Moveable feast

Over the past 20 or so years, the name of Alan Kitching has become virtually synonymous with creative letterpress in the UK. Through the Royal College of Art’s perennially popular Typography Workshop he – together with his right-hand man Ian Gabb – has opened the eyes of successive generations of students to the imaginative possibilities of what might otherwise have become an obsolete medium.

Letterpress, of course, is one of the most elemental forms of printing, using a reversed relief image, like the potato prints we all did at school. Its roots can be traced right back to the 15th century, when the canny Johannes Gutenberg developed the notion of moveable type. ‘At the start of each workshop, I always stressed that we were not learning to be printers,’ explains the liberally bearded Kitching. ‘To me, the challenge of creating with letterpress is how you can design using fixed sizes of type and spacing materials, and make an intelligent, expressive composition in response to the requirement of the brief.’ In other words, he’s been championing letterpress not so much as a process of mechanical reproduction, but as a starting point for graphic exploration.

This rationale is borne out in Kitching’s own distinctive oeuvre, which treads a fine line between graphic design and fine art. However, South Kensington and its environs are likely be seeing a little less of the man and his beard in the future. In November last year, he retired from his post at the RCA, retreating to south London to continue with his usual work. His RCA letterpress courses, however, have left their mark in more ways than one.

Typography: Alan Kitching 1956-2007 runs from 14 February to 8 March at St Bride Library, Bride Lane, Fleet Street, London EC4

Thomas Matthews, Letterpress Scrabble
About one in five jobs emanating from Thomas Matthews’ studio in London’s Borough features letterpress in some form, but that’s not enough for director Sophie Thomas. The group has a small workshop with its own small letterpress, where designers and clients can get their hands dirty and smell the printer’s ink. ‘It’s good to get people away from their computers,’ explains Thomas.

For the Victoria & Albert Museum’s craft fair, the team borrowed the RCA’s small press, and invited the public to pick seven woodblock letters from a bag in the style of Scrabble. They’d then compose a word, working off the existing letters on the outsize board, and have it printed on the spot. The random mix of fonts and sizes created surprising yet engaging results.

Turnbull Grey, Clerkenwell Green Association newsletter
Turnbull Grey has a small Adana hand press in its studio and a lovingly sourced collection of wood letter type, which it uses for short-run jobs. Founder Chris Turnbull comes from a fine art and printmaking background, and is interested in exploring the more tactile side of print and materials. Its studio is in London’s Clerkenwell’s Pennybank Chambers, home to a small army of artists and craftspeople – from silversmiths to bookbinders and violin makers, and Turnbull Grey produces its 2000-run, twice-yearly newsletter.

Printed litho on Bible paper, the huge fold-out publication incorporates letterpressed headlines in bold colour, to add punch and panache. ‘I like the physicality of the block type and its imperfection,’ says Turnbull. ‘Because of the tradition, it’s very rich and evocative.’

Åbäke with Ian Gabb, Five Year Mission
Åbäke is an interesting collective of designers of different nationalities based in Shoreditch in London. They met at the RCA and attended Kitching’s Typography Workshop, where they duly caught the letterpress bug.

With Gabb, who’s now stepped into Kitching’s shoes, the collective has instituted the Five Year Mission, a single sheet of A2 paper on to which all the projects undertaken at the college between 18 May 2002 and 18 May 2007 are overprinted. Åbäke gets involved whenever its members drop by to lecture, teach or for openings. ‘The longevity of such an informal contract depends on the friendship between Ian, ourselves and letterpress,’ explains Åbäke’s Maki Suzuki. The choice of 18 May is completely arbitrary, reflecting the arbitrary nature of the end product.

A2/SW/HK, Cubitt Artists identity
A2/SW/HK is formed of alumni of the RCA’s Typography Workshop, and brought a penchant for letterpress to a striking monochrome identity for the artist run-organisation Cubitt Artists.

When Cubitt moved the short distance from London’s King’s Cross to a former printer’s workshop in Angel, Islington, A2 seized upon the opportunity not only to reflect the history of the new studio and gallery space, but also the different aesthetics of the artists who make up Cubitt.

Central to the identity is a series of interchangeable bold letterpress ‘C’s, which feature on all aspects of the stationery and identity. ‘It’s authoritative yet human and reflects the individuality of Cubitt,’ says A2’s Scott Williams.

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