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In conversation with Alan Kitching 31 August 2015

Alan Kitching and Monotype: Celebrating Five Pioneers of the Poster opens in just under 3 week’s time! Ahead of the opening, Alan sat down with LeftLion to discuss the origins of the exhibition, the changes in design over the last century, and what it takes to stand out as a designer – plus much more…

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You originally showed this exhibition in 2014, where did the concept come from?

In 2013 I was invited to New York by Monotype and Eye Magazine as part of a week of seminars, talks and things, and Monotype asked me to participate in one of their publications. I told them that I don’t do books but I’d do a series of sheets folded up in to a slip case, and they agreed to that. When I got back to London I had to think of what to do. My girlfriend then was Naomi Games, the daughter of Abram Games, the English poster artist. She had written about her father extensively, and in her latest book the very first sentence said that when he was born in 1914 there were four other designers born in the same time: Paul Rand in America, Josef Müller-Brockmann in Switzerland, Tom Eckersley in Britain, FHK Henrion in Germany. They were all were very influential and important graphic designers, all born in the same year, and they more or less all died around the same time.

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So, for the Monotype publication – 2014, when we published this series, it was their centenary – I invented five monograms based on their initials to go on the sheets, and this is where the idea for the exhibition came from. Although they were all graphic designers, they all did very different work and I based the monographs on their style of design. On the other side of the sheets was a little biography, and that’s also part of the exhibition. The rest of the exhibition is the work that these five guys did – posters, books and whatever to show the background of what they did and where they came from, to make more sense of my monograms.

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Graphic design, and typography – like all art, goes through fashions. Do you have a favourite period?

Rand, Eckersley and Games and so on, they were artist designers, if you like. And it changed, the whole thing got more commercial, so by the time the sixties arrives, new designers came along. I was brought up in the design of the sixties which was Fletcher Forbes Gill, and Derek Birdsall. They were the hot shot designers when I first came to London – the scene had started to change. Graphic design wasn’t what it is now. The clients were different, they were more of a commodity and used in corporate ways. Now it’s almost come to its conclusion but then it was still in an embryonic stage. There were very individual styles, you could recognise their work, it had a very distinctive touch to it whereas nowadays it’s very difficult to know immediately who’s done something.

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Can you pinpoint what it is in a designer/their work that elevates them to something more than the standard?

It is difficult. To go back a bit. The designers I knew – Birdsall, Fletcher, Gill – they were all very well-read people. They were intelligent. They were very smart. They were bright. … You have to have a certain amount of intelligence to do design, you have to be well-versed in all sorts of levels of knowledge. The good designers have got that, they can draw on references – they know about music, literature, all sorts of things which they can pull on and make connections with. This shows in people’s work.

It’s not just a question of being good at visual manipulation of images anymore, you have to understand the background to it all. … An American artist called Ben Shann … did wonderful lettering, he used Hebrew letters and Arabic letters, and all his lettering is kind of wrong. The stress is wrong. It’s all back to front and odd, but very beautifully done. What I’m getting to is, to do something like that, a very refined version of something, you’ve got to know where it’s coming from – you’ve got to know how to do something the correct way before you can do it wrong.

You can read the full interview in the September issue of LeftLion, or download a digital copy of the feature (pdf).

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