Much has been said of typographic designer and printmaker Alan Kitching in recent years. Thanks to the design world’s obsession renewed interest in all things handmade, Kitching has been celebrated in enough videos, interviews, studio visits, and exhibitions to cement his reputation with younger designers as a relevant member of the old guard—as if he weren’t already assured of going down in history as one of the legends of letterpress. So a new book on Kitching and his life’s work hardly seems necessary. But what I failed to comprehend before cracking open Alan Kitching: A Life in Letterpress (Laurence King) was that all the fuss that’s been made about him (and rightly so) exists in a million disparate places—none of it’s been compiled altogether in the same place, set in the proper context of his long and storied career from British “back room boy” to big deal designer, and his relationships with his design peers (including Derek Birdsall, Anthony Froshaug, Diter Rot, Alan Fletcher, and Pentagram co-founder Colin Forbes), to say nothing of his partner, both in work and in life, Celia Strothard.
The book is impressive in its scope and level of detail, weaving quirky Kitching-isms that’ll be familiar to diehard fans (like the fact that he prefered saying “founts” instead of fonts) into the story of his life, illustrated with 50 years of his work, from his first typographic experiments (created with his mentor, Anthony Froshaug) to the present; there’s a stunning 48-page photo essay, plus 400 other images. Design essay readers and casual coffee table book flippers will both have plenty to keep them entertained.
The depth of these essays is what makes this a winner for me. This isn’t some fluffy look back at the golden days of letterpress printing; you’ll find no “maker porn” here. Until now the origins of the “big type” Kitching is famous for has been poorly documented, and it’s a shame, because it’s actually a really interesting story.
Born in the working-class British neighborhood of Darlington, Kitching’s family was less than supportive of a creative career, but while his school mates took jobs in local factories, a young Kitching decided to pursue work as a poster artist instead. He spent six years as a printing apprentice (standard at the time) at a print shop he recalled had “truly Victorian splendor,” but had fallen into “Dickensian state.” Here, from age 15-21, he printed raffle tickets, brochures, and posters in the way granddaddy Gutenberg intended. But throughout his entire time at the print shop one word was markedly absent: design.
He went on to work in the printing department at Watford College of Technology, which he describes as having gleaming equipment, a far cry from his previous years of toil in dirty print rooms. This is where he had his first brush with Anthony Froshaug, who many credit with pioneering modern typography in Britain, and consequently with design. It’s also where he made his life-changing move from technician to teacher.
In 1964 Kitching co-founded the Experimental Printing Workshop at Watford College of Technology. On the whole, the Watford years were a time of intense creativity for Kitching. He collaborated with many of the school’s art and design professors, creating concrete poetry and experimental books, printing posters, and ultimately producing his well known Typography Manual in 1970, a limited-edition book printed on a variety of papers (including newsprint and tracing paper) using manifold methods, like offset litho and letterpress. As a manual it underscores the rules of laying out type, but it’s done with a certain sense of whimsy that sets it apart from your average guidebook. One of the first things readers will notice is that the manual doesn’t arrange letters alphabetically, but in order of their frequency of use in English.
Even though Kitching was a teacher at this point, until his Typography Manual was complete he still considered himself an apprentice. “Even though I wasn’t a student, it was as though I was a student,” he said. It’s from there that his prolific career really took off, and A Life in Letterpress does an excellent job of showing and telling the story, dipping into rich periods of his professional life with essays by Kitching himself, as well as by John L. Walters, editor of Eye and Pulp. The editors also know when to let images of the work do the talking. What’s clear is that Kitching still has plenty more to say. We’ll be keeping an eye out for volume two.