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Monday, 17 November 2014

Alan Kitching at the RCA

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a subscribers event at the Royal College of Art organised by Creative Review magazine; a talk by the living legend of letterpress, Alan Kitching.

Having started his career as an apprentice compositor, Alan Kitching is known today as one of the worlds leading letterpress practitioners. His bold, vivid and occasionally political work is instantly recognisable from numerous commissions for the likes of The Guardian, The National Theatre, Dazed & Confused and The Financial Times. He's also the owner of what is rumoured to be the largest collection of wood type in Western Europe, so it's fair to say I was pretty excited to hear the man himself discuss his life and work.


Taking the stage in front of an eager crowd, Alan humbly talked us through his career to date, with a specific focus on his time at the RCA, where as a lecturer in 1988 he started a letterpress workshop for students. Describing his motivation and the culture of the RCA at the time, he mentioned that it "wasn't the sort of place where you asked permission - you just kept doing it until someone told you not to".

Though initially attended by a few students, over the years the course grew in popularity, with students producing innovative, satirical work using a range of wood and metal type, old magazine printing blocks and linocuts. Alan believes that the quality of this work and the enthusiasm of the students was responsible for saving the college's extensive, pre-war letterpress collection from being thrown into the skip; a sad fate that befell many a typeface in the dark, early days of design's digital switchover.

An example of work produced by students of Alan's letterpress workshop at the RCA

Alan also discussed how around the same time, he set up his own printmaking venture in Clerkenwell: The Typography Workshop. After hearing that Stephenson Blake, the famous firm of British typefounders, was shutting its doors for good and having a sale of all its remaining stock - he went to meet them and bought the lot. This was one of several large letterpress acquisitions for Alan, who by all accounts has rescued huge amounts of type from destruction or being made into pieces of furniture over the years.

As the evening continued Alan talked us through a selection of his work. I was particularly impressed by his series of Broadsides, chaotic sheets of printed type which he described as "typographic blasts" featuring explosions of fonts and colour, showcasing some beautiful faces of hand cut wooden type. In these Broadsides you can see the beginnings of his more well know series of London maps, where street names are rendered in colourful type while landmarks and famous former residents are marked in roundels of metal type inspired by London's blue plaques. (As a side note, they have a print of one of these maps in a great little pub called The Royal Oak near Borough station. They also do a mean Imperial Russian stout. Just in case you're ever in the area...)

The Obama Speeches, spread for G2 magazine. Source here.

For me the most exciting work of the night was a Guardian newspaper advert from 2003 protesting the Iraq war, entitled 'Why Iraq, Why Now?'. A full page ad in the old-style broadsheet Guardian, it features an extremely clever collage of wood type designed to be read three ways and ask three different questions. The type is inked just enough to reveal the wood grain, the distressed surface furthering the urgency of the message. Best of all, it was designed to be cut out and used as a banner which many protestors adopted during the vast anti-war protests in London at the time. As an example of hand printed, hand set type having relevance in the modern world it takes some beating.

Finally, Alan gave us some insights into his printing process. Taking inspiration from the paintings of Paul Klee, in the last few decades he has been attempting to build increased surface and texture into his work. Although trained in classic letterpress techniques, this idea has seen him experiment with alternative inking styles such as brushing the type unevenly with a roller or applying ink using a palette knife.  Describing himself as a fan of imperfection, he sees this approach as a move away from the traditional idea of the kiss of the press and the perfect print . Some of the best examples of this technique are visible in his work for the Guardian, particularly the magazine cover 'Amis on Porn'.

The evening concluded with a tour of the RCA's latest exhibition, GraphicsRCA: Fifty Years by designer, author and RCA tutor Adrian Shaughnessy, which featured some of the work produced by students of Alan's letterpress workshop in the eighties and nineties. A comprehensive exhibition featuring some brilliant letterpress pieces, it runs until the 22nd of December and is definitely worth a visit.

Overall it was a fantastic evening, an inspiring opportunity to hear from one of my design heroes and a great start to Creative Review's CR Club events series. Oh, and they had free beer too which always helps.

Now, where did I put my quoins...

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