It’s no exaggeration to say that the U.S. label RVNG (pronunciation, even at the label itself is debatable, advising us to “please consult the cosmos”—though most go with “revenge”) puts out pretty much the coolest acts around; from newer acts like Colin Self or its reissues of under-appreciated veteran gems like Craig Leon. Its roster ethos feels tightly honed, yet sprawling, broadly claiming to deal with “forward-reaching artists sometimes categorized as electronic, avant, free, fried, fucked, etc.”
In-keeping with the nature of its sounds—strange, genre-defining, and unique—the designs of its records are paramount. The packaging of each is entirely aware of its physicality, often using unexpected materials with pared-back, frequently type-heavy aesthetics. In a highly unusual move for a record label, the vast majority of RVNG’s releases are designed by just one design studio. That honor goes to Will Work For Good, helmed by Karisa Senavitis and Kevin O’Neill, which works across pretty much everything from sleeve designs to the website, flyers, and merch. “RVNG strives for a nice material quality,” says Senavitis.
The packaging of each record is entirely aware of its physicality, often using unexpected materials with pared-back, frequently type-heavy aesthetics.
“We have these different unspoken truths about the relationship, and one of those is [WWFG] are allowed carte blanche freedom to design,” says RVNG founder Matt Werth. “Having artists directly in touch with designers can often veer into this really chaotic never-ending vortex, because artists of course have the purest vision of their work and there’s no doubt about that. But our arrangement with WWFG is that I have to provide that filter. It’s unusual, it’s a little unorthodox, but it works: most artists go into working with RVNG understanding this aesthetic and this design universe, so it’s very much a part of our early conversations.”
O’Neill had known Werth for a while through various punk connections, and began working with RVNG in 2003. Four years later, he and Senavitis took on the bulk of the work for the label. Werth and O’Neill’s punk scene connections have, in a subtle way, contributed to the “ethic” of RVNG, Senavitis suggests.
That punkish spirit of shying away from overtly commercial goals is hinted at in the design of the logo. “As RVNG comes from the word revenge the icon took the passive form of a shield,” O’Neill explains. “On its side, however it becomes a sort of envelope as the label has always had a commitment to the direct connection of mail order.” The more DIY punk vibe was also evident on early sleeve designs for the RVNG mixes, which “was kinda like stenciled spray paint, and an insert that was a black and white photocopy,” says O’Neill.
As with the typographic mark, the logo is mutable: it’s sometimes accompanied by the words RVNG Intl., but there’s no official lockup. Instead, the weights, angles, and fills of the logo shift subtly over time; even taking on the form of a “smiley” device used on RVNG apparel and a peace sign. O’Neill adds: “When we started, it was never like we sat down and decided on a logo. I guess the crest sort of stuck.”
RVNG initially focused more on DJ culture, putting out mix CDs through the the RVNGMXS series, and then 12 inch edits, NRDS. The label’s certainly a fan of capitals and acronyms, with little time for vowels. Today, it mostly puts out original releases (RVNGNL), curated, intergenerational collaborations on its FRKWYS imprint (which “exemplifies the equilibrium of classic artistic sensibility and modern day sentimentality” as the label rather loftily puts it), and reissues under ReRVNG.
The label’s certainly a fan of capitals and acronyms, with little time for vowels.
Where many designers we’ve spoken to relish the idea of working directly with musical artists, Will Work For Good mostly designs in dialogue with the label. “Unlike other practices which may have a more intimate relation to the artist, our relation with RVNG—perhaps more economical—is interested in the results that come from maintaining a distance from the artists,” says the studio. O’Neill says that while some artists bring elements of the art they want used on their designs, “every artist is involved in a different way: some artists don’t really want to get involved, others might have artwork they want us to work with, so we’re pretty open to work however artists are comfortable. But we work first for the label and the label image—not one-on-one with the artists—so there’s always a buffer.”
Buffer or no, WWFG’s recent designs for Craig Leon’s Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 2: The Canon were directly informed with the artist’s rather esoteric preoccupations. Leon produced Suicide’s eponymous 1977 debut; and is perhaps best known for his 1981 album Nommos, named after an alien race central to the creation myth of the Dogon people from Mali. Leon’s Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music series is all inspired by this myth, and WWFG drew on that story in its geometric diagram-inspired sleeve designs.
