Working as part of Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell’s renowned Hipgnosis studio, George Hardie was responsible for designing some of the 20th century’s most recognizable rock albums for bands like Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, and, of course, Led Zeppelin. But while he’s produced work that many would call iconic, he’s no fan of using such terminology, particularly when he feels the image lacks the conceptual rigor he applies to his personal work.
Currently engaged in regular reflections on his illustrious career for an upcoming book and exhibition in London, Hardie took some time out to wax critical on the most widely circulated image he’s ever made, which also happens to be his least favorite piece.
“I worked on this cover half my life ago, and at least half of the brain cells I then possessed are now long gone.
“The first work I ever did for the music business was to add typography to a friend’s photo on a Jeff Beck cover. The photographer was Stephen Goldblatt, a name now looming large in film credits. He suggested to Jeff Beck’s management that I might have some ideas for a new group called Led Zeppelin. I showed some ideas that were rejected by a thin, dark-haired man who produced a book open at the famous photograph of the zeppelin on fire; it was Jimmy Page, of course. The rough I showed was a multiple sequential image of a zeppelin, clouds, and waves, based on an old club sign in San Francisco, recently visited, and owed a lot to Milton Glaser. So I set to, and with my finest radiograph dot-stippled a facsimile of the famous photograph to avoid copyright problems.
“The band was called Zeppelin and there was a really famous, well known picture of a zeppelin—it wasn’t very clever, but it’s probably my most famous drawing. Many people have seen it and at least twenty million people have a copy of it.
“I went through a really long process of talking about Led Zeppelin in an interview with Time Life recently. I don’t think they’ve ever done anything with it, but they wanted to make a series where you could look up the photographs that they think changed history, and they got onto the idea that the Hindenburg picture was certainly one of those images. Then someone had said, ‘Yes, but think how it’s been extended by that record cover.’ So they came to talk to me.
“If you’ve never heard the soundtrack that goes along with the images, it’s remarkable. Someone was there with a microphone, recording people screaming. It’s a very strong, very powerful thing, but it doesn’t make my cover any cleverer. I didn’t even choose to use it. So, you can see how removed I was from the creative process. Later, in 1991, the image was published in The Record Art Collection. Each designer had to write about their image and its creation. In his introduction to whole book, something I only today read today for the first time in 2016, Jimmy Page writes:
‘George Hardie’s creative input reflects accurately the exploratory texture of our music.’
“Later that same year I made a poster I really did like. Nobody owns a copy of this picture. It has only been seen in lectures. I was paid nothing for it, but it’s a better image. It was certainly successful for me, but in the measure of a number of people who had seen it, it wasn’t successful—very few of my favorite pieces are necessarily done for famous clients.
“Both images were made in my final year at the Royal College, and I think Led Zeppelin I would have been out and printed in time for my degree show, but I don’t think I had it in there. Certainly I showed the Supermale poster, but that’s a big statement that I didn’t think Led Zeppelin was a very good bit of work, apart from millions of copies being around, and the fact I was paid $60. I didn’t put it in my show because it wasn’t really a proper idea, and there wasn’t enough original thought in it.
“Ten years ago I moved out of our London studio, and in the bottom drawer of my plan chest, I found the original Led Zeppelin drawing in a manilla folder. On the cover of the folder one of my partners (at NTA Studios) had written ‘George’s pension fund.’”