Design Thinking, Music Listening & Photo Shooting

Essay: Recontextualization of art in album artwork

I originally wrote this essay for my History of Modern Art exam at NABA. I decided to adapt it for my blog and publish it. Here goes nothing.

Abstract

Matthew Cooper - Franz Ferdinand - This Fire (2004)

Matthew Cooper - Franz Ferdinand - This Fire (2004)

Throughout the years many art directors, graphic designers and illustrators have given a new meaning to imagery, design languages and styles associated with artistic movements of the past. This practice is commonly used to reference the ideological and political backgrounds of the original artists, sometimes in an ironic or irreverent way. Even though the inspired artwork may not be considered 'art' since its purpose may be commercial, I believe it still retains artistic value, especially in the case of album cover art: the artwork becomes part of the listening experience as the primary visual connection to the music itself.

Through the practice of recontextualization a number of artists have succeeded in crafting memorable album artwork that we can all appreciate as homage to artists that originally conceived the artwork, style, language or layout.

In this post I will present a series of album cover designs which have been influenced by or incorporate pieces of art.

Introduction

In 1939, when working at Columbia Records as Art Director, a young graphic designer named Alex Steinweiss produced the first modern album cover. His intent was to create a visual that complemented the music on the vinyl – before his innovation records were mostly sold in generic sleeves. The music industry reacted positively to Steinweiss' idea; all major record labels started to sell vinyl in sleeves featuring classic or original artwork. This resulted in the creation of a new field of graphic design and illustration: album cover art.

Today we consider album artwork to be an important part of the listening experience – many of our favorite records wouldnít be the same without their memorable covers. In the digital era we live in good visual communication is of the utmost importance – the artwork associated with a song can make or break its discovery (and subsequent success) on music streaming services, the preferred audio discovery and consumption platform for a rapidly increasing number of people. Possibly even more than the digital counterparts, physical releases of albums are expected to have quality artwork. Although its sales have been consistently declining in recent years, the CD is still a very popular format for music distribution. 

Despite being called "dead" by music journalists throughout the 2000s, vinyl is making a resurgence, as a generation that grew up listening to MP3 files discovers the pleasure of owning physical copies of music and dedicating more time and thought to the listening experience. Album artwork and packaging are definitely an important factor in the spread of this phenomenon – listeners appreciate the great attention to detail that goes in the design of many new albums sold on vinyl.

Album artwork design is one of the very few fields of graphic design where the designers traditionally had great freedom of expression. Today's "Big Three" music groups generally don't allow much artistic freedom to the agencies and individuals involved in the production of album artwork for commercial releases, but independent record labels still collaborate with talented visual artists to create striking visuals.

Arcade Fire's Reflektor

Caroline Robert - Arcade Fire - Reflektor packaging (2013)

Caroline Robert - Arcade Fire - Reflektor packaging (2013)

One of the most eye-catching vinyl releases of the past few years is Arcade Fire's Reflektor (2013). It comes in a shiny gatefold that holds two 12" records, each complete with its own sleeve. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice's tragic love story was a big influence for Arcade Fire, and its representation by French sculptor Rodin is perhaps the most important and characteristic element of the album cover, designed by Caroline Robert. This is a prime example of recontextualization of a classic piece of art in a contemporary album cover.

While Rodin's intent in 1893 was to sculpt his own visualization of the myth, Arcade Fire sing of Orpheus and Eurydice as lovers in a "reflective" age, in which society and individuals are alienated by technology. Their world view was influenced by Kierkegaard's philosophy – Win Butler, the band's frontman, cited the Danish philosopher's essay The Present Age (1846) as a major influence.

Caroline Robert - Arcade Fire - Reflektor (2013)

Caroline Robert - Arcade Fire - Reflektor (2013)

Lele Buonerba - Reflektor alternate artwork (2015)

Lele Buonerba - Reflektor alternate artwork (2015)

I decided to recreate a more vibrant and sensual version of the artwork: in place of Rodin's Orpheus and Eurydice I inserted the same artists's sculpture The Kiss. While the themes expressed in Reflektor's lyrics are, at times, quite pessimistic in nature, the record has an overall positive vibe to it. Musically it draws inspiration from rara (Haitian carnival music) and 80s dance music (especially New Order and Talking Heads).

Peter Saville's Work

Peter Saville - Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures (1979)

Peter Saville - Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures (1979)

One of the graphic designers most acclaimed for his album covers is Peter Saville. Shortly after graduating from Manchester Polytechnic in 1978, he became a partner in Factory Records, working as art director. In 1979 he designed the cover for Joy Division's first LP, Unknown Pleasures. It became an instant classic, and is still regarded today as the most iconic album cover of the post-punk era.

One of the graphic designers most acclaimed for his album covers is Peter Saville. Shortly after graduating from Manchester Polytechnic in 1978, he became a partner in Factory Records, working as art director. In 1979 he designed the cover for Joy Division's first LP, Unknown Pleasures. It became an instant classic, and is still regarded today as the most iconic album cover of the post-punk era.

