My first meeting with Alan Kitching in 1995

I discovered Alan Kitching nearly 30 years ago. But what I discovered was not what I expected. In 1995 I took a self-paid two month “sabbatical” from teaching and designing to travel in Europe with the goal of looking at letters first-hand: in manuscripts in libraries, on the buildings and monuments of cities, in churches and museums. While in London, I went to visit type designer Dave Farey, who I had met the year before at ATypI in San Francisco. At the time his studio HouseStyle Graphics was located in Clerkenwell. In the same building was Alan Kitching’s Typography Workshop.

At the time I knew Kitching’s name, but not much about him or his work. I knew he was one of several London designers in the 1960s who were acclaimed for bringing modern design to an England still steeped in William Morris, the Monotype Corporation and Eric Gill. He was also the author of a small booklet with the modest title Typography Manual (published in 1970 while he was teaching at the Watford School of Art) that was spoken of highly by Robin Kinross and others I respected. It was not only rare (110 copies were printed) but a rare instance of a type specimen book that, as Paul Stiff pointed out, was designed systematically with the needs of typographers in mind rather than those of type manufacturers.

Thus, when Dave took me to see Alan Kitching’s studio near his I was expecting to find a clean, antiseptic modernist space. The space was indeed orderly, but to my surprise it was packed with printing presses and cabinets of metal and wood type, printing rollers were hanging from the ceiling, and rafts of paper were carefully stacked in shelving on the walls. Unexpected but thrilling. I was immediately captivated when I saw pages of Alan’s Type Cases specimen hanging from the ceiling—huge sheets with the title richly printed in a large extended slab serif between rules and the subtitle (“Twenty-Nine Type Founts Borders Ornaments & Stock Blocks”) delicately printed in a small size of Futura capitals, the whole thing a perfect blend of Victorianism and modernism.

Sheets for Type Cases hanging from the ceiling. The Typography Workshop, Clerkenwell, London (1995). Photograph by Paul Shaw.

Sheets for Type Cases hanging from the ceiling. The Typography Workshop, Clerkenwell, London (1995). Photograph by Paul Shaw.

But the real treats in the studio were Alan’s colorful posters that were wrenching letterpress out of its nostalgia, making it look as  this outdated technology was cutting edge. His work had the energy of Dadaism, but without the messiness. Some of it was as layered as any of the trendy digital designs shown in Emigre at the time. But it was all firmly under control, as much so as a poster by Josef Müller-Brockmann.

Broadside 1 (1988) by Alan Kitching.

Broadside 1 (1988) by Alan Kitching. Blurry photograph by Paul Shaw (1995).

I was especially transfixed by a rendition of the Christmas carol “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” and a typographic “map” of how to get to the Clerkenwell studio via the London Underground. The former was a heavy rain of orange, red and purple type furiously slanting down a narrow sheet. The latter was not the iconic Beck map, but was just as abstracted. The names of each relevant Underground line was produced in a different wood type and in its official color with a large red typographic fist pointing the exact location of the studio. Kitching had done other typographic “maps” of London—one was reproduced in “Marks on Paper” by Julia Thrift and Alan Kitching in Eye 15  (Winter 1994)—at the time and since then he has become famous for them. Many were on display in 2012 under the rubric  “Mr Kitching’s London”. Others have since copied his idea and produced digital typographic maps of London and other cities, but none have done so with his panache and deep understanding of the relationship between typography and content.

Alan Kitching at the press in The Typographic Workshop, Clerkenwell, London (1995).  Photograph by Paul Shaw.

Alan Kitching at the press in The Typographic Workshop, Clerkenwell, London (1995). Photograph by Paul Shaw.

At that first meeting with Alan Kitching in 1995 it was still the age of film photography. Since a roll of film only had 36 images, I took only a handful of murky photographs (slides) of the studio—only one of Alan himself and that from behind as he worked at the press—and of the posters. I also took a photo of his typographic clock.

After that first meeting with Alan I tried in vain to get him to New York for a lecture. But no one in the design circles in New York was aware of his work or interested in it, with the exception of one colleague at Parsons School of Design. When Alta Price and I revived the Legacy of Letters tour and added the Tipoteca in Cornuda to our itinerary I began thinking about asking Alan to do a workshop in Italy. When I visited him this past March in London, I finally asked him if he would be willing to join Legacy of Letters and he readily agreed. Alta and I—and the staff at the Tipoteca—are truly excited about the 2015 tour with Alan as its centerpiece. I will be posting more about his work in weeks to come and we expect to have the full details of the tour and workshop up by mid-September.