OBITUARIES:David Kindersley

When David Kindersley launched on his self-employed career as a letter-cutter and alphabet designer in the 1930s he was determined to make things that people actually needed - be it memorials, typefaces, tombstones, or inscriptions to decorate the home. He pursued this aim with charm and single-minded vigour for 60 years.

The son of a stockbroker and on his mother's side the grandson of the Arts and Crafts potter Sir Edmund Elton, Kindersley often joked about the clash in approaches to life that his inheritance threw up. But his calm, diplomatic streak was ideal for running a workshop, while his respect for the values and demands of the outside world inspired confidence amongst his clients.

His work as a letterer began in 1934 when at the age of 19 he landed on the doorstep of Eric Gill at Pigotts in Buckinghamshire. It was Gill's writings on "Art Nonsense", his criticism of the mystique attached to those involved in creative work, which drew Kindersley to apply for a position as an assistant. As early as 1936 Kindersley's lettering was described as "perfect" in a review of a London exhibition, "Eric Gill and Companions". He left Pigotts frustrated by the Catholicism but excited by community living and what it could bring to one's work.

In 1945 Kindersley established his own letter-cutting workshop in the village of Barton outside Cambridge. Never a loner, he was pleased to take on apprentices and assistants and was regarded by them as a "natural teacher". The post-war enthusiasm for good design and Kindersley's proximity to Cambridge University Press meant that his skills were recommended to many Cambridge colleges. His work from the late 1940s, mostly college memorial plaques and war memorials, caught the public eye. A master of capital-letter forms, he had allowed himself a whole-hearted commitment to lettering that Gill's various talents had not left him time for. Commissions flooded in. I once asked Kindersley if he had ever had to advertise to get work. He looked at me aghast and exclaimed, "The very thought!"

Kindersley's interest in the spacing of letters increasingly absorbed his attention in the 1950s. It began with his designing a street-sign alphabet for the Ministry of Transport. Legibility of street signs, even when read from an angle when driving, wasof the utmost importance and for Kindersley it was the precise spacing of these letters in relation to each other which would ensure that they were easily read. He invented an optical spacing machine which could recreate the position of lettering on signs and in print that was most satisfying to the eye.

The range of Kindersley's lettering work was for ever extending. He tackled bookplates, book jackets, paper-weights and film titles; he worked as adviser to the Shell Film Unit from 1949 to 1958 and was a consultant to Letraset International from 1964 until 1988. He also worked on sculptural commissions - he was particularly pleased by a quatercentenary relief carving of Sir Philip Sidney, commissioned for St Paul's Cathedral in 1986.

The process by which we learn fascinated Kindersley and his acquaintance with the critic and author of Education Through Art, Sir Herbert Read, led him to set up his own school for his first children, where days were often spent mining for clay and cultivating crops of wheat. One son, Richard, was to follow his father's profession with success and the second, Peter, went on to run the publishing house Dorling Kindersley.

David Kindersley cared passionately about public recognition of good design in Britain. In the 1950s he pioneered the Designer Craftsman Society and Shop in Cambridge. He was also involved with the Council of Industrial Design and the Craft Centre of Great Britain from their evolution in the late 1940s; he succeeded John Farleigh as the centre's president briefly in the early 1960s. He enjoyed the friendships he made through this world, such as with the potter Bernard Leach, but he found the politics and intrigue of craft organisations a distraction from the making of things, by hand, in peace and quiet.

Trips to the United States in the 1960s inspired a new adventurous spirit in Kindersley's work. He was appointed Senior Research Fellow at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1967. When he returned home he produced a range of colourful experimental alphabets which he issued in two books, Variations on the Theme of 26 Letters (1969) and Graphic Sayings (1973). A series of giant plastic alphabets by him was exhibited by the Folio Society in 1969.

Other workshop locations had followed Dales Barn at Barton. Both were situated within Cambridge. A medieval tower in the 1960s and 1970s was followed by a converted school- house which was to be his home and his workshop until his death. For a man was solong fascinated by integrating work and life his final partnership, with the letter-cutter Lida Lopes Cardozo, brought him the meeting of minds he had been searching for. They collaborated on many commissions, for instance at St Albans Abbey, AmpleforthCollege and, more recently, the inscription for the new British Library and Stations of the Cross for the London Oratory School.

This marriage also brought him three wild young children, all born when he was over 70. The little boys might be found perched beside their father on the arms of a sofa upholstered entirely in italic alphabet fabric, telling with bright-eyed excitement how they had managed to remove a large section of their bedroom wall with a chisel.

Lottie Hoare Like all the disciples of Eric Gill, David Kindersley never wholly detached himself from the master's influence, writes Nicolas Barker. But the most important lesson that he learnt was independence, an individuality of thought and design, both in letter-forms and in the layout of inscriptions. Logic and rhetoric in the arrangement of words, as well as the right way to shape and space letters, were all part of a single task, to give a message appropriate, legible and beautiful form.

Earlier in his career, this was mostly expressed in engraved inscriptions on stone; the process by which a text was agreed (not always without argument) and transferred to stone was the gift he bestowed on his pupils. Later, he branched out into other methods of letter design, from the relief letters for street signs (extensively used in Cambridge) to computerised character generation. The task of providing mechanical rules for the correct optical spacing of letters appealed to his sense of logic.

In all this he was an artist, as well as a craftsman, but he never made the mistake of confusing the essential purpose of letters with some personal or selfish vision of their function. Even the coloured lithographs that he did on his return from California had a message that was augmented, not concealed, by the polychrome form in which each was conceived.

His natural taste was equally expressed in the three places in which he lived and worked, the great barn at Barton, the medieval tower rising improbably from suburban Chesterton and, lastly, the Victorian Gothic school building naturally enlarged to meetthe needs of workshop and his new family.

In all these different places, David Kindersley was a commanding figure. Tall and thin, with large long hands, he was surprisingly strong as well as adroit in all physical movements. Latterly, with his domed head and patriarchal beard, he looked rather like Durer's St Paul, with the same direct and full eyes. His voice and way of speech was equally direct and compelling, though never assertive. He made a wonderful contrast with Lida Lopes Cardozo, all red hair and electricity, who came to be his apprentice - "I don't take apprentices any more,'' he said, but she stayed, and became his wife and the mother of three delightful boys. Together, they made his last decade, productive as ever, singularly happy as well. David Guy Barnabas Kindersley, stone-carver and type designer: born Codicote, Hertfordshire 11 June 1915; MBE 1979; married 1939 Christina Sharpe (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1957 Barbara Pym Eyre Petrie (marriage dissolved), 1986 Lida Lopes Cardozo (three sons); died Cambridge2 February 1995.

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