Alan Kitching & Legacy of Letters: Letterpress Printing at the Tipoteca

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The revived Legacy of Letters tours have increasingly differed from the original iteration of the 1990s by the inclusion of calligraphy and lettering classes and letterpress workshops. The availability of the Tipoteca Italiana Fondazione in Cornuda, Italy, possibly the world’s most beautiful museum devoted to the history and technique of printing and its allied arts, has been the spur for this change. Each time, the workshops have grown longer and more elaborate, culminating this past summer in an intense four-day class with London legend Alan Kitching.

Kitching, a noted graphic designer and, since 1989, proprietor of the Typography Workshop, is the first guest printer for Legacy of Letters. The brief that he set the participants (six from the United States, three from Australia and one each from Russia and Italy) was, from the standpoint of letterpress printing, complicated and demanding, especially for such a short course. That it was accomplished on time and with a high degree of creativity is a testament not only to Alan’s skills as a course leader and the hard work and ability of the participants, but also to the organizational talent of my colleague Alta Price and the indispensable knowledge of Lucio and Daniele, the two Tipoteca “technicians.” All in all, it was a true team effort, including some unexpected help from Andrea Herstowski, a visiting designer from the University of Kansas.

Alan asked the participants to create a typographic collage in the spirit of weathered and layered posters on a hoarding. The design was to be done using the names of six famous Italians—chosen from a list that ranged from Michelangelo to Sophia Loren—each set in a different typeface (with a border on two sides) and printed in a different color. The “frames” did not have to be made from existing rules or borders but could be assembled from fleurons, dingbats and even letters. Originally, Alan wanted the frames and names to be in different colors, but that would have doubled the amount of work required, and thus the idea was dropped. Even as it was, it involved six runs through the press for each print for each person—an immense project to be completed in four days. Precise organization was the key.

Alan blocked out the four days very carefully: day one was devoted to composition and design; days two and three to printing; and day four to the final trimming and assembly of the prints into portfolios. Our previous workshops had used the Tipoteca’s three proof presses, which had always been sufficient for projects with fewer people and fewer colors. But given the complexity of synchronizing eleven people, six colors and three presses, we decided to use the two display handpresses as well. This meant that their tympans and bearers had to be changed from from their book page setups. Two participants, Ray Tomasso from Denver and John Risseeuw from Phoenix, had experience with handpresses and they deftly handled this work.

Alan created an additional difficulty, designwise, for the participants. With the idea that the resultant portfolio of prints would serve as a type specimen for the Tipoteca he restricted the use of typefaces, dictating that none could be used more than once. To ensure that that didn’t happen, I became the typeface coordinator, keeping a running tally of who had used which typeface. This was not as easy as it seems since the Tipoteca’s mix of wood, lead and even plastic typefaces is organized by drawer with some faces sharing a single drawer and others spread out over several of them.

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Alan Kitching explaining an aspect of the brief on Day 1.

On Day 1 the students began by setting their given their set of Italian names. One problem that several people ran into was the length of many Italian names: e.g. Gina Lollabrigida, Giuseppe Lampedusa, or Filippo Tomasso Marinetti. Since Alan wanted everyone’s design to fit within a 35 cm x 35 cm square (within the 35 mm x 50 mm sheets of paper) this meant that large wood type, unless condensed, couldn’t be used for such names. One solution was to find an acceptable abbreviated form of some names such as F.T. Marinetti.

Whenever possible, students tried to choose typefaces that suggested the names. But the limitations of the Tipoteca’s collection combined with Alan’s “no repetition” rule often made that impossible. Some people solved the problem by adding evocative typographic rules and dingbats to their names. Andrea Marks inserted arrows between the letters of Luchino Visconti’s name in an allusion to the frames of a film reel. Clint Harvey separated the letters of Primo Levi’s surname with vertical rules that served as a reminder of his imprisonment in a German concentration camp. Similarly, several students creatively interpreted the frame requirement. For instance, Laura Dal Maso composed her frame for Galileo out of a combination of circular and spinning elements suggestive of heavenly bodies.

