Mike Dempsey continues the series on inspirational designers to meet Alan Kitching, the man who has printer’s ink coursing through his veins and has elevated letterpress composition to an art form

I rarely put designers’ work on the walls of my home, but there are two exceptions to this rule. There is a beautiful typographical map of London’s Clerkenwell – where I live for part of the week – by Alan Kitching. It has an added appeal for me because my name has been overprinted on the exact location of my flat, courtesy of Kitching. I never tire of the inventiveness of the map’s typographic construction.

Kitching was born in Darlington, 30 miles south of Newcastle, in 1940. It’s a place synonymous with railway history. The railway workshops were the major employer in the area and annually sucked in a new labour force from the town. During the 1950s, the majority of this fresh blood came from the secondary modern schools, where you ended up if you failed t

he 11-plus – a pitiful age to be singled out as a failure. The term ‘secondary’ made you feel just that, a second-class citizen. I know because I went to one, as did Kitching.

At the age of 15, the prospect of a life in the factories servicing the railways began to loom large. Mr Kay, a slightly eccentric violin-playing art teacher, saved him from that fate. A little earlier at school, Kitching and a friend had unearthed a small, flatbed Adana press in the art room. With the help and enthusiasm of Mr Kay they started to typeset and print carol sheets for the school concert, along with flyers and notices. Kitching recalls that the only typeface they had was eight and ten point Gill Sans Medium. When I asked if there had been any creative influences in his family it triggered an earlier memory. As an eight-year-old, he remembers his grandfather, who was employed as a sign writer by London and North Eastern Railway, showing him the typeface he was about to hand letter on the side of a carriage. It was Gill Sans. Kitching never forgot it.

When the inevitable day came to meet the ‘youth employment officer’ at the end of his final year at school, a scrubbed and suited Kitching, with his mother in tow, hesitantly ventured that he would like to be a poster artist. A frosty silence emanated from this figure of authority. ‘Now Alan, the railway would give you a good solid trade and security for life,’ he said. Depressed by this proposal, Kitching discussed the matter with Mr Kay, who suggested that the print trade might be a better option. Eventually, with the help of this dedicated art teacher, Kitching found himself working at a commercial typesetter and printer in the centre of Darlington.

He had found his home. The rich aromatic smell of ink and the tactile quality of the job appealed to his sensitivities. In 1955, he undertook the six-year apprenticeship to become a qualified compositor.

Kitching gradually gained the respect of his boss, who eventually allowed him to completely reorganise the composing room and also experiment with new forms of layout. Kitching had been inspired to attempt these after seeing an article by Jan Tschichold in Printing Britain. Eventually he realised that to fulfil his now burgeoning creative urges he would have to move on. After completing his apprenticeship, he migrated to South East England where he worked for an agricultural printer. While this got him away from his birthplace, it was not close enough to the type of work he wanted to do. In 1963, he applied for a post as a print technician at Watford College of Technology. He was successful and it was to be the turning point in his creative journey.

In the 1960s, Watford, along with the London College of Printing, was a major provider of highly trained compositors to the industry. Kitching settled into college life and found his ability to pass on knowledge rewarding. He quickly discovered there were two aspects to the college; the practical printing techniques of the print school, which he was part of, and the design school, which at the time was headed up by Douglas Merritt. Kitching was still looking for a way to express his suppressed creativity. The opportunity came when the influential typographic designer Anthony Froshaug took over from Merritt as head of the design school. Kitching had read Froshaug’s book Typographic Norms and was deeply impressed. Froshaug was keen to set up a standalone type workshop within the design school – and Kitching was determined to secure the post. He was subjected to a gruelling five-man interview panel, and Kitching thought he’d blown it when, in the middle of the proceedings, he started pacing around the room gesticulating in a nervous frenzy, much to the surprise of the onlookers. But he got the job. In 1965, the experimental Type Workshop was established, with Froshaug at the helm and Kitching in the engine room. Kitching remembers that initially the relationship was rather formal. Very quickly Froshaug recognised that he had a special person at his side and they settled into a solid working relationship. This culminated in an exhibition of the workshop’s output at the Institute of Contemporary Art, where 30 per cent of the typographic gymnastics were Kitching’s. He had arrived.

This creative awakening was further enhanced when two new lecturers arrived at Watford. Diter Rot and Hansjorg Mayer were a fine artand concrete poetry-based duo and most definitely ‘off the wall’. Their influence opened up Kitching to a freer, more expressive use of typography and he remembers this as a pivotal moment. By 1968 he had taken on a part-time post at Central St Martins School of Art & Design and had produced his own book Typographical Manual. While at St Martins, he worked alongside fellow tutors Derek Birdsall, Michael Foreman, Nicola Grey and Ron Sanford. He also started to take on freelance work.

Colin Forbes, a founder of Pentagram, would often use Kitching’s supreme typographical skill on various complex projects. Forbes suggested that he gave up teaching and get closer to the design industry. He took this advice and in 1971 started a freelance practice from his home in Richmond, then later in Covent Garden – at that time an inexpensive enclave of the creative industry. He settled into a range of freelance e e work, from guidebooks and wall charts for the British Museum to posters and book covers. He slipped briefly back into teaching in 1975 at Goldsmith College, but this only lasted a year. In 1977, he joined with Birdsall and Martin Lee and became a partner of Omnific Design.