“We work first for the label and the label image—not one-on-one with the artists—so there’s always a buffer.”
“They wanted to have a book-like aesthetic in some sense, and make sure none of the graphics had any potential to unlock powerful symbols, and so that was a big back and forth,” says Senavitis. “We were asking ourselves, ‘what can these geometric shapes be as a cover that wouldn’t disrespect the profound meanings?’” O’Neill adds: “There’s a symbol we used that’s repeated that comes from a certain place, but [the meaning] was never shared with the label so there’s things like that where sometimes people just want to look at something and not know where it’s coming from. You might share an idea and there might be a really strong concept behind it, but ultimately someone just wants to see it and trust their reactions.”
The sleeve, like its 2014 Volume One predecessor, used chipboard and white ink. It is similarly “inspired by a primitive culture related to an alien culture,” says O’Neill. “It’s debossed with a limited color palette rather than just a digital print.”
While this design is striking in its simplicity, the studio says that it’s often more interested in back covers than front covers. “Our thinking is that back covers often become more of a document of a release and allow for more engagement with the album as object,” says WWFG. “Often our back covers consist of ‘outlines’ of the front overlaid with the logistics of tracks, credits, and so on.”
One sleeve where this isn’t the case is on a fairly early—and very successful—RVNG release, the debut from Blondes. Here, the series of releases (vinyl, CD, special edition, etc.) used almost identical front and back covers, and seemed to spark a trend that we’ve seen numerous times since for bold, typographic designs with a slash breaking up the letterforms.
“Back covers often become more of a document of a release and allow for more engagement with the album as object.”
“The diagonal line breaks worked with the simplicity of the name and the single word,” says O’Neill. Each side of the record references a track name—all of which are a single word, such as Lover, Hater, Business, and Pleasure.
A standout design for Senavitis was the design for Lucrecia Dalt’s Anticlines, billed as a “volume of bodily and geological substrates within poetic theory and sound” that “explores the boundaries and limitations of human consciousness.” For this project, it seems the usual barrier between artist and designer was less defined. “She was interested in sharing the writings that inspired the record, and her friend, an artist, provided the photographs in this case,” Senavitis explains. “We didn’t use them in all the design directions but you can see bits of the photographs. Typography is a big part of the design with all the record covers, and in this case I thought it was a really nice solution—cutting the text that emphasized the meaning of the word Anticlines, like a slice of geological layers. So we were playing with that, but it also had a musical effect when we started pulling the letters apart.
“That was a nice marriage: we could understand were she was coming from. That album cover resonated with her straight away.”
One of the standout artists on the label, Holly Herndon, releases records through both RVNG and 4AD. Her 2015 album was designed by Dutch studio Metahaven, which Herndon had initially approached about a collaboration in 2013. “That was really a discussion where a great common vocabulary began to unfold that made it natural to convene on many of the projects that since followed,” Metahaven told Red Bull. “Since it was a joint release with 4AD we felt we could deviate a little bit and blow all conventions out the window,” says Werth.
The Platform cover shows Herndon herself, deliberately aligning with “traditional” sleeve designs and moving away from that oft-used purist techno abstraction—and also, hinting at the central force of her work, her voice—yet adding a sense of sci-fi surrealism. The back cover, meanwhile, uses an image of a skull from Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting The Ambassadors. “We felt it had to be a portrait cover. Also it is such an important moment in her career, we want the record to succeed, so it isn’t wrong if it feels a bit commercial, though what we consider commercial may be literally miles apart from what mainstream normal people think is commercial,” Metahaven added. The studio is also behind a bunch of Herndon’s chillingly odd videos, including that for her 2014 single Home, which touches on ideas around mistrust of technology and digital surveillance.
“We don’t have huge video budgets so often we’ll ask, ‘who are your creative friends? Will they do this for X amount?’”
As far as other commissioning videos for RVNG artists goes, “it’s fairly autonomous,” says Werth. “We don’t have huge video budgets so often we’ll ask, ‘who are your creative friends? Will they do this for X amount?’ I kind of love that we get to explore these fringe directors or upcoming directors and find those people who really want to prove themselves. It’s not like we’re this huge elevated platform, but they get a few more eyeballs on their work. Having one director doing everything would be really boring: I love that our videos are all over the place.”
