So many formative design love affairs begin with record sleeves, and no studio has played Cupid over the years more than Hipgnosis. The design collective worked on cover art across genres, from the mega cool T-Rex, Syd Barrett, Throbbing Gristle, to the rock legends XTC, 10cc, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, housewives’ favorites like The Police, and even those defying easy categorization, like Genesis, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, and Robert Plant.
Hipgnosis was founded by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey “Po” Powell in 1967 when their proggy pals Pink Floyd approached them to design the artwork for their second album A Saucerful of Secrets. As Powell tells it, “the name Hipgnosis was born out of a chance encounter with a door frame.” Powell and Thorgerson shared a flat in London’s South Kensington with Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, a character known for his charming if peculiar ways, who had scrawled the word HIPGNOSIS on a door. “When asked about it, Syd sheepishly denied he had written anything, but Syd was a clever wordsmith and only he could have made up such a brilliant acronym,” Powell writes. “He is to thank for linking ‘hip’ (pertaining to a cool subculture) with ‘gnostic’ (esoteric knowledge of spiritual matters) and the noun ‘hypnosis’ (an artificially induced trance state resembling sleep characterized by heightened susceptibility to suggestion).”
From these linguistically innovative beginnings, the studio spent the next decade and a half carving a niche for itself as the purveyors of an aesthetic that’s since become utterly synonymous with that particularly ’70s brand of futuristic psychedelia. Among its most famous works were the 1973 cover design for Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, which showcased Hipgnosis’ fascinating and surreal photo-collage techniques.
In 1974 Peter Christopherson, who was a member of seminal industrial bands Throbbing Gristle (where he was known as Sleazy) and Coil, joined as an assistant and went on to become a full partner in 1978. Other graphic design luminaries who have worked with Hipgnosis over the years include George Hardie, Neville Brody, Richard Evans, and Humphrey Ocean.
Things came to an end for Hipgnosis in the 1980s when prog and its aesthetic gradually began to fall out of favor. The studio briefly worked in art direction and design as an ad agency but finally ducked out of all album cover and advertising work in 1982. Instead, it started to work in film, forming the company Green Back Films.
Now, Hipgnosis’ work has been gathered together in a modestly sized yet generously compiled new book Vinyl. Album. Cover. Art, published by Thames & Hudson. The book marks the first time all 373 Hipgnosis covers, all digitally remastered from the original artwork, have been gathered together, and 500 or so illustrations are accompanied with articles by Peter Gabriel, Storm Thorgerson, Marcus Bradbury and Pentagram’s Harry Pearce. In a brilliant turn, there’s also a step-by-step guide written by Thorgerson that delves into the complexities, trials, tribulations, and painstaking print processes that went into creating the designs for 10cc’s 1977 album Deceptive Bends.
His words on the process reveal Hipgnosis’ inimitable interplay of concept and craft; detailing how he arrived at the image of a deep sea diver cradling an ethereal woman in a sheer dress. The name of the record itself was conjured through rather humble beginnings—cribbed from road signs in the less-than-inspiring area of Dorking, between London and the south coast of England—so Thorgerson “began to free associate and make simple connections and deductions.” He thought of a diver with the bends, “deceived” by his condition.
“He is thrown into a state of self-deception,” Thorgerson writes. “He fantasizes and since the band wanted a positive, uplifting feeling, it had to be a nice fantasy… He had rescued the girl of his dreams from a watery grave. Privately, we see ourselves as heroes, rescuing our sweethearts from fires, earthquakes and any number of terrible fates. It was this mythic quality that appealed to me most.”
Powell’s introduction to the book indicates an equally charming figure, able to explain some of the most iconic sleeve designs of the 20th century in such a matter-of-fact way, it seems as if he’s sat in the pub reminiscing over a pint. In particular I love his tale of being fired from his job as a scenic artist at Cambridge ADC Theatre, before Hipgnosis came into being. “It was a high old time to be around during the Summer of Love and the word ‘hippy’ applied to anyone in velvet flares, a bandanna and a flowery silk shirt,” he writes. “Inevitably after my tour of duty as a scenic artist came to a close I was fired. Not for my incompetence at the job, but for being continuously late. I was just having too much fun. Fortunately for me, Pink Floyd were just starting out…”