Alan Kitching’s Concise Typography Letterpress Workshop is exactly how you’d imagine it: a chance to work with type with your hands; a rare opportunity to touch it, move it, caress it if you feel that way (which I did) – to do things you just can’t do when it’s stuck on the other side of a shiny piece of glass…
Kitching is world-reknowned for his atypical use of the letterpress – for creating beautiful, timeless designs that betray the antiquity of their process. He has been involved with this real, tactile method of printing for the best part of 50 years, so it’s no wonder he appears to sweat metal type and turpentine.
The two-day workshop begins with a short introduction to the equipment and terminology we’ll be using—randoms, galleys, furniture and lead—all essential information for the budding compositor-come-printer. Then it’s straight down to it, into the type and onto the presses. The process, although overwhelming in its instantaneity, is spontaneous and exciting. Within fifteen minutes we have our first print proofs.
The aim of the workshop – aside from teaching you more about type than you ever thought it possible to know – is to create a typographic composition that demonstrates an entry from Part 3 of Rudolf Hostettler’s the printer’s terms. First printed in 1949 (Alan has the 1963 edition), this slim volume contains well over 1000 terms relating to printing and typography. Alan has chosen 215 of them, to be part of a brand new edition consisting of all the works produced by the students of the workshop.
At one point Alan holds up a blank dummy. This, he tells us, is how the final book will appear. It looks big. There’s a maximum of four people on each workshop, so, he calculates, the book is going to take about ten years to finish.
Both days are spent designing, proofing and refining under the guidance of Alan and his two extremely capable assistants, Jon and Ross. Towards the end of the second day a frantic rush to begin finalising for print begins, and it’s time to get onto the largest of the three in-studio presses to print the design in an edition of 15.
Finally, after all is printed and dried, and the cleaning up has taken place, we’re sprung by “external examiner” Fernando Gutierrez. More of a casual chit-chat than a crit, Fernando talks through our designs one by one and continues by talking through his own work, including his use of letterpress in commercial projects. Quick decisions the process force you into making attach a spontaneity to final designs you wouldn’t necessarily associate with such a mechanical method. Fernando has worked with Alan on multiple occasions because of this specific characteristic, most effectively on his labels for Spanish winemaker Telmo. Following so much talk about wine, it’s onto the pub for a proper debrief, with a quick pitstop via Alan’s other studio, a typographic Alladin’s cave.
The typography workshop operates from Alan’s studio in Kennington, London. Many thanks to Alan, Jon and Ross for organising the trip and the massive tea pot.