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Sasha Trubin setting Lampedusa, one of his six Italian names.

Once the students had each of their six names composed, they had to proof them in black ink on glassine using a hand proofing press. After dusting with talcum powder, these transparent proofs were layered and moved about until a potential composite design emerged. Then a color had to be assigned to each layer. This was a crucial step as each student had to anticipate how the names were going to look once the colors were surprinted. A mistake in choosing which name was printed first could spell irrevocable disaster.

Tahlia McBride checking her initial proof.

Tahlia McBride checking her initial proof.

Alice Buda’s initial proof.

Alice Buda’s initial proof.

The six colors that Alan chose were blue, green, purple, red, orange and yellow. But he wanted them to be soft “gelato” colors rather than pure or bright ones. Under Alan’s supervision, Lucio mixed up all six colors while the participants were composing their designs. On Day 2, the three “cool” colors were printed. Both blue and green went on both a machine proof press and a “torchio” while purple was only on a machine proof press. The students had to rotate among the presses as they printed each color.

One reason that the workshop ran so smoothly was that among the 11 participants there were five accomplished letterpress printers. Along with the two Tipoteca technicians, they guaranteed that there were plenty of people to keep all five presses operating continuously and to provide help to the letterpress novices. Alan did not operate any of the presses. Instead, he oversaw the whole operation with the assistance of Alta. He also helped those students who were unfamiliar with composing type and critiqued everyone’s designs.

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Alan Kitching helping Pam Galvani set type.

The colors became even softer than Alan had envisioned because the bulk of the prints were done on beautiful but absorbent Amatruda paper. (A smaller quantity of prints were done on paper provided by Fedrigoni so that the workshop could be written up for the paper company’s new magazine called Pulp.) The inks also dried quickly with the Amatruda paper, which proved to be a blessing.

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Andrea Marks’ 4-color proof on Day 3.

While the students were printing their “collages,” Alan, Alta and I were working on the auxiliary apparatus for the portfolio: the portfolio cover, the title page and a colophon. I designed the cover in consultation with Alan. He and Alta did the title page which shifted from gelato colors to the Italian “bandiera” of green, red and white. The typesetting of the complicated colophon—it listed not only all of the participants in the workshop, but also each of the typefaces they used in their compositions—was handled by Tahlia McBride, Alice Buda and our ringer Andrea Herskowski with proofreading “in the stick” by Sandro Berra, the director of the Tipoteca, and in the galley by Alta. Everyone was kept busy.

On Day 3, the students printed the “warm” colors. But quickly several people found it difficult to use the yellow and the orange. They were too recessive and could not compete with the green, blue and purple. So, Alan had to remix them to make them punchier, almost fluorescent. Although the red—really a lovely rose color—worked, it too was remixed to have the same intensity as its cousins.

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Clint Harvey making adjustments to his lock-up.

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Liz DeLuna printing on the Dell’Orto handpress.

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Laura Dal Maso working at the “Vandercook” proofing press.

As each participant printed a new color, they discovered that their original layered glassine design needed adjusting. It was one thing to see six layers of names printed in black and another to see them in tutti-frutti colors. The interaction of colors and letterforms was very different. Some people reduced the number of names to four or five and one person added a seventh name in order to achieve a balanced composition. In some cases, names were reset in different typefaces. Thus, the boundary between design and printing was fluid, unlike computer-based work.

Even with last-minute adjustments, everyone completed his or her “collage” prints by the end of the day. Celene Aubry, Alice, Laura and John with the assistance of Lucio and Daniel collaborated on the printing of the portfolio cover, title page and colophon. Thus, everyone enjoyed a day of rest on Sunday when the Tipoteca was closed. The group went on a day trip around the Veneto, visiting the famous Brion-Vega cemetery in Altivole designed by Carlo Scarpa, Paladio’s Villa Maser, and the Remondini printing museum in Bassano del Grappa. A few people also visited the Poli grappa museum in Bassano. The day concluded with a meal in the small hilltop town of Asolo.