Fortunato Depero - Futurismo (1932)

Fortunato Depero - Futurismo (1932)

Peter Saville - New Order - Movement (1981)

Peter Saville - New Order - Movement (1981)

After frontman Ian Curtis' tragic suicide, the members of Joy Division founded New Order. In 1981, careless of the criticism that surrounded the new name chosen by the band, Saville based the design for Movement, New Order's first album, on Fortunato Depero's cover of the Futurismo journal of 1932.

Lele Buonerba - Enel Smart Consumption campaign poster proposal (2015)

Lele Buonerba - Enel Smart Consumption campaign poster proposal (2015)

When we were given the task to design a type-based advertisement for our Art Direction course (see more of my Art Direction work here), I took the re-contextualization of the striking layout even further.

Peter Saville - New Order - Power, Corruption & Lies (1983)

Peter Saville - New Order - Power, Corruption & Lies (1983)

The 1980s were Saville's most prolific decade. During this period, in the words of design critic Alice Twemlow, "[Saville] would directly and irreverently 'lift' an image from one genre – art history for example – and recontextualize it in another. A Fantin-Latour 'Roses' painting in combination with a color-coded alphabet became the seminal album cover for New Order's Power, Corruption [&] Lies (1983), for example"

The sleeve of Power, Corruption & Lies is an ironic juxtaposition of old and new worlds, in which a reproduction of Henri Fantin-Latour's A Basket of Roses (1890) is combined with a color control bar indicative of 20th century reprographics. The key to decrypt the color-coded message (which spells "FACT 75", the album's catalog number) on the top right corner of the cover was a mysterious decoding device on the back of the sleeve.

 

El Lissitzky's Influence

Barney Bubbles - Generation X - Your Generation (1977)

Barney Bubbles - Generation X - Your Generation (1977)

Kraftwerk - The Man-Machine (1978)

Kraftwerk - The Man-Machine (1978)

One of the earliest examples of Constructivism-inspired album artwork is Barney Bubbles' design for the debut single by Generation X, Your Generation (1977).

The following year (1978) Kraftwerk released their legendary album The Man-Machine. Its sleeve featured striking Lissitzkian typography, graphics and a vibrant arrangement of red, black and white on its front and back covers.

In 1983 The Wake, a post-punk band signed to Factory Records, incorporated El Lissitzky's Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge in the cover for second single, Something Outside.

El Lissitzky - Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919)

El Lissitzky - Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919)

The Wake - Something Outside (1983)

The Wake - Something Outside (1983)

In 1985 they adapted the same Russian artist's Schaumachinerie, a poster for the opera Victory over the Sun to fit in the artwork for their album Here Comes Everybody.

El Lissitzky - Schaumachinerie (1913)

El Lissitzky - Schaumachinerie (1913)

The Wake - Here Comes Everybody (1985)

The Wake - Here Comes Everybody (1985)

Franz Ferdinand

In more recent years, illustrator Matthew Cooper based the visual identity for the band Franz Ferdinand on the style and artwork from Russian avant-garde artists such as El Lissitzky and Alexander Rochenko. The Scottish band used the avant-garde visual language from their debut release in 2003 to their album Tonight: Franz Ferdinand (2009).

Alexander Rodchenko - One-Sixth Part of the World (1923)

Alexander Rodchenko - One-Sixth Part of the World (1923)

Matthew Cooper - Franz Ferdinand - Take Me Out (2004)

Matthew Cooper - Franz Ferdinand - Take Me Out (2004)

The artwork for Franz Ferdinand's first hit single, Take Me Out (2004), closely resembles Alexander Rodchenko's 1923 poster for "One-Sixth Part of the World"

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy - Baugausbücher (1925)

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy - Baugausbücher (1925)

Matthew Cooper - Franz Ferdinand - Michael (2004)

Matthew Cooper - Franz Ferdinand - Michael (2004)

The only early Franz Ferdinand cover that reproduces the work of an artist not associated with Russian avant-garde movements is the artwork for the single Michael (2004). Its geometric shapes are taken from Hungarian artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's 1925 cover for the first book in Walter Gropius' series on Bauhaus architecture.

Alexander Rodchenko - Lilya Brik (1924)

Alexander Rodchenko - Lilya Brik (1924)

Matthew Cooper - Franz Ferdinand - You Could Have It So Much Better (2005)

Matthew Cooper - Franz Ferdinand - You Could Have It So Much Better (2005)

The most famous example of Matthew Cooper's Russian-avant-garde-inspired graphic aesthetic for Franz Ferdinand is undoubtedly the artwork for the band's second album, You Could Have It So Much Better (2005). It recalls Alexander Rodchenko's 1924 poster featuring his own photograph of Lilya Brik.