In Alan Kitching’s hands, “the typography workshop is a complex and subtle instrument: his brushes, paint and easel; his film set; his orchestra,” according to John Walters, who interviewed the designer about his life and letterpress for a beautiful new book.
Alan Kitching was born in Darlington, County Durham in 1940. He had acquired a love of printing, drawing and painting whilst at school and by the mid-1950s when he started looking for work, knew that the heavy industry dominating Darlington wasn’t for him. The local employment office told Kitching about a local jobbing printer, so he went with his art teacher and a small portfolio and on the day after his 15th birthday started a six-year apprenticeship as a compositor. It was there that he first encountered modern design through magazines such as Printing Review and British Printer, and became aware of figures such as Jan Tschichold, who influenced his early experiments. But it was while teaching at Watford College of Technology, where Kitching worked with graphic designer Anthony Froshaug, that he developed and found form for his interest in the art and meaning of typographic work.
The new book, Alan Kitching: A Life in Letterpress came about when Kitching’s late wife Celia Stothard – a designer, writer and singer at the Chelsea Arts Club – wrote a piece on their work for John Randle’s Matrix, a chronicle of fine printing and the book arts, in 2004. “We were tampering around, thinking of doing this book ourselves and it never got anywhere, and then she got ill,” Kitching says. “When Celia died I asked my assistant Jon Kielty if he’d help me do a book on her life, Celia Sings, and we put it together in about six months. Simon Esterson came in as art director, and Jon did the day to day. When that came out, I think Laurence [King] saw it, he got in touch and the book that we’ve got now was kind of resurrected.”
Kitching wanted to keep the team who had worked on Celia Sings, and brought in John Walters as editor, who started interviewing Kitching in 2012. “He would come over every week in the morning, we’d have coffee and the machine on and I’d just talk to him about the history of the whole thing.”
Kitching started Omnific studio with Martin Lee and Derek Birdsall, who he had met through Anthony Froshaug, in the late 1970s. They worked from a studio in Covent Garden, then still surrounded by typesetters and other service people, until rents shot up and they moved out to a toy factory in Islington. By this time some foundries were starting to sell off their type, and Omnific bought up a press and installed it at their new studio: “All this type was selling off cheap, cheap-ish, and it was the last chance to get this stuff. So we bought it all and I continued printing there for around three years until I decided I wanted to leave. I didn’t really know what I was going to do but I wanted to buy the press and the type and go and print somewhere”, Kitching says. “I didn’t want to be a jobbing printer but I wanted to start out on my own. It was a very precarious thing to do because we were successful, well-established, and I was taking a backwards step, it was a bit of a leap in the dark.”
In the late 1980s the atmosphere around printing “didn’t really exist”, but Birdsall had started as a professor of graphics at the Royal College of Art and convinced Kitching to teach in the letterpress studio one day a week. “I didn’t want to do it, but eventually I gave in so we went. In a way it was great, because they had all the printing gear. It soon came under threat from the rector though, who wanted to get rid of it all – take the college into the 21st Century. But the students saved it.”
Alongside technician Mick Perry, Kitching had started a series of workshops: “I didn’t tell anybody about it, just printed the posters and went round all the departments. Come the following Thursday I go in and there are students waiting and that’s how it started. It got talked about, we kept it high profile, got a piece in Baseline and Creative Review. If the students hadn’t turned up and kept it going, it would have died. Now we can see that letterpress and computers can sit well together.” While the workshops were gaining notoriety, Kitching’s name and that of the letterpress process got around, “other people got interested and now it’s the buzz word,” he says. Kitching maintained a relationship with the college until 2006, and while there he had also been running his own workshop, The Typographic Workshop in Clerkenwell. “And I was never interested in printing, the first thing I’d say when I came into the studio in the morning was ‘I’m not interested in letterpress printing, I’m interested in what you can do with this stuff.’ All this obsolete technology, what can we do new with it now.”
“I 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.’”
This had been a consideration in Kitching’s commercial work, for clients such as The Guardianfor whom he did typographic work that crossed over between the limitations of text and image. “When we were at Omnific the type was very much separate and not treated as one with the image, as it was in the work at The Guardian and for the Dazed & Confused cover from around 2000. I’d always been interested in the imagery of things but it has taken quite a few years to establish that.”
Now based between two studios in Kennington, where he moved with Celia Stothard in the 1990s, Kitching continues both his commercial and personal practice. An example of his poster work includes the poster Rainforest: “It’s written in Portuguese, because they speak Portuguese in Brazil and it has the word running through the forest. Descending from the sky, through the trees, the rain and the earth, all melding together. I always try to have some logic to the job, to the work. That is really what I find interesting.”
Alan Kitching: A Life in Letterpress by John L Walters is published by Laurence King on 7 April and is exclusively available from the publisher’s website. Two versions are available, The Collectors Edition featuring a limited edition, hand printed and numbered Alan Kitching print and The Special Edition featuring a three piece binding.
An exhibition of the same name will be on show at this year’s Pick Me Up exhibition at Somerset House.