Their ambition is nothing less than a new art school. Based on something most art students rarely encounter - discipline. Because what at first seems to be an Aladdin's Cave of alphabets, ink pots, wooden type, drying racks, and printing presses takes discipline to operate. Their manifesto offers both a promise and a challenge to today: "as an antidote to the immediate & often dispensable nature of modern technology, the slow articulation of the technical side of letterpress allows the designer to immerse themselves in the focus on craft & revel in the simple joys of making". They plan to pass on their knowledge, and develop student's skills with a programme of workshops.
Alan Kitching is a well-known innovator in graphic design, he has spent fifty years first learning the craft of letterpress and wood letter printing, and then using it in ever more inventive ways. His monograph "Alan Kitching: A Life in Letterpress" was published two years ago. Kelvyn is an experienced teacher, and has an highly varied portfolio of work - commissioned and self-motivated - that shows he is of a like-mind with Kitching; although letterpress is beset by restrictions in how it must be set up and handled, those restrictions can melt away to yield typography of the most imaginative and unexpected kind.
After all, much of the greatest innovation in typography to date - from the playful geometry of Hendrik Werkman to the precision of Jan Tschichold - was all made using exactly the same metal and wooden type, viscous inks, and heavy iron presses in this workshop. Indeed, Johannes Gutenberg's workshop would have looked very similar, we are channelling history here, a living connection that runs backwards through five hundred years of typography.
I have done one of these workshops, with Alan Kitching, and discovered more in a day than a decade of reading books and fiddling on computers. The first revelation was that the type is physical, you have to lift, carefully position, lock, ink, pull, to get even one letter onto a piece of paper. The process itself leads to consideration, weighing, deciding, which is simply not there with a computer. The second revelation was about aesthetics; the old typefaces, the way letters looks made of metal, the aged wood, the smells, the coarse paper, the entire process is an aesthetic overload.
The website lists the range of courses to suit every level of capability from civilian to experienced, and the fonts and equipment available, sufficient to enable infinite variation. And they have amassed a long list of visiting consultants, that reads like a who's who of current British design; Anthony Burrill and Hamish Muir of fabled design group Octavo to name but two. Any student or young or even older designer lucky enough to come and study here is going to leave stuffed with all kinds of knowledge; a firm grasp of typographic theory, lots of practical ideas, and creative inspiration to last their lifetime.
The photographs on this post are from the first workshop, in July 2018.
Rummaging around in the Atelier archives, I recently found my one college project that didn't get incinerated in the post-graduation-show bonfire. This hand-made blue buckram portfolio is one of an edition of 12, each of which held 12 letterpress posters. They were the centrepiece of my 1984 degree submission, and their rediscovery triggered a timely moment of reflection.
The project represents a significant moment of technological change, when I witnessed skip-loads of letterpress equipment dumped, and specialist technicians dismissed. It didn't seem right to me, and I was conscious that certain skills were being consigned to history. I went looking for the last journeyman compositors in the college. I found them standing around, without students, and so very willing to teach me. I learnt everything I could from them before they got their cards.
This project also represents a rich student experience; opportunities both practical and academic were central to the syllabus at the London College of Printing (LCP) during the early 1980s. My excellent complementary studies course inspired a fleeting interest in Concrete Poetry. In particular, the American poet ee cummings' conflicting mix of elation and cynicism matched my mood at the time.
Typographically, I was struck by the way cummings 'built' his narrative using type. I asked the compositors to teach me how to build my lines of type and I was then given enough instruction on a printing press to use it myself. The bookbinding department advised me on which papers to source, and taught me how to make my own portfolios. This self-initiated project was a complete design-and-production experience — and it was academically underpinned, with my final dissertation on the British private press movement.
It is obvious now (but not at the time) that it was only by following my instincts that I managed to produce a coherent, consolidated and fairly credible final degree submission.
My interest in ee cummings was initially typographic; he was a poet whose work relied on ignoring the rules of grammar and was enhanced by unconventional type-setting. As a wayward student, sometimes at odds with the regimented instruction of my tutors, cummings' stance had great appeal for me. With three deserted rooms packed with letterpress equipment and the whole production process open to me, I was free to go beyond the constraints that cummings had in the 1940s when his poetry was first printed. I could use type and print to explore my own interpretation of his work.
I have to admit that I struggle with today's mobile text abbreviations and chat acronyms. I don't think I'm on the same wavelength. But looking at this poster now, I realise that cummings was using a similar phonetic version many decades before the mobile had been invented. Oddly, I do not recall having any difficulty understanding his poems. Indeed, methodically piecing together these lines using a combination of Ludlow hot metal and wooden type seemed quite straightforward, even when I was setting everything in reverse. There is clearly some valuable research to be done, looking into the merits of slow-paced hand typesetting and reading skills.
This marked the point at which I realised just how sexy type could be...
And at this point I also discovered s l o w, fast, and suddenstop type.
Fast forward 34 years...
This year, tens of thousands of graphic design graduates will embark upon their new careers. My daughter will be one of them, having graduated this week from the London College of Communication (LCC). Apart from the change of name (LCP to LCC), this is the very same university and the very same course that both of her parents attended 34 years ago.
For the last three years, mother and father have had to restrain themselves from comparing and commenting on her course experiences, her final dissertation submission, and the preparations for her graduation show. The benefits of our hindsight have been freely offered but (quite rightly), considered unhelpful by the recipient.
Nevertheless, I remain a design graduate and am now an employer, so I am well placed to compare just how prepared today's graduates from LCC may be. On the one hand, the insane student numbers on the course, reduced student-tutor ratios, limited access to hands-on technologies, a reliance on isolated home working, and crippling student debt all conspire to provide a poor grounding for undergraduates and a troubling future for the design profession. On the other hand, hasn't it always been the case that it is the determined graduates (despite their university experience) who succeed in forging new directions in their chosen field?
My optimism remains with this generation of graduates who did not have access to all the resources I had — but should, I hope, leave our arts education system with scorn for how they have been short-changed, making them more alert to workplace deficiencies and more determined not to stand for it. They should not forget to bring their creativity too; perhaps a mix of cummings-like observation with a loud, challenging voice?
Above, left, my seven-year-old daughter at the Type Archive produces her very first proof.
Above, right, my graduate daughter in the much-diminished LCC letterpress department, setting a Gill Sans pangram (below).
LCC 2018: Graduates
Fresh out of university: Rebecca Chilvers
More letterpress: Aladdin's Cave