Of all subcultures, it’s not a stretch to say that punk boasts the most recognizable aesthetic: snarling, unashamedly DIY, and above all, urgent—the sort of thing typified by Jamie Reid’s, ransom-note typography and blustering cut-and-paste newsprint. More than 40 years since what many see as the birth of punk, the word has taken on connotations reaching far beyond three chord wonders like The Ramones or clothing held together with nothing but safety pins and a flagrant disregard for “the man.”
The punk look of the 1970s has never really gone away in the design world—the most obvious flag-bearer being the world of zines. The devil-may-care collaging of various typographic styles, handwritten additions, and conflation of disparate pieces of found imagery is still rife across poster design and even in more commercially minded publications (it could be argued, for instance, that the likes of Mushpit—with its scattergun approach to layout and so on—takes the baton from punk.)
When we spoke with him last year, Reid told us that punk isn’t about a look or a label, but what lays at the heart of it all is “ideas and attitude.” And it seems the design world has taken heed: the word has become a signifier for rule breaking as much as it has the sounds of downtown New York or London’s 100 Club in the 1970s. Indeed, trend forecasters for the world of graphic design declared in 2016 that creative output would be “more punk.”
While the word has come to mean a lot of things, it’s always worth looking back at its roots. Which is exactly what a new show at the Museem of Art and Design (MAD) in New York sets out to do in its exhibition Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die. The show focuses on punk graphics created between 1976 and 1986, boasting more than 500 posters, sleeve designs, flyers and more that “challenged the commercial slickness of the mainstream media,” as the museum puts it. Among the works on show, which draw from the collection of Andrew Krivine, are rare designs for bands including Sex Pistols, The Clash, Black Flag, Ramones, The Cramps, Killing Joke, The Slits, Joy Division, Devo, PiL, Buzzcocks, Television, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith Group, Siouxsie and The Banshees, Blondie, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, B-52s, X-Ray Spex, and many others.
The show is arranged to demonstrate both design work and how it manifested physically, with crates of vinyl visitors are invited to play on turntables. There’s a section devoted to typography, delving into punk’s take on lettering through stencil fonts, Letraset, hand-scrawled lettering, and graffiti. “That’s one interesting aspect, musically, as punk came to occupy the space just before hip-hop. The scene of emerging artists in New York were tied into those milieu,” says Andrew Blauvelt, director of the Cranbrook Art Museum and curator of the show.
For Blauvelt, the impact of punk on today’s visual culture is everywhere. “The direct descendent of DIY culture today is seen in terms of the empowerment of punk: anyone could be a musician, the bar wasn’t set at technical virtuosity, it was enthusiasm and passion. That ethos went into graphic design—people making their own graphics. The other big influence we see today is breaking the hegemony of modern typography and reaching what we now call New Wave graphics from the late 1970s and early 1980s. You can see that in things like iD magazine, which was really a zine before it became a publication-proper. New Wave styles ended up converging with ‘professional’ graphic design, and a lot of that emerged in the record industry with people like Barney Bubbles, Peter Saville, Neville Brody, Malcolm Garrett, and Vaughan Oliver.”
The curator acknowledges that to “purists,” the punk era is far shorter than that spanned in the show—in fact, it was just ’76 and ’77. “But you can’t talk about post punk and New Wave without talking about punk,” he says. “The 10 year bracket is a little arbitrary, but a lot of influences from a design history standpoint are within that period.”
Here, we discuss five pieces from the show; and you can listen to a few of the songs behind them on the Spotify playlist below.