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“I would call what we’re into now a kind of experimental pop that reflects what goes on around us – industry, the electronic age, war – but we don’t want to lecture people about it, just tell them that it’s there.”

Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr, Record Mirror, January 1980

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The imagery employed to market post-punk and contemporaneous electronic records owes much to design and architectural philosophy, especially the distinct Supremacist and Constructivist art movements which sprung out of Russian Futurism during the 1910s. Most strikingly, the dominant aesthetic of synthpop fetishised a visual language with connotations of state control; under Bolshevism such art work was actually produced under repressive conditions, only permissible for its usefulness to propaganda.

According to Philip Brophy:

‘In many ways, just as the decade from the mid-’10s to the mid-’20s contained the seeds for many of the forceful projections of 20th Century modernism in art and design, that same decade worked as a melting pot of inspiration and influence for punk and post-punk design. This is a harsh generalization, but all the punk and post-punk art and design students were superficially attracted to the `general’ revolutionary feel of this period which encompassed WWI and The Russian Revolution, which in turn spiked many artistic developments that punk and post-punk aped and echoed : Dada’s social anarchy; Futurism’s implosive politicization; the dynamic abstraction of Supremativism and Constructivism ; the functional harmony of De Stijl; and the Bauhaus’ centralisation of all of the above. Furthermore, the resultant differences in post-punk design can largely be attributed to whichever art movement a designer would be more attracted to, as there were many conflicts between and within the aforementioned movements.’

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The likes of El Lissitzky, a key influence on Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine (1978), and German typographer Jan Tschichold (denounced by National Socialists as a ‘cultural Bolshevik’) were key sources of inspiration for designers commissioned by British record labels in the post-punk era to produce their acts’ sleeves and often their broader visual identities.

As Simon Reynolds puts it, “The record cover artwork of the period matched the neo-modernist aspirations of the words and music, with such graphic designers as Malcolm Garrett and Peter Saville, and labels like Factory and Fast Product, drawing from Constructivism, De Stijl, Bauhaus, John Heartfield and Die Neue Typographie.”

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Saville and Garrett – along with fellow designers like Neville Brody and Barney Bubbles – enjoyed much creative freedom in the late seventies. Saville, who studied graphic design at Manchester Polytechnic from 1975-78, went on to become a partner and founder of Manchester’s iconic Factory Records and also served as art director for London’s Dindisc label from 1981-1983. He was driven by the belief that the visual language of new wave music needed to be distinctive, and made his name designing art work for the likes of Joy Division, New Order, Ultravox! and OMD, drawing from established movements.

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“Punk itself, as a look, was really only a moment’s aberration,” Saville told Eye Magazine, “For six months, Punk was like the parting of the Red Sea and anybody who was fit and ready enough could run through. By association with certain people in Manchester I got pulled through the gap. But the look of Punk didn’t offer much hope for a fresh graphic language.

“Malcolm [Garrett] had a copy of Herbert Spencer’s Pioneers of Modern Typography. The one chapter that he hadn’t reinterpreted in his own work was the cool, disciplined “New Typography” of Tschichold and its subtlety appealed to me. I found a parallel in it for the New Wave that was evolving out of Punk. In this, as it seemed at the time, obscure byway of graphic design history, I saw a look for the new, cold mood of 1977-78.”

© David Hull. Known Pleasures. 2014.

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