Crack open the cover of Alan Kitching’s The A—Z of Letterpress: Founts from The Typography Workshop (Laurence King) and the rich scent of printer’s ink instantly rises to meet you. It’s a fitting introduction to the new book of quirky letterforms, all hand-picked by graphic designer Alan Kitching, whose work—distinctive for its use of scale, texture, color, and mastery of overlapping letterforms into complex compositions—graces everything from postage stamps and theater posters to billboards and signage.
After the British-born Kitching began his career as a typographer at the age of 14, he went on to become a visiting lecturer and fellow at the Royal College of Art, and later launched The Typography Workshop Printroom and Studio, a joint venture in two south London workspaces. A—Z can be seen as a light appetizer for the heavier next course, a monograph of Kitching’s entire body of work to be published in 2016. Still, A—Z is tasty as far as light bites go. The book’s toothsome matte paper stock and the letterpress dust jacket (designed by Pentagram) feel good to the touch. And though the inside pages aren’t letterpress-printed (they’re offset), every image was first individually hand-proofed on a Vandercook #3 press in Kitching’s workshop in preparation.
Each letter of the alphabet is introduced by a two-page spread featuring a complete character set in black, with the index letter printed at the lower right in metallic gold ink or in one of three bright colors: royal blue, scarlet, or orchid. Then, in the individual sections, a tiny reference number beside each character cross-indexes it back to a master list for typeface identification. The material, gathered from the collection Kitching assembled with his late partner Celia Stothard, draws upon an eclectic trio of sources: a massive set of theatrical type (enough to fill two stone barns in the Somerset village of Wrington) once used for printing posters for circuses and variety shows; an antique dealer who arrived at Kitching’s workshop one day in a van loaded floor to ceiling with type; and the library of Herbert Spencer, founder of Typographica magazine.
If you’re looking to read more than the alphabet, however, you’ll be disappointed. There’s no written context, save for the briefest of introductions. Even a little bit of added information would make this feel more complete, to say nothing of how nice it’d be to see a few photos of the wooden letterforms with their hard-earned patina. A wealth of this type of information can be anticipated in Kitching’s upcoming book, of course, but even a page or two here would help locate the reader within his design landscape. A—Z feels a bit like an artifact populated with artifacts. Taken as a group, these letterforms are nostalgic, even a little precious. But in Kitching’s work, these very same pieces of type move away from their historic roots towards timelessness, which just goes to show what a difference a master designer and printer can make.