Jen Dennis, London Part-time Teacher

Alan Kitching: A Life in Letterpress
Author/Publisher: John L. Walters / Laurence King

Alan Kitching is one of the many reasons that I love typography. I was introduced to him by my typography teacher, Kelyyn Smith and from that moment on, I was a big fan. His work also hangs in a favourite pub of mine, The Three Kings in Clerkenwell Green and whenever I go back there, it reminds me of that moment when I first became slightly obsessed with not only typography but also, Alan Kitching’s work.

Alan Kitching: A life in letterpress showcases a lifetime’s work spanning over 50 years. Claiming that he had no interest in printing, just what could be done with it, over the years Kitching has become not only a legend in the letterpress world but also the design world.

The book showcases his distinctive work commissioned by The Guardian, Dazed & Confused and Vince Frost but it’s his personal work such as his Broadsides that allow us a glimpse into what he really enjoys, what it is that keeps driving him to produce work.

The book gives us an insight into his process and the ideas behind his approach to design.

On his recent visit to our London campus he spoke passionately about words, language and process. His designs could be seen as beautiful typographic artworks but it’s clear his work comes from the mind of a designer as he explores ideas that have a beautiful simplicity to it.

His work works on many different levels: for some it’s a bold, colourful spectacle. For others it’s the appreciations and awe of his skill to push the limitations of the tools. For the designers amongst us, it’s the effortlessness and simplicity to his work, the ‘I wish I’d thought of that’ moment that Alan’s work seems to encourage us to discover. For example, The Royal Albert Hall poster is set in the shape of the Royal Albert Hall. I mean it seems almost too obvious and if I didn’t love his work so much, I’d be left feeling almost annoyed with him for being so goddam clever.

At the age of 77 you may think he would be ready for retirement but after hearing him speak, there was a restlessness to keep creating, a desire to push the limitations of letterpress and challenge the capabilities of the machine and materials. I guess his passion for London, words, poetry and playfulness is an infinite resource of inspiration and I have no doubt that there will be many more iconic pieces to come.

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During Alan’s recent visit I had the pleasure to ask him a few questions which are included below;

You say work comes first, living comes second. Do you think it’s important as a creative to make work your life?

In my partnership/marriage to Celia Stothard we both had the same work/live ethic. Celia was a designer/performer/chanteuse/artist of many talents. So we both looked upon ‘work’ as the most natural way of living and being.

You taught from the 60’s-90s, what impact did teaching have on both your career and the way you approach your work?

The teaching I did had an enormous impact on my working life. Especially when I was at the RCA where I started to teach through letterpress workshops. Working through projects with the students had an influence to some degree on what I was doing outside the college. The first thing I said to people as they entered my class was,

I’m not interested in letterpress printing, I’m interested in what you can do with it. What can you make new from something old?

How do you feel about degrees? Do you think that apprenticeships / short courses are just as valuable?

I think the apprenticeship system has great potentiality, Because you are learning through doing. Although it should be of the most liberal and wide interest.

In terms of your creative process, do you have a favourite stage and how important is your sketchbook when designing?

Before I get anywhere near doing any rough designs, I have to think about the idea—absorb it, almost like an actor learning lines, so I can visualise it better. The best part of a project is right it the start. when I begin immediately to think about what the subject is and how I can go about creating the most powerful image. I often use a small sketch book, but often I make rough notes straight onto the bottom of the email, you have that bit of white space so I do my doodles on that—don’t waste paper.

How do you think you retain the enthusiasm and passion for design and letterpress all these years on? Is there one particular driving force?

I like the unrelenting stricture of the letterpress idiom. How to achieved the maximum effect with this most awkward of mediums.

What is your one piece of advice for designers out there?

My one piece of advice to young designers is to keep in experimenting with your chosen media.

Massive thanks to Alan for speaking at our London campus and for answering our questions for this special edition of Shillington Book Club. Be sure to check out more of Alan’s work if you’re unfamiliar or perhaps book onto one of his letterpress workshops to learn from the master in person.

Our #Shillumni can also watch an exclusive recording of Alan’s guest lecture at #ShilloLON on the exclusive Facebook Group