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