Alan Kitching: A Life in Letterpress

For almost three decades, from his Typography Workshop in south London, Alan Kitching has defied the ever-encroaching presence of digital. There, the world of letterpress and physical type reigns supreme, thanks to the artist’s dogged perseverance to ink and paper. The designer’s “big letters” have become instantly recognisable, forming a quiet backdrop to the work of many of today’s most accomplished graphic designers.

The indelible influence of Alan’s life and work is captured in John Walters’ Alan Kitching: A Life in Letterpress, which uncovers not just the experiences that led Alan to letterpress, but the influence he's has had on those around him. 

The book includes over 400 images, painstakingly chosen from Kitching’s own archive of more than a thousand pieces. Brought together they showcase the breadth of his career – everything from early work as a jobbing printer to Kitching's famous typographic broadsides.

A photo essay by Phil Sayer also captures the mystery and inky alchemy of Kitching’s workshop, as the artist locks up type and peels back paper. 

Early days as a "back room boy" 

Walters describes Kitching as “one of the ‘back room boys’ of British design”, recounting his early days as an apprentice at a local printer. Borrowing on his experience with a small Adana press – which was used at Kitching's secondary school to print hymn sheets – the designer would remain in the backroom for almost six years, working on everything from pantomime tickets to brochures and catalogues.

After stumbling across articles about the work of Jan Tschichold, Kitching began refining his approach. With unfulfilled desires to be a poster designer, stoked by a glimpse of an Abram Games poster for the UN, Kitching moved on to become a technician in the department of printing at the Watford College of Technology, before becoming a teacher at the college in the late 60s. 

Opening his workshop 

The 70s saw Kitching form Omnific Studios with Derek Birdsall, where he worked with clients including Mobil, the Royal Court Theatre and several British newspapers. A decade later Kitching announced his departure, taking with him the studio’s own “embryonic” letterpress workshop.

“In order for me to go forward as a designer, I had to go back to something I knew”, he said at the time, explaining simply that he wanted to “go and print”.

Kitching set up a workshop in Clerkenwell – where he often slept on a bed under a bench – and sent out a broadside advertising “the highest standards of Typography” to designers and art directors. This period saw him join the Royal College of Art as a visiting tutor in typography, introducing students including Henrik Kubel, Jonathan Barnbrook and Anthony Burrill to the craft. 

From his workshop he also created perhaps one of his best known designs – the 1991 poster, made for Pentagram’s annual Christmas gift, which sets 25 monograms of designers, illustrators, architects and artists as an A-Z. Kitching would later reprise this work in a collection of five print editions for Monotype, celebrating the work of poster designers Tom Eckersley, Abram Games, Josef Müller-Brockmann, Paul Rand and FHK Henrion. 

Magick – with a ‘K’

Walters describes the development of Kitching’s career in great detail, but perhaps more charmingly sets it alongside notable quirky particulars, such as the way the designer painted a chimney breast in his home black, to be used as a chalkboard for designing layouts. Walters also captures the close personal relationships that helped form Kitching's work, such as his partnership with late wife Celia Stothard, which resulted in “an explosion of typographic fireworks”.

The author recounts how Kitching’s adherence to print stood out against a background of graphic designers struggling to adapt to new digital methods – describing him as "Clint Eastwood’s anonymous stranger in a spaghetti Western".

However what the book also makes abundantly clear is that Kitching’s appeal doesn’t lie just in its ability to weather the march of technology, but in his creation of a new vernacular – one that bridges the worlds of design and art. 

It’s perhaps best explained by Derek Birdsall, who’s quoted in the book describing Kitching’s “wizard’s mix of inks and fonts”. He says, “Indeed he has created a new language of vision: ‘Magick’ – with a ‘K’.”

How to get the book 

Alan Kitching: A Life in Letterpress is on exhibition and available at Pick Me Up Graphic Arts Festival, displayed alongside a curated collection of Alan’s work.  21 April through 2 May 2016. 

The book is also available from Laurence King Publishing.

Short film that offers a behind-the-scenes look at Kitching's studio and collection of physical type.