Just as so much eating is done with the eyes, as our year of Design + Music stories has shown, much of our listening is visual, too. And yet most of those visuals are inspired by things that are invisible (we’ll explain).
What’s become clear over the past year is just how much music and its design is quietly informed by the metaphysical: things we can’t see and things a lot of people don’t even believe in. Designer Jonathan Castro’s work music clients is steeped in the magical and traditional Peruvian beliefs he was raised. And as you’ll see below, from the work of 1970s designers like Jamie Reid, to contemporary designers like Aïsha Devi, the otherworldly is a key component in the marriage of visuals and sound.
Another thing we learned: the way record labels operate and commission artwork hasn’t changed in decades. Mute still operates pretty much just as it did when it formed 40 years ago (though budgets for art have fluctuated over the years), and the most important thing sleeve designers have to keep in mind is that “nobody understands an album better than the artist,” as the label’s art director Paul A. Taylor surmised. That was certainly the case with a certain commission for Paul Simon. The artwork, like the artist, was beautiful yet simple, and incorporated archival imagery as well as a gorgeous shade of blue to create a simple but effective design for Simon’s “last ever” album (no pressure).
This year we’ve also expanded our Label Focus series, which looks at the visual history of particularly interesting record labels. Since we kicked things off with Ninja Tune—a label long known for pushing boundaries sonically, visually, and technologically—we’ve delved ever deeper into the links between our aural and ocular pleasures. As Theresa Adebiyi, Ninja Tune’s creative marketing manager put it, “As a listener, you are led by the artwork. It’s often the first encounter you have with the album, so a good cover sleeve has to be an accurate representation of the feel of the record.”
The Metaphysical Muses of Aïsha Devi
But today, it isn’t just about the cover. It’s about everything from how the brand lives online (moving, singing, dancing) to the live performance visuals, and even the performers themselves (the way the musicians’ iconography informs their practice, for example).
For Aïsha Devi, the way image and sound overlap and then cross over into spiritual and ideological realms are at the very core of her work. The way she weaves graphic design, typography, ghosts, the non-linearity of existence, alchemical symbolism, how sound can alter consciousness, physics—and a ton more—made her interview a personal highlight of the year. Devi put forward an interesting idea about the logo as ritual. “In graphic design, the origin of the logo is ritual. If you think about a symbol like the swastika—not the Nazi symbol, but the ancient one—as a logo, its presence has been here for centuries, in Africa, Asia, Greece,” she said.
“That was kind of the first logo of the world—it synthesizes an idea. I use a lot of alchemical signs to reinterpret them in the contemporary world as a metaphysical symbol. A logo does the same thing: it sends a subliminal message. A contemporary logo that’s trying to sell you something is using a subliminal hypnosis effect, but the logo’s origin is spiritual.
“In music and design I’m trying to reinterpret and build up a new iconography that’s also subliminal and hypnotizes in a positive way.”
Musing on Magic + Punk
Exploring our Design + Music category underscored not only the links between sound and vision, but a multitude of other art forms and the way political, spiritual, and social dimensions underpins the lot of them.
Jamie Reid, the artist and designer behind the seminal record sleeve designs for the Sex Pistols, sees the true meaning of “punk” not as a graphic style marked by ransom-note typography, blustering cut-and-paste newsprint, and defiant DIY-aesthetic, but as a broader sense of purpose and defiance against injustice. For him, it’s all about “ideas and attitude,” he says.
The projects he spoke most ebulliently about are related to campaigning. “I’ve always worked with things I’ve felt totally involved with,” he said. Like Devi, Reid has also embraced the power of unseen magical forces in his work. “There’s a whole other side of my work to do with my upbringing… and with magic,” he told us. “My background is Druidic and Socialist. What we’re taught in history misses out on a whole tradition and eradicates people of the most enormous importance.” Such people for Reid include the Romantic poets, especially Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, who are often taught as nicey-nicey, florid scribes, but who were actually very political, vocally supporting the French Revolution, and leading lives very much outside of societal norms. “They were truly radical,” says Reid.
An Unexpected Paul Simon Commission
Someone who, we can all admit, is a lot less punk but no less influential in the world of music is Paul Simon. This year he released what he claims will be his last album, and we had a good old natter with the people who designed it, Mark Pernice and Elana Schlenker, partners at Out Of Office. On first being approached for the commission, Pernice thought it was a joke. “He called me and said, ‘Am I getting spammed?!’”, said Schlenker.
Our piece proved not just to be a lovely process story, but an insight into what Paul Simon’s actually like. “I was surprised about how nice he was, but also how much he respected us as creative people and was interested in talking to us on that level,” says Schlenker. “I don’t know if he’s actually insecure, but he seemed to have the same insecurities that any creative has. We dicked about in the studio for a bit before we sat down to show him our ideas, and he said, “I have to ask you what you think of the album.” I was like, “You care what I think?!” That was really charming and reassuring, and that really struck me.”
Pernice added: “He showed us all these rare instruments and started playing them, and showed us the recording studio. That broke the ice. When we showed the first presentation, he was really articulate and confident; he definitely knows what he likes.”
Keeping it Ballardian With Mute Records
Of course, the collision of music and design isn’t always so sweet—that’s what makes it so compelling. Take the piece from our Label Focus series about Mute—a label with proudly “Ballardian” roots. As we explored, Mute has always maintained an inveterate curiosity in the way the music is made and the product is designed through a hugely diverse roster, ranging from Goldfrapp to New Order, Depeche Mode, Liars, and the founder Daniel Miller’s own outfit, The Normal.
Mute’s art director Paul A. Taylor began working at the label in 1990, and told us that though the industry has changed almost beyond recognition in that time, Mute has continued to function in its day-to-day endeavors in much the same way as it always did. Even during the EMI years (they were occupied by the major label from 2002-2009) where budgets were tighter and shareholders had to be placated, working practices largely remained the same. “Nobody understands an album better than the artist,” Taylor said.
The piece seemed like a fitting way to round off our 2018 Design + Music pieces: marrying serious design discussions with the strange and the absurd. Take, for instance, the discussion of Liars’ album TFCF, a more diffident and desolate character portrayed by the last remaining Liar, Angus Andrew, released alongside ex-Liars man Aaron Hemphill’s Scented Pictures. The cover for TFCF shows Andrew stony-faced, before a cake, in a wedding dress. “There’s a deliberate isolationism being communicated by Andrew, and even the inference that some kind of jilting has taken place,” as we put it.
The cover also carries a “PARENTAL ADVISORY—explicit content” sticker which, in the age of fake news, was a complete fabrication. “I’ve always wanted one of these stickers on a Liars album but am not prone to writing lyrics with adult language. So I asked Paul A. Taylor at Mute and he said ‘Doesn’t matter.’ I like to think that it’s the emotional content, so explicit on TFCF, that warrants the sticker. And visually, it gives the cover a certain strength, akin to a ’90s hip-hop record, that I love.”