Storm Thorgeson died yesterday. A man who has made a unique and indelible mark on music and design culture.
His death has a unique significance for me, as his design studio Hipgnosis has not only provided much in the way of inspiration over the years, but also, when I actively became a student of design myself, I was lucky enough to be tutored by one of Hipgnosis’s long term collaborators – George Hardie. He was the man charged with the task of translating storms’s design concept for Dark Side Of The Moon into the iconic prism infographic we know and love today.
Storm is credited as being the man that has ‘designed most of your record collection’ his artwork concepts have decorated the sleeves of some of the most iconic bands of the 70’s and 80’s. In fact his visual concepts, sense of humour and surreal, sometimes surprising juxtapositions have had a profound impact on designers the world over, helping to change forever our preconceptions of what packaging is, and the role it plays in the emotional landscape of music.
A founding member of Hipgnosis along with Aubrey Powell his design studio became the practice du-jour after he had completed Pink Floyd’s album cover for ‘Saucerful of Secrets’ in 1968. After that other musicians were soon beating a path to their door. For a brief overview of career highlights and some of the iconic names they have worked with over the years Adam Sweeting’s piece in the Guardian is worth a look.
But it was Storm’s lifelong partnership with Pink Floyd which brought forth some of his most iconic work. ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’ cover is rightfully legendary but what is often overlooked is how many rules this design broke from a commercial perspective. No band name and album title on the cover? – You do wonder how he got away with that! Let alone the black shrink wrap that the original release came in.
Surrounded as we are today by surrealism and quirky humour in everything from TV adverts to viral campaigns it is easy to forget how groundbreaking Hipgnosis as an agency were in their day. Take a look at a collection of 70’s album covers and (unless you are looking at a something produced by Hipgnosis) its rare for you to see many that strayed from the time-worn formula of band pic and logo repeated ad-infinitum. The few sleeves that did get creative, were so, mainly from a technical point of view. Gatefold sleeves or lavish paintings might be employed for example, but rarely were the ideas behind the visuals deemed as important and that is what made Hipgnosis unique.
The thing that is most striking about their sleeves is the way they conjure up a feeling of mystique. The visuals don’t just complement the music and the lyrics they almost add another layer of meaning. Symbolism and icons abound throughout their work. You have to ‘read’ the visual as opposed to being a passive receiver of it. You look into the image to help it provide new slants or twists to a song or albums meaning, and this was a completely new way for, what was essentially packaging to work. No one had done this before.
Many of their visuals which weren’t directly surreal were like scenes from a film. You can see there is a narrative there about to unfold. (Unsurprisingly both Storm and Aubrey Powell were trained as film students). The other thing to bear in mind when you look at a Hipgnosis cover is to remind yourself, pre-Photoshop, how difficult some of those images were to set up. The internal sleeve image on ‘Wish You Were Here’ of the diver entering the water and making no ripples was actually posed. A gymnast had to remain rock solid upside down, half-in, half-out of the water, till the ripples subsided. To make it possible, breathing apparatus was hidden under the waterline.
Of course this level of stage management to get the right shot meant things sometimes went wrong. The inflatable pig that famously broke its moorings and floated away while being photographed over Battersea power station. The 700 beds stretching to infinity on a beach, the arrangement of which drove the set-up crew crazy.
Hipgnosis and Storm were definitely one of the analogue design generation, (a subject I am currently discussing in more detail in Analogue Vs Digital) and right up to the end Storm much preferred to get the physical shot right on location than mess around with it afterwards on the computer. “I prefer the computer in my head to the one on my desk.”
I remember speaking to George Hardie once about the fate of Hipgnosis. They pulled down the shutters on the agency for the last time in 1983. He confirmed to me my long held belief was indeed correct – that the agency never really recovered from being perceived of as uncool, by the post-punk generation. Umbilically linked as they were to many a ‘dinosaur’ rock band, the work started to dry up slowly from the late 70’s to early 80’s. This was despite the fact that one of post-punk’s finest exponents XTC had arguably one of their most iconic sleeves designed by them. (Go 2 which eschewed Hipgnosis style imagery for plain typewriter text, informing you how you were being manipulated to buy)
If Hipgnosis and Storm Thorgeson have a legacy it was in their ability to reframe the argument about what album artwork should be. They suggested that their prime purpose was not to be a mini-poster making them stand out on the album racks or mere decoration, they should be seen as an extension of the way a band communicates, a continuation of the story being told in the lyrics. They took a medium that was meant to be immediate and made it something that required repeated study. They took risks, sometimes dropping text altogether from the sleeves, so they stood or fell by the strength of the image alone. They introduced surrealism and quirky humour and the influence of this thinking can be seen today in virtually every form of advertising. In essence they took a wholly commercial medium and helped it evolve into stand-alone-art and for that we are culturally richer.
RIP Hipgnosis. RIP Storm Thorgeson.