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Iconic + Electronic: Exploring Dance Culture’s Seminal Album Designs

On the occasion of the latest Design Museum exhibition, we revisit the cover art for Underworld, Autechre, and Aphex Twin

This is the fifth in our series Under The Covers, in which we shine a spotlight on a significant album with a seminal design approach to match. We kicked off the series with Kraftwerk’s iconic, mysterious Autobahn motorway graphics, and last time looked at Jean-Paul Goude and Grace Jones’ collaboration on Island Life.

A great deal has been made of the nightclub simulation currently housed at the Design Museum in London, and the timing of Electronic: From Kraftwerk to the Chemical Brothers hasn’t been lost on those who’ve attended. Dancing among the dry ice and lasers of Smith and Lyall’s “Got To Keep On” installation, which closes the show, comes with a certain poignancy as nightlife stares over the edge of the precipice and begins to feel like a relic of the old world. 

Christian Marclay, from Body Mix, 1991

Less, however, has been said about the Electronic exhibition being a great place to nerd out for vinyl obsessives.  The show offers a thrilling history of design in club culture, seamlessly fused with the more art-focused Jean-Yves Leloup-curated Electro: From Kraftwerk to Daft Punk expo that ran at the Philharmonie de Paris last year.

At the Design Museum show, Jeremy Deller’s “The History of the World” takes up prominent wall space. Other contemporary art pieces include the rave landscapes of German photographer Andreas Gursky and various works by Christian Marclay, from a 1991 Body Mix to his 1984 Recycled Records, a series of collaged vinyl records where Elvis Presley is visually mashed up with Barry Manilow, the Human League, and Disney cartoon characters. The London-based Swiss artist was remixing records both in the real sense and in the visual sense long before the practice became a cornerstone of contemporary culture, and his inclusion adds some Dadaist anarchy and playfulness to proceedings. 

Christian Marclay, Recycled Records, 1984

In terms of graphic design, we see the club posters of Peter Saville for Manchester’s Hacienda, Jonathan Cooke for Fabric, and Anthony Burrill for The Social (both in London). Elsewhere, there are covers from music magazine NME, which documented the explosion of dance culture. But central to everything is the vinyl record itself, the “sacred object” that made all of this possible. Here are three album cover designs found within the exhibition and the stories behind them. 

Underworld, Dubnobasswithmyheadman

The ’90s is explored thoroughly as the decade where dance culture proliferated to epidemic proportions, following the explosion of Acid House at the tail-end of the ’80s. The spirit of the times is perhaps best captured on the cover of Underworld’s 1994 prog house classic Dubnobasswithmyheadman, made by the design collective Tomato, which included (and still includes) Karl Hyde and Rick Smith from the band. 

The graphics are chaotic and blurry, with stretched letters colliding with black splurges of print, instigated by Tomato co-founder John Warwicker with the help of a fax machine—the high-tech communication device of the day. The visual ebullience reflects a sense of optimism during the awakening of the digital age, while the cover itself stands as a document of the time it was made in.

Autechre, Oversteps

Almost diametrically opposed to the Underworld artwork is The Designers Republic™’s cover for Autechre’s Oversteps from 2010. Both focus on technology, but as a means to a very different end. Rather than aesthetic grunginess, designer Ian Anderson goes for the bold simplicity of a concentric blob dominating the 12-inch square space. Conceptually, the image highlights the fallibility of man and the superiority of the machine in the simplistic act of drawing a circle; ergo, the splattered edge suggests a cyborgian collaboration. 

Where Underworld were very much involved in the process, Anderson says Autechre would leave much of the artwork up to tDR thanks to a long relationship based on trust. Interestingly, Anderson admitted last year that he wasn’t interested in listening to a record before designing it. He told the Unit Editions podcast (reproduced in the Electronic commemorative book from the gift shop): “I’m more interested in talking to the musicians and artists about what their influences and inspirations were in creating this particular body of work or music or set of songs or tracks.”

Aphex Twin, Collapse

Another figure Anderson has collaborated with over the years is Aphex Twin, who features conspicuously throughout the exhibition, from the creepy latex Richard D. James masks from the Windowlicker video to a large Warp installation to accompany the Cornish artist’s Collapse EP from 2018. The cover of Collapse comes to life in the Design Museum as a futuristic matrix of screens, sounds, and headphone sockets. The cover itself, made by the elusive design maverick Weirdcore, features what appears to be a throbbing speaker diaphragm surrounding a dust cap made from the iconic Aphex Twin logo (which was originally designed by Paul Nicholson and first used on Selected Ambient Works 85 92.

On closer inspection, the image turns out to be a cheeky reproduction of Gwennap Pit, an amphitheatre on the outskirts of James’ hometown of Redruth, made famous by Methodist founder John Wesley in 1773 when he preached abstinence and salvation to thousands of locals, many of them coal miners. Gwennap Pit is an essential geographical location in Aphex Twin folklore, a spot where a number of raves took place with James behind the decks, and the setting for a John Peel interview with Aphex Twin and fellow count(r)yman Luke Vibert for the Channel 4 TV series Sounds of the Suburbs from 1999.

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Design + Music