John Latimer Smith: Typographer and book designer celebrated for his innovativeness

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The Independent Online

John Latimer Smith, who has died aged 73, was the kind of consummate "bookman" rarely found in today's publishing sectors. He was a typographer and book designer, a skilful editor and, in the 1960s and '70s, a refreshingly genial component of the small press publishing scene in London.

Smith was born in 1936 in Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne, where his father, Hugh, was a branch manager for Lloyds Bank. After secondary education as an unhappy boarder at Giggleswick School in North Yorkshire he was articled to a family friend's chartered accountancy practice for three years. Called up for National Service in 1957, Smith was commissioned into the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, where he met two kindred spirits whose work he would later publish: the jazz trumpeter Ian Carr and the pop artist and sculptor Gerald Laing.

A return to civvy street as a jobbing accountant now held no appeal and Smith travelled south to London to find employment more suited to his artistic curiosity. He worked as a bookseller in Hatchard's Art Department before moving to J. and E. Bumpus Ltd, a job he held for two years, all the while wondering if he should cut loose and try his luck as a jazz trombonist.

In 1961, a small family legacy allowed him to indulge his adventurous spirit and to buy one of the early BMC Minis – hardly ideal for his gangly 6ft 5in frame – and he set out for the Côte d'Azure with an artist friend and several canvases to seek an audience with the French pop artist Jean Dubuffet. But after picking up two hitchhikers the bulging Mini was pressed into service for an impromptu overland expedition which ended up in Assam in northern India. Smith often liked to claim that it was he who blazed the trail for future hippies' exodus East.

When he eventually returned to London in 1966 he joined the production department of the Oxford University Press in Ely House, Dover Street, Mayfair. His first assignment was to design a book jacket for an edition of William Blake's letters, and his interest in typography and book design was properly awakened by the colleagues who, on three occasions, rejected his early lay-outs.

He also discovered a text book by a former OUP production manager, Hugh Williamson, Methods of Book Design, which was required reading for a young designer in the days when hot metal composition and letterpress printing was still the print technology of choice for most book publishers. It led Smith to buy a small second-hand Adana platen letterpress machine and a case of Bembo metal type and begin experimenting with hand-composition and printing in his one-bedroom flat in Parliament Hill Fields in Hampstead.

He was guided in this by his close friend, the poet/printer Asa Benveniste, whose Trigram Press had been producing poetry pamphlets and broadsides since the late 1950s. Smith's Latimer Press began with pamphlets by Michael Horovitz (Poetry for the People) and Michael Ffinch (The Undertaker Poet) and was quickly accepted into the coterie of small poetry imprints which included Peter Jay's Anvil Press and Stuart Montgomery's Fulcrum Press. Smith became the secretary to the Association of Little Presses, which had been formed by Montgomery and Bob Cobbing of the Writer's Forum in 1966.

In 1971 Smith left the OUP to become Sales and Production Director of the new partnership Allison and Busby Ltd and, motivated by their energy and "hip" profile, soon took the decision to upgrade his own "hobby" imprint, Latimer, and aim at the growing market place for so-called "alternative" presses.

Perhaps with half an eye on the New York house New Directions – the successful publishers of the beat writers Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti – or his friend Michael Horovitz's magazine New Departures, Smith quit the day jobs and, with an editorial partner, Elizabeth Glazebrook, launched his new-look Latimer New Dimensions.

In a short manifesto statement in Latimer New Dimensions' first catalogue, Smith wrote, "Our objective is to enable not only writers but also those who are contributive in non-literary fields such as music, architecture, and the fine arts to use the book form as a vehicle". His first ventures into offering his books as "happenings" or performances-on-the-page saw the publication of the avant-garde composer Cornelius Cardew's anthology Scratch Music (1972); Horovitz's The Wolverhampton Wanderer (1971, with illustrations by David Hockney, Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton and others); Alison and Peter Smithson's Without Rhetoric: An Architectural Aesthetic (1973) and Stephen Willats' Art and Social Function (1976).

Although pleased to earn plaudits from the edge for his innovative approach, Smith soon saw the need to move his list into the mainstream. There were several shrewd editorial choices in the publishing output of the 1970s, notably his friend Ian Carr's collection of jazz essays Music Outside (1973); the prescient warnings of human rights lawyer Paul Seighart's Privacy and Computers (1976) and, in collaboration with the British Film Institute, the insightful study Hazell: The Making of a TV Serial (1977).

Following his marriage to Nicola Gillespie and the birth of his daughter, Smith recognised that his exploits as a risk-taking publisher-of-slender-means needed to be curtailed and he accepted the position of senior editor of Studio Vista's fine arts list in 1978. In this capacity Smith skilfully managed the production of illustrated books for international co-editions and became a prominent personality on the Frankfurt Book Fair cocktail circuits during the 1980s and 90s.

As a freelance editorial consultant in the late part of his career, Smith called on his two great enthusiasms for the reference books he most enjoyed working on: Sebastian Carter's Twentieth Century Type Designers (Trefoil Design Library, 1987), and the first edition of Jazz: The Rough Guide, edited by his friend Ian Carr with Digby Fairweather.

Smith was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2008, and seemed to respond well to radiotherapy, keeping his friendships in good repair by sending out his trademark hand-made greeting cards with witty and informative messages. He sent me a mischievous one shortly before his death from a fall at home. It was a small reproduction of a poster for the 1952 Hollywood B-movie Let No Man Write my Epitaph.

Stuart Hamilton

John Latimer Smith, book designer and publisher: born Gosforth, Newcastle 5 May 1936; married Nicola Gillespie (divorced, one daughter); died London 29 June 2009.