
Kitching’s natural skill, his blunt but likeable personality, his intelligence and his shrewdness ensured that when he went it alone, he was not cast adrift.  His accomplished and visually arresting prints are instantly recognisable, yet he rarely repeats himself: his best work always pushes towards some new goal or undiscovered aspect of the compositional tools at his disposal.

Like any decent designer, he interprets his commissions with intelligence and flair; like any good artist, he reflects the temper of the times. Now, anyone with a poem, a political slogan or an advertisement can share their message through the myriad channels that run through the World Wide Web – a medium that did not exist when Kitching decided to abandon conventional design and ‘go and print’.
 
When he was young, the only way to disseminate the written word was through printing; every word went through the hands of a compositor like himself. A sense of the power and responsibility invested in this position has stayed with Kitching throughout his career.

A photo of a colourful letter press design by Alan Kitching
Cover for The Guardian Weekend Magazine (2001)© Alan Kitching, courtesy Laurence King
He has always sought to set words that need saying: names, information, Shakespeare, headlines, poetry and maps. The beauty of his letters always serves the meaning of the text. Kitching’s practice is made special by his ability to wrest powerful pieces of communicative artwork from an industrial process whose original use has been superseded.

He savours the act of composition, the details of spacing and justifying metal type, the imaginative inking of huge woodletters. Despite the hard-won skills that enable him to create immaculate impressions on paper surfaces, the type and forme and press and paper are ultimately the means to a number of different ends.

In much the way that young practitioners now harness new technology to their own visions, Kitching has grown as a creative designer and artist by taking control of old technology – letterpress printing. In his hands, The Typography Workshop is a complex and subtle instrument: his brushes, paint and easel, his film set, his orchestra.”

  • Alan Kitching: A Life in Letterpress, by John L Walters, is only available to buy from Laurence King. Two versions are available: The Collector’s Edition (£200) featuring a limited edition, hand printed and numbered Alan Kitching print, and The Special Edition (£75) featuring a three-piece binding. A third version, The Bookshop Edition, will be released in Spring 2017 priced at £40.

  • Alan Kitching - A Life in Letterpress is at The Lettering Arts Centre, Snape Maltings from June 3 – August 20 2016.

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A photo of a colourful letter press design by Alan Kitching
Commemorative stamp commission by Royal Mail (1999)© Alan Kitching, courtesy Laurence King
A photo of a colourful letter press design by Alan Kitching
Broadside number 8, for High Quality magazine for Heidelberg Germany (1985)© Alan Kitching, courtesy Laurence King
Poster for National Theatre (2002)© Alan Kitching, courtesy Laurence King
Broadside number 1, range of stationery (1988)© Alan Kitching, courtesy Laurence King
A photo of a colourful letter press design by Alan Kitching
© Philip Sayer
Three places to see printmaking in

Edinburgh Printmakers
This gallery's mission is to support artistic excellence in the medium of print through inspiration, education, innovation and facilitation.

Leicester Print Workshop
The studio promotes, sustains and advances fine art printmaking as a contemporary visual art form, craft, focus for exhibitions and commissions and for community groups, artists and the public.

London Print Studio Gallery
Gallery showing temporary exhibitions, traditional fine art print studio and digital studio.
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