The final day of the workshop was busy, but not hectic. Ray tore down the prints into the final 35 cm x 35 cm size. Pam Galvani folded the portfolio covers that had been trimmed and scored by Lucio. Alta, with the assistance of Naomi Games, Diane Tomasso and Linda Risseeuw (all three of whom had come along for the tour but not the workshop), collated the prints. As a last minute contribution to the portfolio, I calligraphed everyone’s names on sheets to be added as “half-titles” or “frontispieces.”

Not every print in the portfolio is a masterpiece, but given the limitations of available typefaces, sizes and time, it is gratifying to see how many of them came close to achieving Alan’s goal of a layered “collage” of broadsides. And the portfolio as a whole is a beautiful memento of the workshop—remarkable for being completed in such a short amount of time. Each year, the Legacy of Letters projects have become more ambitious and more complex. Alan Kitching and all of the participants have set the bar high for future workshops.

I wish to thank Alan Kitching for coming up with such an intriguing project; my colleague Alta Price for supervising everything; the Tipoteca technicians Lucio and Daniele for their invaluable assistance; Sandro Berra and Silvio Antiga, the Tipoteca’s director and founder, for hosting the workshop; and most of all, this year’s participants, Celene Aubrey, Alice Buda, Laura Dal Maso, Liz DeLuna, Pam Galvani, Clint Harvey, Andrea Marks, Tahlia McBride, John Risseeuw, Ray Tomasso and Alexander Trubin. Finally, Naomi Games, Andrea Herskowitz, Linda Risseeuw, and Diane Tomasso, although not officially part of the workshop, contributed to the making of the portfolios.

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The Legacy of Letters 2015 participants. From left to right: Silvio Antiga (founder of the Tipoteca), Paul Shaw, Alan Kitching, Celene Aubry, Alice Buda, Laura Dal Maso, Liz DeLuna, Clint Harvey, Pam Galvani, Tahlia McBride, Andrea Marks, John Rissieuw, Ray Tomasso, Sasha Trubin and Alta Price.

Legacy of Letters 2016 Tipo Cibo Vino

The 2016 Legacy of Letters workshop will take place at the Tipoteca Italiana Fondazione in Cornuda, Italy from July 9 to 16. The workshop is entitled Tipo Cibo Vino (Type Food Wine) to emphasize the inclusion of food and wine as an integral part of the workshop. The workshop will be led by Peter Kruty and Sayre Gaydos of Peter Kruty Editions, a letterpress workshop located in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. Mr. Kruty, who teaches at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, is a master printer with nearly 30 years experience. He is best known for his innovative printing of artists’ books for Bob Peterson, Lesley Dill, Mikhail Magaril and others. His partner, Sayre Gaydos specializes in unique bookbinding and book structures. She teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Along with printing, the workshop will include a gastronomic tour of the Veneto with visits to a cheesemaker, winery and distillery; and cooking lessons from Cristina Colle, the chef at Le Corderie, the award-winning restaurant affiliated with the Tipoteca. Participants in the workshop will design and print recipes and a menu for a meal which will be cooked by Ms. Colle at the conclusion of the course. The workshop will be limited to 12 people. The cost is $3750. For more information or to sign up please contact Paul Shaw at paulshaw@nyc.com.

Legacy of Letters was conceived in 1996 by Garrett Boge as an opportunity for calligraphers, lettercutters, typographers and anyone else passionate about letterforms to study the history of the Roman alphabet in its place of origin. The tour was inspired by the famous student tours of Rome and Florence led every other Spring by Prof. Michael Twyman and his colleagues in the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication at the University of Reading. Boge and I led tours of Rome from 1997 to 1999 and of Florence and Tuscany in 2000. In 2010 I revived Legacy of Letters with the help of Alta Price. The tour currently focuses on cities in the Veneto and Emilia-Romagna regions, but in the future it will expand to include other locations in Italy.

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