Shaking their bits to the hits
The first graphic designer I ever met was Peter Saville. It was the early 90’s in London and I was label assistant at the very indie Nude Records. He was wearing white jeans, white loafers and a pink gingham shirt. Draping himself diagonally along the leather sofa in our small meeting room, one arm slung across the back, he gave me very detailed instructions on how I should make his coffee. Saville was there to discuss designing the cover for ’Coming Up’, the much anticipated third album by Suede.
Suede – guitar-y angst, drugs and androgyny – were a cultural phenomenon of the early 90’s. Saville – post-punk, arty genius and unreliability – was a cultural phenomenon of the late 70’s, best known for the sleeve of Joy Division's 'Uknown Pleasures' that every indie kid has a t-shirt of. The meeting of the two is credit to Yvette Boyd, who was MD of Nude Records at the time. Saville had not designed an album cover (or anything much else) for a decade. Yvette thought he was a worthwhile revival and Brett Anderson of Suede agreed. The resulting campaign – an album and five singles – was a collaboration between Saville, Anderson and uber fashion photographer Nick Knight.
I rate the covers of ‘Coming Up’ and its singles as among some of the best ever. The weird, drugged-out colours. The perfect, morning-after sexiness. Like so much of the 90’s, it elevated indie-ness to high-fashion hip.
It’s important to know that Photoshop was only in its nascency when these sleeves were designed. Saville and Knight created the images using Paintbox – a pioneering, superstar program of the 80’s originated for use in television graphics. According to the website of Paintbox’s parent company, Quantel, one of its many breakthrough innovations was the touch-tablet and pen with which “any colour on the screen could be used to paint with”.
Paintbox was eventually crippled and eliminated by a long-running legal dispute with Adobe allowing space for the supremacy of Photoshop. I can’t say for sure, but ‘Coming Up’ was probably the last significant piece of graphic design created with it.
I never saw Paintbox in action. The countless hours were spent somewhere else in some mysterious operator’s studio. But the invoices passed my desk and I remember them amounting to tens of thousands of pounds. ‘Coming Up’ sold 1.5m copies so I guess the maths worked out in the end. But the total cost of that album artwork would have been 10-fold what is usually spent in today’s frugal record industry.
The 90s was probably the last decade in which album covers were still a viable career for graphic designers. Many of the great designers I know today grew up on them, became designers because of them. I try not to get too nostalgic when I talk about the record industry. Many things have changed. Not all of them bad. (While I write, I’m availing myself of Spotify’s wondrously deep catalogue.) But so many innovations of design, print and packaging were born at the intersection of graphic design and rock-n’roll. I just hope that designers and recording artists find some new ground on which to collaborate now that cover art is relegated to the iTunes thumbnail.