The Work of Peter Saville

I was in a friend’s basement when I was 16 years old, and he put this CD on. It was New Order’s Substance, and the song was Subculture. I was totally entranced. It was electronic, but it was rock. It had dry british “white” male vocals with soulful “black” female backup singers. It was tension and contrast, beats and rhythm. I had to learn everything I could.

So I went on a mission. To devour everything and all things New Order. But along with New Order, came the work of seminal designer Peter Saville. Primarily it was the art work for New Order’s final album of the 90s, Republic, that set me on my way to becoming a graphic designer. I was unaware, he was using a relatively new graphics program called Photoshop to create stunning, layered, Photomontages

Just like Mark Farrow, Peter Saville is a graphic/music design “rock star”. He was the primary designer for Factory Records,  the legendary punk/new wave record label from Manchester England. Factory Records was home  A Certain Ratio, The Durutti Column, Happy Mondays, Joy Division (which later became New Order)

Fact Magazine Eloquently Stated “Saville’s designs did far more than illustrate the records on which they appeared. The implicit message of his work was that music is always more than just music, and his high-concept, modernist-influenced sleeves invited record buyers to see connections between pop and avant garde art.” -1 Jan, 2009

Peter Saville could be seen as the ultimate post-modernist. He was not afraid to take classical, renaissance, or modernist pieces of art and paintings, and dropping them into a totally new context, very much like his sleeves for Joy Division’s closer or New Order’s Power Corruption and Lies. He mixed minimalism, appropriation, and humanist serif fonts for a stark effect.

Saville was no one trick pony, however evolving his style over time. He also was influenced by 20th century typographic/layout pioneers like Jan Tschchold and Futurist Fortunado Dutero

Bauhaus and Constructivist influences can be seen in his work for Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark’s Architecture and Reality Sleeves.

While there is much talk (and controversy) of Saville’s appropriation of design history’s past, there is also Saville’s fascination with technology and the future. This can be seen as early as his classic cover for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures LP

The visual interpretation of a frequency from a pulsar star that Joy Division  picked out themselves that they found in an encyclopedia, Saville took the idea and ran with it.

New Order’s sleeve for Blue Monday, another legend that goes down in graphic/music/package design history. Influenced by the programming of early sequencers, and samplers, and the highly electronic feel of New Order’s foray into full on dance music, its a massive 12″ floppy disc

“The single’s original sleeve, created by Factory designer Peter Saville and Brett Wickens, was die-cut with a silver inner sleeve.[18] It cost so much to produce that Factory Records actually lost money on each copy sold. Matthew Robertson’sFactory Records: The Complete Graphic Album[19] notes that “[d]ue to the use of die-cutting and specified colours, the production cost of this sleeve was so high that the single sold at a loss.”

Saville later got into photographic experiments with fellow designer Trevor Key using the dichromat format, used primarily on the Brotherhood and Technique albums for New Order, photographic flowers, metals, and old paintings, turning them into stunning, almost unreal objects.

Saville’s Artwork on New Order Republic focused on the banality of stock photography, then warping them (sometimes literally) in Photoshop to create new compositions, and juxtapositions, using layering, filters, and transparency.

Perhaps like a hip hop producer or artist, you may disagree with Saville’s “sampling” of other artists, or you can see the brilliance in his way to take something old, changing its context, and making something entirely fascinating, much like Marcel Duchamp and other Dada and Surrealists before him.

Other Peter Saville Works (along with Trevor Key and Howard Wakefield)

Mark Farrow

On one of those various memes and internet questioners that are on the internet, I remember one of them asked “have you ever bought an album just because the album art was cool”

Honestly, no, but if it was designed by Mark Farrow, I probably would. Most people don’t know graphic designers by name. It almost has a communist/socialist feel to it.. art for the people by the people. Who ever designed the Chex Mix you just ate this morning didn’t sign their name to the box.(for good reason). Mark Farrow isn’t one of those designers.

My love of music and design are married. Since it is called the music business, of course there is marketing involved. Which means cover art and packaging design. Some artists like New Order and the Pet Shop Boys clearly “get it”, some who you think would be more design savvy like Madonna hasn’t really produced any stunning album art or packaging.  And well Britney Spears…

The 25+ year collaboration of designer Mark Farrow and The Pet Shop Boys has been a beautiful one. Who can forget the wildly inventive “Lego/Manhole cover” design for PSB’s Vary? The beauty marriage of simple type and simple image on Please and Behaviour. Or committing music marketing blasphemy with leaving the bands photo off the cover with an amazing typographic treatment in vibrant yellow. Clearly someone squawked, because later expanded editions did have the Boys on there.

Farrow worked for more than just PSB, but also worked with Kylie Minogue, Spiritualized, Manic Street Preachers, and Orbital.

Minimalism,sophisticated typography, stark color on white fields, and innovative untraditional innovative packaging are all hallmarks of Mark Farrow and his Design company over the past 30 years.