A recent video Werth cites as a pretty special one is that for Stratum, by Visible Cloaks, Yoshio Ojima and Satsuki Shibano. Directed by Kiyotaka “Kiyo” Sumiyoshi, it uses footage of buildings shot by Visible Cloaks’ Spender Doran and renderings of shapes and forms illustrated by Molly Doran. “Kiyo shot all these shapes based on the cover artwork, and rendered 3D versions to make a lot of shapes and forms spilling out of the center circle on the cover,” Werth explains. “He turned it into this floating, atmospheric collision of shapes and buildings. It’s super peaceful, kind of eerie. It has a sort of corporate feel to it but so much stranger than that.”
Earlier in RVNG’s history, video took on a life of its own with Julia Holter’s 2012 record Ekstasis. First, Holter’s friend Rick Bahto was brought in to “make something that would serve as a visual accompaniment” to the song, as Bahto put it, “but [which] would not be strictly tied to it.” The video uses multiple film projections interacting and interfering with one another in a single composition. “The material seen in this video was made with Kodak Tri-X regular 8 mm motion picture film and Kodak Plus-X 35 mm still film, all of it processed by hand,” Bahto explains. “The video is a single take documenting a live performance using two 8 mm projectors and a single 35 mm projector all aimed at the same space on a screen; there is no digital manipulation of the images, and no edits have been made to the recording.”
Werth said that he found that simple video so compelling, that they decided to make a video for all the songs on the record. They got to six, in the end, one of which was created by Hilary Walsh, a photographer making her video debut. “We were just cranking through videos,” says Werth, “and at this point RVNG was just me… The series is very homespun.”
Another facet of WWFG’s work with RVNG is with Tim Sweeney and his Beats In Space Records, which sits alongside the main label. The studio created an entirely different identity for Beats in Space, as well as for Freedom to Spend, a third label in the RVNG universe that issues lesser known, scarcely released works “by self-taught musicians on consumer-grade synthesizers, samplers, drum machines and home studios may have often missed academic marks or critical recognition, but were nonetheless revolutionary in spirit,” as the label puts it.
“We never do a facsimile of a past record, we create something new.”
For the designs for the imprint, WWFG often removes visuals and recreates the typography from that artist’s earlier releases. For the recent release by Valencian artist, Pep Llopis, for instance, the lyric sheet of the original record became the cover of the release. “In some ways the typography holds up over time more than the visuals,” says O’Neill. For Michele Mercure’s Eye Chant, the designers “eliminated all of the photography so the cover just became the framing of the original cover.” He adds, “We never do a facsimile of a past record, we create something new.” For Beats in Space, meanwhile, cover art is often contributed by the artist. “It’s about distilling certain elements and putting them into a different time context,” says O’Neill.
WWFG created an entirely separate visual identity again for the FRKWYS imprint. “That was pretty special,” says Senavitis. The designs were loosely inspired by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the label founded by Moses Asch that documented folk, world, and children’s music, acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987; as well as by early doo-wop records. “We wanted to use a leatherette jacket wrapped. At the time it was really hard to do that, so we just made that a special edition thing for the first release, and the more economical editions used black paper,” says O’Neill. He adds that compared to records made in Europe, U.S. makers are more limited in terms of paper stocks. “The thing about producing records here [in Brooklyn] is that we still have them manufactured in Canada so you can’t really be there on press: just trying to do something like a spot color can backfire.”
The studio’s work with RVNG, clearly, is vast and multifarious—it takes up about half of WWFG’s time, they tell me. Still, it must be pretty great to have that forced exposure to so much wonderful, strange music. Do you have to be fans of it to make work for it? “A lot of the artists we become fans of afterwards,” says O’Neill. “Often we’ve never heard of it before.” Both designers cite Michele Mercure as a current favorite, as well as Pauline Anna Strom’s Trans-Millenia Music. “I don’t know that it is important to like it, we just have to find some sort of idea it can work off, which might just be a word,” says Senavitis. So what, when it comes to RVNG, makes it into the studio’s playlist? Is it music to design to? “some of the music is amazing to work to; some isn’t so conducive to that. But that doesn’t mean we don’t like it.”