It’s not often that acid house music and Swiss Modernism are discussed in the same breath. But for designer Rick Banks, founder of agency Face37, it was the logo for a now defunct Liverpool club called Cream that sparked an interest in the slick minimalism of the mid-20th century.
It makes sense, when you think about it; the much-lauded Factory Records and Manchester club Haçienda graphics by Peter Saville extol a sense of gridded calm in their promotion of jerky sonic chaos. Of course, the links between clubbing and graphic design are many, but it’s wonderful to see them celebrated and laid out so clearly in a new book from Banks, entitled Clubbed.
The much-lauded Factory Records and Manchester club Haçienda graphics by Peter Saville extol a sense of gridded calm in their promotion of jerky sonic chaos.
“Dance music was one of the biggest reasons I got into graphic design,” writes Banks in the introduction to the book. “I would obsess over the logos and try to redraw them in my school books.” While most students were busy perfecting the omnipresent interlinking ‘Cool S,’ Banks was poring over his Gatecrasher compilations, memorizing who designed what, and studying the grid systems of sleeves and flyers. “I would count how many columns compilations and club posters showed,” he says. Dance music was his roundabout education in the nuances of good design and what it meant to build a brand. As such, it also laid the foundations for his career.
“Clubs like Cream were my first experience of a typical ‘branding system,’ something I specialize in now,” he says. “The Haçienda, in a somewhat subversive, ‘questioning the system,’ ironic way, began acting like a quasi-powerful company with modern logos, bespoke fonts, and playful copy.” Indeed, the iconic club was in many ways defined by its graphics from Saville—a “branding blueprint for the future,” as Banks puts it—and one reflected and aped by clubs ever since (to varying degrees of success).
The beautifully tactile Clubbed documents this trajectory of UK club-based graphics through 35 years of record, flyer, poster, and identity designs from the Haçienda days to the present. With such a wealth and breadth of imagery, the design of the book itself it kept pared back: type is set is Neue Haas Unica and Replica Mono throughout. Banks says the starry-night-like “diamond dust” fabric jacket was inspired by “when you’re in a nightclub and the light just sparkles,” and he was also influenced by artist Nick Walker’s book Vandalism.
Sure, 35 years isn’t a vast swathe of history, but thanks to the ephemeral nature of print like flyers and posters, it was no mean feat to gather the materials. Through a good year of online trawling and making connections between various designers and clubs, Banks found himself in a few sticky spots in terms of actually finding workable files: some images by Mark Farrow (who created work for the likes of Cream) were on negatives, which could only be scanned by one place in London with the right equipment.
“I wanted the book to be an archive and record of the fantastic design of this era,” says Banks, “but it’s so hard to get those designs as it was before people used the internet like they do now.” Other files were created using a program called Freehand (the precursor to Adobe Illustrator), which the vast majority of systems will no longer read. But thankfully designer Phil Sims (previously of the studio Dolphin, featured heavily in the book) happened to have a very old Mac with the operating system that ran the program. “They’d be lost forever if we didn’t do the book,” says Banks.
In other cases, the files only existed as physical printed ephemera; one Cream flyer was scanned in and painstakingly restored, while one Haçienda flyer was recreated letter for letter. Banks digitized the entire font on the latter flyer and released it as F51 (a nod to the Factory Records numbering system for its releases).
While many graphic design and dance music nerds are aware of the big guns of this whole scene—studios like The Designers Republic, Farrow, and Trevor Jackson, which all figure heavily in the book—what’s brilliant about Clubbed is its exhaustive documentation of lesser-known and very up to date practitioners. The comprehensiveness of the history means that, of course, that we see work that hasn’t stood the test of time as well as others. Certain ’90s illustration styles, for example, are particularly cringey and, depending on your taste, many graphic systems now feel entirely dated. But it was important for Banks not to let his own taste obscure the full picture, which is that minimalism, naturally, ages well and more maximal, punkish designs perhaps less so.
“Now that a graphic is likely just a throwaway square on Spotify, most record companies don’t give a shit, and get any 15-year-old with a laptop to bang it out.”
As Banks points out, a club or label’s graphics are only going to be as good as the commissioning, and the book delineates a point a few decades back where budgets were whopping compared to today. “They really put their money where their mouth is, and that’s quite rare nowadays,” says Banks. “Now that a graphic is likely just a throwaway square on Spotify, most record companies don’t give a shit, and get any 15-year-old with a laptop to bang it out.”
Alongside the obvious stuff, one of the biggest highlights of the book is a comprehensive look at the graphics from Fabric, which stand out for their use of photography and clever art direction over purely typographic or illustrative approaches. As Clubbed’s writer Bill Brewster points out, there’s a “quiet confidence” in Fabric’s output—“no DayGlo colors or lurid typography… there’s no shouting, because there’s no need.” The standouts are the 2007 “masks” series of posters, designed by Tom Darracott and art directed by Jonathon Cooke. They take a chilling rural folk-horror vibe with strange paganish characters and small, straightforward text. It’s little surprise these images were awarded Best in Book in the Creative Review Annual, and were featured as Images of the Year in the British Journal of Photography.
Among the (many other) graphics of note are the Letraset and Clip art-based lettering and designs by Ali Augur for Plastic People, which opened centrally in 1998 and later moved to Shoreditch to host the hugely influential FWD>> dubstep and grime night. There are some superb stories uncovered, too, such as that behind Boiler Room’s logo (a simple circle with the name set in Univers 93 Extra Black Extended) by designer Adam Tickle. “We literally ripped the sign off the old 1930s heating room of the warehouse we were in, put it through a scanner, and that became our logo for the first six months,” says CEO Blaise Belville in the book. Tickle then finessed the logo in an equally pilfering mode, borrowing from the Technics slipmat graphic and the Pure Garage logo, though he (probably quite rightly) surmises that “I don’t think people made that connection.”
Some of the most exciting designs for clubs in recent times are those for Numbers, the Glasgow-born club night and record label founded in 2003. The ever-evolving aesthetic and founders’ keen eye for exciting new graphics talent has seen them work with the likes of Adam Rodgers, Non-Porous, and Unfun.
“Clubbing” in its 90s and 00s sense feels spectral to the point of faded.
Approaching the end of the book, I feel a twinge of sadness; so many of these flyers and posters I’d previously used as a visual aide-mémoire. They sum up a nostalgia for long-gone good-times, and club environment wheezing its last breaths as London and other UK cities are being transformed beyond recognition. It’s a good and bad thing of course—there are always exciting things emerging in the wake of older institutions—but “clubbing” in its 90s and 00s sense feels spectral to the point of faded.
The majority of the clubs Clubbed documents have closed, and of the remainders (in London at least) it’s telling that the graphics for the Bethnal Green multi-use Oval Space have a very nice, but somewhat safe aesthetic.
Story after story in this book tells of clubs leveled to make way for luxury apartments, councils too scared to renew licenses, and cities formalized into uniformity.
The city as a playground for sonic creativity and debauchery seems to be bulldozed for the most part to make way for a playgrounds for the rich. That is far from being news of course, and story after story in this book tells of clubs leveled to make way for luxury apartments, councils too scared to renew licenses, and cities formalized into uniformity. The shaky economy, too, has visibly pushed people back into their homes and in doing so, help gently push club doors shut.
“That’s another reason I did the book,” Banks says. “I do think clubbing is dying. It’s such a shame, as I think that we’re going to kill this culture. London specifically is obsessed with greed: flats and corporate culture have taken over. So the book is tinged with that sadness.”