Not only have they worked in the arena of album art, but have done environmental design, logo design, and even the graphics on a sail boat for the Volvo Ocean Race.

Once a freelance designer for the seminal Factory Records/Hacienda that Peter Saville (who will be featured in a later article), Farrow broke out on his own.

And he’s a huge fan of Gill Sans.. a man after my own heart.

Professor Tom Kovacs and Hungarian Movie Poster Design

I would not be a Graphic Designer if it was not for Professor Tomas Kovacs. No, literally, I would not be.
The school of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois is highly competitive. Maybe 100-200 applicants apply. And at that time they only accepted around 30 to the program.
I did not get in the first year I applied. I actually didn’t get in the second year I applied. But there is an appeals process, and I resubmitted my work to Professor Kovacs. 
He must have saw something in me that the review board didn’t see the first time, because he admitted me to the program
Born in Budapest Hungary, he is a Professor Emeritus in Graphic Design at UIUC. A highly skilled and talented graphic designer, but he excelled in poster design.
Deeply inspired from the rich graphic and poster design traditions from his native Hungary, he taught us the power of combining type and image for evocative visual communication. Many of our assignments centered around poster design. We watched Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, then had to reinterpret them in our own visual style.
In film’s golden era, Hungarian artists had to do the same thing for books, movies, and plays from the States since they would not get the original press materials. This often led to hand painted and drawn posters that eclipsed the original US source material.
The Rainmaker
Compare the typical melodramatic original poster to the Burt Lancaster/Katherine Hepburn classic The Rainmaker, to the beautiful Hungarian woodcut interpretation
The US version goes for hollywood schmaltz and plays up the passionate love story, while the Hungarian version tells more of the story of the con man who comes to town promising he knows how to make it rain.
Star Wars
While the US poster for the original Star Wars movie is quite famous and iconic in its own right, The Hungarian version, with its hand drawn and painted approach focuses much more on the sinister and evil elements of the Empire in episodes IV-VI,  especially Darth Vader
2001 A Space Odyssey original poster is also iconic in its original form, but it focuses more on the fascination of future space technology, using realistic illustration.
The Hungarian Interpretation, uses blue duotone stills from the movie, with intense contrast of red and yellow accents, focusing much more on the humanity and the experience of Dr. David Bowman. It’s stark and emotional, rather than the more flat and technical aspects of its US counterpart.
Liz Taylor’s big budget, critical failure Cleopatra couldn’t be saved by a Movie poster. This time we have the reverse, while the US Movie poster utilizes a painted scene from the movie, using a faux cuneiform  style typeface
The two Hungarian version of the movie uses duotones and black and white stills, photo montage and Swiss/International style typography and layout for a much more compelling, modern approach. It doesn’t focus on the melodramatic love story once again, or u, but focuses on the power of Cleopatra as a woman and leader.
I encourage you to google more of your favorite movies, and see the inventive solutions Hungarian poster artists came up with to their US equivalents. 

The Work Of David Carson

The perfect counterpoint to Josef Muller-Brockmans hyper rigidity and strict type and layout philosophy of the Swiss Style, is renegade graphic designer David Carson.

To many he is the father of “grunge” and distressed type and images, that seem to echo the music of both Seattle, and the burgeoning Industrial Music scene led by Nine Inch Nails. (Where are Gravity Kills and Filter right now?) But his work is far more important and substantial than that

An important (some might say the most important) graphic designer of the 1990s, he through out the International Style’s playbook, and brought to us type as texture, image, and decoration. As art director of surf culture magazine Ray Gun He mixed type faces, sizes, weights, in almost a ransom note style fashion. He created typographic blasphemy by stretching and distorting typefaces. Type sat at uncomfortable angles, running into other text on the page.

He wasn’t afraid to to break out of, abuse, or just completely jettison Muller-Brockman’s grid in favor of intriguing, emotional, though often illegible layouts at Ray Gun magazine. No one could ever accuse Carson’s work of being cold or sterile.

Carson’s work was perhaps activist against graphic design itself, but certainly not in the political sense. He followed that grungey distorted type gravy train all the way to NBC, CNN, Coca Cola, Sony, Nike, and Microsoft.

One of his more famed collaborations was with Trent Reznor, when he did the art work for “The Fragile”

Unfortunately, Carson’s style became so mimicked and copied, it turned into cliché. Just watch the opening credits of David Fincher’s Se7en done by famed opening credits/title house Imaginary Forces.

Carson was especially influential to me, and my study of Concrete Poetry in the late 90s, which I received a summer research grant for. I admired his use of type as image, texture and grit, and tried to incorporate it into my own work.

“Concrete poetry or shape poetry is poetry in which the typographical arrangement of words is as important in conveying the intended effect as the conventional elements of the poem, such as meaning of words, rhythm, rhyme and so on.
It is sometimes referred to as visual poetry, a term that has evolved to have distinct meaning of its own, but which shares the distinction of being poetry in which the visual elements are as important as the text.”