Here, Kitching worked on a range of corporate and publishing work. It was a very enjoyable period for him, working within such a prestigious consultancy. An opportunity arose to purchase a large quantity of typesetting equipment from Stephenson Blake, the famous type founder, which was sadly closing down after 70 years in business. Both Birdsall and Kitching thought it an interesting idea to embrace this outgoing technology for experimentation and special projects.

Kitching set up the equipment at an old factory close to Birdsall’s home. He recalls that it did not get the use that they had hoped for. But in 1984 Kitching’s world was turned upside-down when his wife died, leaving him with two young children. It was clearly a traumatic period that, understandably, he still finds hard to discuss. What is clear is that being confronted with the fragility of life gave him an inner strength to pursue the creative path that he craved. While working at Omnific was prestigious and rewarding, it must have been difficult for Kitching to shine from under the considerable creative shadow cast by Birdsall.

In 1988, much to Birdsall’s surprise, Kitching resigned from Omnific. With Birdsall’s agreement he purchased the letterpress equipment. Kitching recalls with affection the support and encouragement that Birdsall gave him at that time. Birdsall had just taken over from Gert Dumbar as professor of graphics at the Royal College of Art. He suggested that Kitching consider teaching typography one day a week. He agreed to this and thus ushered in another key moment in his creative journey.

In between teaching he set up the presses he had purchased in a Victorian industrial building in Clerkenwell Green. The RCA letterpress and print department was situated at Kensington Gore, separate from the new college building. Here Kitching would come each week and pass on his skill and inventiveness to a new generation. All seemed well until Jocelyn Stevens, the then rector, announced his intention to close the department. He could not see the point of hanging on to this antiquated method of working in the face of new technology. Kitching fought this decision alongside Margaret Calvert, Birdsall, Dumbar and many others. They won and later in an ironic turn of fate the print department was rehoused in a brand new wing of the RCA in 1992. It was called the Stevens Building, donated by the very man who wanted to junk the department.

It was during this same year that Kitching started the Typographic Workshop at the RCA. The formula remains unchanged to this day: six students, two days a week for a three-week course. They have proved popular and are always over subscribed, taking students from all disciplines.

A visit to Kitching’s Typographic Workshop in Clerkenwell is both a visual and a nostalgic e e delight. Here you will find him wearing a black beret, sporting a full greying beard and draped in an ink-stained apron, standing amid a batch of freshly proofed sheets that dance across the room pegged out like washing on a line. The warmth and aged patina of the cabinets and wood block type set against the cast iron presses create a cosiness that makes you want to brew up instantly, sit in the corner and listen to the deep embracing tones of the Radio 4 afternoon play. It is here that Kitching carries out most of his freelance commissions, which these days can be anything from a postage stamp, to an ad campaign, to the recently completed Poems on the Buses series.

The latest milestone in Kitching’s career is a new venture at his home – an alehouse in a former life – that he shares with his partner Celia Stothard, a designer, teacher, singer and letterpress enthusiast. From here they plan to exhibit and sell the output from the various workshops that Kitching runs, along with his own, more personal work. They also envisage lecture evenings. Kitching has set up some more presses here and it houses yet more wood type collections rescued or purchased from various parts of the country. One remarkable find was from the Somerset village of Wrington. Here a long-established theatrical printer had closed down. It had been based in a barn. Kitching and Stothard were overwhelmed with what they discovered. There was a 12m run of cabinets and shelves containing extraordinarily large size cuts of wood type used on pantomime and circus posters. In the middle of the barn stood a majestic Wharfedal two-colour printing press.

Kitching was enthused by this. Sadly, it was far too big for either of Kitching’s workshops, but a determined Stothard eventually secured a home for it at the Type Museum, courtesy of

a helpful printer. It is also Stothard who is painstakingly cataloguing all of the type in their growing collection. The Wrington collection alone has taken a year to record and she has set about unearthing the definitive collection of Kitching’s work.

Kitching is keeping something very special from our past alive, but not in a retrospective way. In his hands it becomes an exciting and inspirational medium, which he approaches with an intuitive understanding that comes from a 45-year relationship with the craft. Quite simply, he lives it and it shows.

I ended my meeting with this enthusiastic pair, recalling Kitching’s childhood in Darlington where his father, a joiner by profession, would lovingly paint small water colours in the evening or would pick up his accordion and cheer everyone up with a tune. I turned to Kitching and said, ‘don’t suppose you…’ Before I could finish the sentence he was standing before me holding a very serious looking accordion which he set about demonstrating and from my left Stothard joined in with a remarkably clear and tuneful voice.

As I watched Kitching’s agile fingers dance across the grid of buttons could see a connection with type composition, with the same dexterity and intuitive flow. My eyes glanced down to the floor and as I listened to this musical duo I thought how Kitching could reflect on a full and rewarding life; a tutor at a prestigious art and design college, a member of Alliance Graphic International and a Royal Designer for Industry. Not bad for an 11-plus failer, destined to spend his life working for the railway.

And what about the designer who created the other work on my wall? That’s another story.

Mike Dempsey is chairman and founding partner of CDT Design

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