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“This has no foundation to it, it just appears,” said Alan Kitching, holding up an elegant poster near the podium where he spoke. He was talking about the type on the poster, which had been set, like almost everything in the last twenty years, on a computer.

Kitching spoke as part of Monotype’s Pencils to Pixels series—a lecture series which talked about the history and future of graphic design, although he said in referring to his work, “Pencils to picas would be better name.”

Photographed by Phil Sayer

So back to that poster: Kitching didn’t mean that it didn’t have merit, that the design wasn’t skilled, it’s just that when describing the work of Alan Kitching, foundation is a very important word. While he’s well versed in software and speaks highly of digital printing, Kitching’s work hearkens to an older tradition—one when typesetting was a blue-collar job and the size and style of type you used was filed away, letter by letter, in boxes. He left school at age 14 to become a typesetter, after realizing that he wanted to make posters for a living—an odd career choice in his hometown where most people built bridges.

“I loved it, I loved setting type. But I knew there was more to it.” A discovery of Jan Tschigold lead to an early appreciation of more sophisticated approaches in typography and layout, and soon Kitching found a successful career in design, working with legends like Pentagram founder Colin Forbes and illustrator Bob Gill, becoming known for his expertise in typography.

But as he told the crowd, “I came to the end of the line, as far as I wanted to go . . . I had to go back to where I started.”

Alan Kitching
Broadside 4
1990
Letterpress print
Artist’s Proof
Sheet size 53 x 76cm

And so, Kitching returned to setting type by hand, creating an experimental series of broadsheets or posters that explored type and his connection to it. A broadsheet dedicated to the typographer Dr. Berthold Wolpe, the creator of the typeface Albertus; a broadsheet explaining where his letterpress studio was; and unusual maps that used only type and color to describe locations. He made maps using just type and color; making them look more like poems than maps.

Doing this well on a computer would be hard enough, doing it on a printing press and setting the type by hand brings a new level of difficulty. And part of what’s so impressive about these broadsheets is the sheer size of type. Kitching wasn’t using just any type, he was also using typefaces from a theatrical poster company that had gone out of business. Imagine making a poster with metal letterforms as big as cereal boxes.

Alan Kitching
A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever
2012
Letterpress print
Edition size 25
Sheet size 75.75 x 56.5cm

But just as important as the size is his use of color — Kitching doesn’t rely on high-contrast color schemes to get his point across, rather, the colors seem to blend and emerge from each other. “I’m trying to get away from this,” he said, pointing to a large elegant logo on the painted wall behind him, perfectly scaled, rendered black and white, “I’m trying to move things forward. I don’t want perfect.”

But frequently the results are perfect. They’re eye-catching and expressive, they pull you the reader in because the reader is often trying to determine how to read them while still appreciating the design—and then there’s that moment for the reader when everything comes together.

Kitching’s experiments with letterpress led to commissions for magazines, the National Theatre of London, Saatchi and Saatchi, as well as more unlikely clients like AOL, and after seeing it, I would have to say that using a centuries-old printing technique to advertise for an internet service provider has resulted in easily the only America Online advertisement that is still worth looking at today. His work has been on billboards and postage stamps — and all of this success discovered after having decided to leave graphic design behind.

Alan Kitching
Hamlet
2001
Letterpress print
Edition size 12
Sheet size 84 x 59cm

I was lucky enough to bump into Kitching in the West Village the day after his talk. He was wearing a field jacket with a few pens in the front pocket, and told me that he was walking around as research for a map of New York. I couldn’t help but smile, knowing this map would be like nothing I’d ever seen before.

Monotoype’s Pencils to Pixels talk series concluded May 9th. A more in-depth and recommended profile of Kitching from 2001 can be found here.

View more of Alan Kitching’s work and sign up for updates HERE.