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John L. Walters selects and dissects five objects from Alan Kitching’s archive

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This month John L Walters’ acclaimed book Alan Kitching, A Life in Letterpress is arriving in bookshops nationally after the successful collector’s edition release last year. Here, John writes for It’s Nice That on a selection of pieces that stand out for him from Alan’s archive.

Five years ago, when I started work on the biography/monograph Alan Kitching: A Life in Letterpress, along with art director Simon Esterson, we decided on a five-chapter structure that represented five major stages in Alan’s life and work. The touring exhibition of the same name used the same structure. For this piece, I have chosen five items that represent Alan Kitching’s life and work – one from each chapter.

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Print advertisement, late 1950s

This modest example of jobbing printing (for local businesses) was made at J. W. Brown & Son, the Darlington printer where Alan was an apprentice compositor from 1956 until April 1962. Alan was a conscientious apprentice, and loved every minute of his time there. Through reading trade magazines Printing Review and British Printer, Alan learned about the exciting new developments in design, and European typography heroes such as Jan Tschichold. Here, encouraged by his boss Will Brown, he attempted to put Modernist principles into practice in some of his everyday work.

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Poster made from rule boxes, 1969

Alan’s career began in earnest when he landed a job as a technician at Watford College of Technology, where Anthony Froshaug founded the Experimental Printing Workshop with his assistance. The workshop gave Alan the means to print everything from departmental notices to concrete poetry, regularly helping and collaborating with visiting avant-garde artists such as Mark Boyle (of the Boyle Family), Hansjörg Mayer, Diter Rot, Dom Sylvester Houédard, Bob Cobbing and Peter Schmidt (who was later to devise Oblique Strategies with Brian Eno). This poster, for a Central School diploma exhibition, is made from repeating, overlapping rule boxes in a composition based on the Fibonacci series. Its austere exuberance anticipates digital art by decades, and it parallels the minimalist systems music (Riley, Glass, Reich) that emerged in the late 1960s.

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Lead, tin & antimony poster for Brighton, 1978

The third chapter of Alan Kitching: A Life in Letterpress deals with Alan’s middle years, long before he became the ‘Alan Kitching’ we know and love today. He worked steadily and relatively anonymously as a designer and art director, first freelance and then with Derek Birdsall and Martin Lee at the Omnific Studio Partnership. This letterpress poster, made for a lecture at Brighton Poly, was printed at Goldsmiths, where Alan was teaching one day a week. The big display type hints at Alan’s later signature approach, while the words declare his straightforward ‘truth to materials’ Modernism: lead, tin and antimony are the elements in the alloy typemetal.

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Ron Sandford drawing of Alan Kitching, 1989

In the late 1980s, Alan made the radical decision to leave conventional design practice, resign from the Omnific Studio Partnership and return to letterpress, eventually setting up The Typography Workshop on the third floor of a Victorian warehouse in Clerkenwell. This sketch, by his friend Ron Sandford, shows Alan surveying his new premises, possibly contemplating the risks and rewards of starting anew in his late forties. (For a while, Alan slept on a bed that Birdsall’s son built under a bench in the workshop.) Sandford is a gifted illustrator who had studied graphic design with Froshaug at the RCA, and frequently worked with Omnific on projects such as Pegasus for Mobil. Kitching says that he learned much about design and life from drinking and playing darts with Sandford.

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Cover image for Dazed & Confused, The Word Issue, July 2000. Art director: Martin Bell
By the turn of the century, in his 60th year, Alan had established a name for himself and The Typography Workshop. His distinctive typographic images and maps could be seen in myriad contexts, he was represented by the agency Debut Art, and he ran the letterpress studio at the RCA, bringing him into contact with a new generation of designers (including Sophie Thomas, Anthony Burrill, Michele Jannuzzi and Henrik Kubel).

Alan continued to push at the limits of letterpress, acquiring a vast collection of theatrical wood type (with the late Celia Stothard, his work/life partner) and continually reinventing the medium. For this cover, the brief from Dazed & Confused art director Martin Bell (another former RCA student of Alan’s) prompted him to experiment with ‘brushed’ inking, opening another, even more colourful and prolific chapter in Alan’s life and work, which continues to this day.

John L. Walters is the author of Alan Kitching: A Life in Letterpress (Laurence King, published in three editions), and the co-owner and editor of Eye magazine.