MEET THE UR­BAN AR­TI­SAN

Pas­sion­ate about pre­serv­ing this craft, ty­pog­ra­pher Kelvyn Smith mar­ries tra­di­tional print­ing tech­niques with mod­ern-day think­ing

Country Living (UK) - - Contents - pho­to­graphs by emma lewis words by ali heath

Mr Smith’s Let­ter­press Work­shop in south Lon­don

FROM THE OUT­SIDE, THE NEAT BRICK­WORK, bold red door and arched win­dows of Mr Smith’s Let­ter­press Work­shop hint at the in­dus­tri­ous pre­ci­sion in­side. En­ter and the first thing you are greeted by is the strong aroma of ink and the wel­com­ing clunk of orig­i­nal let­ter­press ma­chin­ery in ac­tion. This is Kelvyn Smith’s stu­dio and busi­ness premises, a tem­ple to the art of ty­pog­ra­phy where tra­di­tional print­ing tech­niques are both hon­oured and up­dated with con­tem­po­rary con­sid­er­a­tion.

Moder­nity is not the first thing you would as­so­ciate with this his­toric trade – or in­deed the stu­dio’s set­ting, down the 19th-cen­tury cob­bled street of Iliffe Yard in south Lon­don. Built as part of the Vic­to­rian Pul­lens Es­tate, the yard was de­signed with ar­ti­sans and small traders in mind, and was orig­i­nally home to 600 dwellings set around four work­ing yards. Fast-for­ward to to­day and 300 flats and three yards re­main, now home to a thriv­ing mix of cre­atives.

As one of these, Kelvyn was orig­i­nally drawn to the let­ter­press tech­nique af­ter study­ing graphic de­sign at Nor­wich School of Art & De­sign. He then spent four years fine-tun­ing his craft as an ap­pren­tice – ini­tially as an as­sis­tant to Alan Kitch­ing, RDI (Royal De­signer for In­dus­try) in Clerken­well – while also com­plet­ing a mas­ter’s de­gree in film and se­quen­tial de­sign. With help from the Crafts Coun­cil, Kelvyn set up a work­shop – and ten years later moved to his stu­dio in Ii­iffe Yard, where he now pro­duces a mix of ty­po­graph­i­cal prints, be­spoke books and in­vi­ta­tions, and also works on cor­po­rate com­mis­sions. Most re­cently, he launched a line of sta­tionery in col­lab­o­ra­tion with high-end pa­per mill James Crop­per, and rulers made from Bri­tish wood, based on a tra­di­tional ‘type scale’ – a font-mea­sur­ing de­vice that is the most vi­tal tool in a let­ter­press work­shop.

“When I first be­came in­ter­ested in let­ter­press, tech­nol­ogy was com­ing to the fore and peo­ple were be­com­ing fix­ated with mod­ern de­sign meth­ods. I was the op­po­site – I wanted to make my own work, mix my own inks, choose my own pa­pers and ex­plore my own ty­pog­ra­phy to pro­duce hand­crafted de­signs. I am pas­sion­ate about pre­serv­ing this tra­di­tional skill, but do so with con­tem­po­rary think­ing,” he says.

His work­shop re­flects a ty­pog­ra­pher’s de­sire for or­der and is set out specif­i­cally to aid the flow of the de­sign process. The walls show­case a mis­match of framed type­faces,

vary­ing in size and style, and boxes of metal equip­ment stacked floor-to-ceil­ing. Over time, Kelvyn has filled the work­shop with an im­pres­sive col­lec­tion of orig­i­nal English print­ing presses (dat­ing back to 1890), let­ter­press fur­ni­ture, cab­i­nets and tools – and uses most of them on a daily ba­sis.

“The Vic­to­ri­ans de­signed let­ter­press tech­nol­ogy to such amaz­ingly high stan­dards and the process in­volved en­sures ev­ery piece of work un­der­goes three stages: de­sign, set and print,” Kelvyn says. “The ‘de­sign’ stage in­volves let­ters be­ing laid out on a ‘stone’, a steel bench where type is con­structed three-di­men­sion­ally un­til it looks and feels right. It is then trans­ferred to the press, where ink colours and pa­pers are con­sid­ered, and the ‘set’ type trans­ferred onto the large rollers to make a proof.

“To get to the fin­ished prod­uct, you have to think about how peo­ple will read and see it as you phys­i­cally ‘set’ the type ready for the press. It forces you to edit and be pre­cise with your words. Be­fore the fi­nal ‘print’ I tend to leave the proof for a few days to con­sider any re­fine­ments.”

Kelvyn’s print­mak­ing pa­pers of choice come from BFK Rives in France and English brand Som­er­set: “They are hand­made, 100 per cent cot­ton, acid-free and wa­ter­marked pa­pers that have a lovely feath­ered edge. My favourite is BFK Rives Grey; it has a gorgeous soft grey/green tone and a chalky but smooth sur­face. It takes type beau­ti­fully and the chem­istry with the let­ter­press inks is very spe­cial. I use

“There’s some­thing mag­i­cal about the let­ter­press”

Van Son let­ter­press inks, which tend to ‘stay open’ (wet) longer and have a rub­ber base to help sta­bil­ity.”

Kelvyn com­bines the rig­or­ous tra­di­tional ‘de­sign, set, print’ process with his own ‘Smith’s Rules’ – a set of per­sonal pa­ram­e­ters he con­sid­ers for each piece of work he un­der­takes. These in­form and shape the be­spoke com­bi­na­tions of com­po­si­tion, colour, scale, type­face, hi­er­ar­chy, tex­ture, sur­face, ink and pa­per that will make up a fi­nal print. Within that he also uses the clas­sic print­ing ref­er­ence book Hart’s Rules – a man­ual of au­thor­i­ta­tive in­struc­tions in type­set­ting, gram­mar and punc­tu­a­tion, that was first pub­lished in 1893. Some things, it ap­pears, re­main con­stant, even as the world changes.

“There is some­thing mag­i­cal about the let­ter­press – the smell of the ink, the abil­ity to run your fin­gers over the im­pres­sion of the type and the fact that no two pieces will be ex­actly the same,” Kelvyn says.“there are only a few de­sign­ers who use this tech­nique as an in­te­gral part of their work. For me, the crafts­man­ship pro­vides the per­fect an­ti­dote to dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy – pieces that have been lov­ingly con­structed main­tain a per­sonal res­o­nance and a feel­ing of their prove­nance, but with a mod­ern edge that is rel­e­vant to to­day.”

In his stu­dio, crafts­man Kelvyn uses wood and metal type on a clas­sic cast-iron press to cre­ate his stylish lim­ited-edi­tion art­works

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