Design at 33-1/3 RPM

“I like to mess with reality…to bend reality. Some of my works beg the question of is it real or not?” – Storm Thorgerson

In the Fall of 1979, fresh out of High School, I landed a job at at the local record store. Licorice Pizza—named for an Abbot & Costello gag—was hiring Christmas help, and what started as seasonal employment grew into a five year stretch. The store was intoxicating, with the smell of glossy album sleeve printing, shrink wrap, and of course the beautiful vinyl of an era gone by. Out in the bins that wound their way through the store, lay an unexplored galaxy of every music imaginable, housed by beautiful designs that stoked the imagination.

Our assistant manager had a famed room, one that I was to visit just once. Spared of any furniture, the walls were lined with albums—thousands of albums, speaking all manner of musical language. Translating on their behalf, was the coveted Luxman turntable, with a bamboo needle that conveyed true warmth with the sound.  I slid into the headphones, and floated away on endless waves of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports. I’m not sure how much time elapsed. It might have been hours; it could have been days. Nevertheless, it was an epiphany that would forever amplify my love of music.

Brand X’s 1977 release Livestock was the first album that I bought unheard. I was taken by its cover, which depicted a limousine door suspended in space, out along a rural road. Two shapely legs protruded from the door, which opened up to a car that did not exist. The image was so spare and witty; the double entendre so clever, that I had to know what was inside. I was not disappointed. Looking for a fresh challenge, Phil Collins had partnered with a group of British jazz musicians, and the product was incendiary. The cover art had depicted so very well, music that was clever, conceptual, and well—different. Before long, I realized that much of the cool design work was coming from across the pond.

Hipgnosis took form in 1968, when British art students Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell were approached by Pink Floyd to design the cover for A Saucerful of Secrets. Having studied film and photography, both knew their way around a darkroom, and their ensuing style would exploit that knowledge to the fullest, creating images that defied reality. Initially, the two gained access to the darkroom at The Royal College of Art. By 1970, Thorgerson and Powell opened their own studio, and would design such iconic covers such as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy. Their name, like their design, reflected a penchant for double meaning, with Hipgnosis being a homonym cobbled together from the words Hip and Gnosis (Gnosticism).

In 1974, Thorgerson and Powell were joined by designer and photographer Peter Christopherson, (founding member of Throbbing Gristle). In 1982, some 14 years after its inception, Hipgnosis closed its doors with nearly 200 albums to their credit. Their art had graced the covers of such artists as T. Rex, Peter Gabriel, ELO, AC/DC, Yes, XTC, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Todd Rundgren and many, many more. Their work would influence the development and functionality of Photoshop, and would pave the way for the surreal, treated and layered imagery with which we are so familiar today. Ask any designer what first turned them onto design. Chances are, they will get a wistful look in their eye, recalling countless hours spent laying on the bedroom floor, lost in the intersecting worlds of music and design.

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