The period between 1989 and the early 1990s has acquired historical significance for all kinds of reasons, writes John L Walters. In politics it was the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution in the former Czechoslovakia, the end of Communism and, as some would have it, the start of the ‘end of history’. In popular music, the shift from recorded performance to electronically produced tracks gave rise to so-called ‘rave culture’.
Communications were changing, with the impact of fax machines and, later in the 1990s, email. In the worlds of design, printing and publishing, new computer-based technology was sending out ripples of change, affecting work practices and the relationships between designers and clients. The notion of desktop publishing, in parallel with the concept of samizdat publishing behind the fraying Iron Curtain, was challenging the roles of traditional printers, publishers and typesetting houses: a start-up ’zine might use Letraset or primitive computer typesetting, while established, profitable titles still sent their work to typesetters.
Yet for a small design company, a computer was still eye-wateringly expensive, and for a printer or repro house, choosing what large-scale kit – scanners, laser-setters, and so on – to invest in or upgrade to was a similarly fraught business. Yet everyone knew, after a decade of rhetoric about the ‘mighty micro’, followed by talk of the imminent ‘information superhighway’, that big changes were around the corner.
Top and above: From Alan Kitching’s Broadside series of works, created in the 1980s and 90s
Alan Kitching had been a partner in Omnific for ten years, and a designer for nearly two decades. He decided it was time to change tack: “I couldn’t just sit at a desk, like Alan Fletcher could, or Derek Birdsall, and design something. I was never in their league. In order for me to go forward as a designer, I had to go back to something I knew.”
In June 1988 he announced his resignation from the Omnific partnership. Birdsall and Lee were taken by surprise. When they asked him what he was planning to do, Kitching simply said: ‘I want to buy the press and the type and go and print.’ The three men quickly came to an agreement, and Kitching took his share of the company in the form of the complete printing set-up, including the proofing press and the type in its cases, worth approximately £26,000. Although Omnific had acquired the equipment a few years earlier, and Birdsall had used it to make a few small cards, Kitching had been the main person to use it.
The RCA Years
Also in 1988, Birdsall recommended his colleague to the Royal College of Art, and Kitching became a visiting tutor in typography, working two days a week. Birdsall was professor of graphic design at the RCA for little more than a year, and it is a time he remembers with mixed feelings: “The best thing I did in my brief stay at the RCA was to ask Alan to take over the letterpress department. He did this with great flair, infecting the whole college and introducing several generations of students to the beautiful craft of letterpress printing, keeping it alive and transforming it into a new art form.”
It was a good moment, which Kitching describes as “a time of exploration, of restarting”, yet he was more confident than he had been as a teacher the first time round