The Work of Josef Muller-Brockmann

My design education at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign leaned heavily on the Bauhaus, and the Swiss/International style of design and typography.

While some may find his work to severe, rigid, or austere, I love the work of Josef Muller-Brockmann.

One of key proponents of the flexible grid system, Mueller-Brockmann changed book/page/magazine/poster layouts forever.

 What I love is his minimalism. There is not a single superfluous element in his work.

And while most of his work did stick to the strict grid structure, Muller-Brockman was also able to inject dynamic and kinetic elements into his work, using type on angles, photomontage, and even circular organic shapes to counter balance the stiffness of the grid.

While other Swiss Designers used Helvetica, Muller-Brockman used one of my favorite typefaces, Aksidenz-Grotesk 

 Critics will say Muller-Brockmann’s work is “cold, and emotionally sterile” I can see their point, but Brockmann wasn’t trying to dazzle or entertain, he was trying to communicate.

The Videos of Mark Romanek

With the music industry undergoing a monumental shift in the past 20 years, the day of the epic video are over. With MTV in the US not even bothering to make videos, and with most people watching videos on tablets, laptops, and smartphones, there isn’t much business sense in a music company to throw a lot of dollars behind a video.

But in the 90s, there was a time when they would, and this is when the music video was at its highest art form.

Directors like Chris Cunningham, David Fincher, Michel Gondry and Stephane Sednaoui led the way with high concept, high production value videos for Madonna, Aphex Twin, Bjork and others.

My favorite video artist of the period is Mark Romanek. His ability to create surrealist fantasyscapes of both the past and the future (and sometimes both at the same time) always amazed me. Often focusing on dystopian almost 1984/Mad Max worlds, his ability to set mood and tone why using state of the art computer animation (of the time) never failed to astound me.

Here are some of my favorite works of his

Free your mind- En Vogue
The song itself was an unusual rock/r&b hybrid in the vein of Janet Jackson’s Black Cat.The video is a futuristic Mad Max meets Fashion Week run way show with dark grunge rock mosh pit below. One of his Earliest works.
Rain- Madonna
Beautiful in its simplicity and minimalism, Rain is set on a not so distant  futuristic soundstage. It was shot in black and white then digitally colored later, using silvers, blues, blacks, metallic, offset by scenes of intense light. Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Ryuichi Sakamoto plays himself, as film director.

Bedtime Story – Madonna
Bedtime Story is one of Madonna’s oddest videos to date, probably as odd as the artistic marriage of  Madonna and Bjork (who wrote the song as a favor to producer Nellee Hooper). This is NOT Cherish of True Blue. Set in an almost Minority Report-ish alien world. Madonna awakens from some sort of suspended animation, IV drip dripping into her veins.
This is contrasted by an amazing golden colored surrealist world. Madonna sings behind an opening and closing sunflower, whirls through outer-space. She appears in black and white in 1984 like video screens on a revolving cube.

Nine Inch Nails Closer
Probably Mark Romanek’s best known video to date, no one had quite seen anything like NIN’s Closer. It
Looks like a sepia tones vintage, old macabre,freak show/taxidermist/mad scientist laboratory at the turn of the 20th century. Scenes of monkeys undergoing cruel experiments, crawling, writhing bugs among light bulbs, and Trent Reznor suspended in air rotating.
Closer was inspired by Street of Crocodiles, a Stop Motion animated film

Nine Inch Nails The Perfect Drug
Another Indigo toned fantasy matter, we are subjected to a macabre dark fantasy world of Wuthering Heights meets Steampunk and late 19th century Victorian aesthetic. The neon green of the absinthe stands out against the monochromatic blacks and blues.

Fiona Apple Criminal
Instead of imaginary futuristic or victorian phantasms, Fiona Apple’s video for criminal takes on the aftermath of a 70s porno wood panel rec room party. With its pan and scan then freeze techniques, it feels sleazy just watching it. You don’t know what happened the night before, but something clearly hedonistic, sexual and unorthodox occurred. Steam rooms, swimming pools, hot tubs, half naked people (who you can never see the faces of) walking about. Sex lies and video tape.

Michael and Janet Jackson- Scream
The funnest and most light hearted of Romanek’s videos (well as light as Romanek can go), it still filled with outer space futurism, with a heavy Anime meets 2001 A Space Odyssey influences. This time he goes for silver and black and white tones. Simulating Star Trek’s Enterprises holodeck, their are various scenes/, zen garden. Rare for a Romanek video is a choreographed dance scene. But it’s the Jacksons, so it’s almost mandatory and he handles it well.

Romanek also did two great videos for Lenny Kravitz. Are You Gonna Go My Way and If You Can’t Say No

You can get the “Works of  Mark Romanek” from Amazon