From the Archive; Aubrey Powell interviewed

Screen Shot of Pink Floyd's exhibition website

Screen Shot of Pink Floyd’s exhibition website

With the Victoria and Albert Museum staging the blockbuster exhibition, Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, and an upcoming talk by Aubrey Powell titled, ‘Art of Hipgnosis and the Album Cover’ (14/9/2017), here’s an interview with the man himself. Back in 2000 I spoke with Aubrey on the phone while curating an exhibition, Sound Design, for the British Council, which featured the very best British record sleeve designs from the heyday of Rock to the rebellion of Punk, the eccentricities of New Wave and the innovations of Rave and Rare Groove.

The exhibition included extracts of interviews with all the contributing record sleeve designers but the complete interviews were not published, even though the designers gave permission for them to be compiled into a book. The publishing industry being what it was, at the time, the book didn’t fly, so look out for more interviews on this blog. My questions were quite general; the aim was to get the designers talking about what interested them. The interviews were edited from longer conversations, but I tried to keep the designer’s tone of voice, and each interviewee signed off on the final version. What’s particularly interesting is that at the time vinyl had been replaced by digital technology in the form of CDs; Web 2.0, online downloads and MP3s were still ‘experimental’ and the first Apple iPod wouldn’t be launched for another year. The implications of the Internet for the music industry were beginning to be talked about but not yet felt.

Why am I posting this interview now? To celebrate the work of Aubrey Powell and his (late) partner, colleagues and clients, and the V&A exhibition that he helped to create, which I also hope to review. For more information on the exhibition visit the band’s exhibition website and the museum’s extensive programme, here. To see masses of images check out the websites dedicated to Hipgnosis and Aubrey Powell; for the best of Hipgnosis’s work in print have a look at Aubrey’s book, Vinyl . Album . Cover . Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue, published by Thames and Hudson.

Aubrey Powell, interviewed by Liz Farrelly on 5/7/2000.

Liz Farrelly: How did you start Hipgnosis?

Aubrey Powell: We started Hipgnosis in the 1960s…It’s not what you know it’s who you know and Storm Thorgersen and I came from Cambridge and Pink Floyd originated in Cambridge – Syd Barrett, Dave Gilmore, Roger Waters – we all came to London at the same time, around 1965/66 and were all attending various art schools. Storm was at the Royal College of Art film school, and I was at the London School of Film Technique. Syd Barrett was at Hornsey Art School. And we were very together, all coming from Cambridge. We shared flats; Storm and I and then Syd and Dave had a big flat in South Kensington. Storm and I were looking to get some holiday money and we had a connection to photograph some cowboy book covers, and at the time everybody was getting stoned and dropping acid and were very drug-oriented. We were right in the middle of that psychedelic revolution. We were all part of that. Pink Floyd were doing gigs in tiny clubs like the UFO club on Tottenham Court Road and had just released their first album and were about to have a hit called See Emily play.
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Sound Design UK Music and Graphic Design; reconstructing an exhibition

Welcome to Sound Design: UK Music and Graphic Design, an exhibition from 2000. Staged on the cusp of the digital communications revolution it has no online presence and is therefore “invisible”. This post is an attempt at digital reparation, an experiment in creating a “trace” for a long-gone temporary exhibition by providing details of the exhibition-making process. The idea for an exhibition on the graphic design of popular music came from David Elliott, then Head of Arts at the British Council in Japan and a keen vinyl collector. I was asked to pitch a concept that would fit the brief and then employed as curator. The exhibition was designed and organised in the UK by the British Council and toured Asia and Australia. Sometimes in a venue for just a few days, it proved extremely popular, surpassed all expectations and toured for nearly three years; before opening in Tokyo it was already booked into venues in Sydney, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. However, there is no British press coverage, probably because the exhibition wasn’t shown in the UK. Masses of media was generated in Asian and a pile of clippings probably resides in the Tokyo office; I saw the fast-growing folder, and recently found a review in The Japan Times (“The cutting edge of sound and vision”, by Jennifer Purvis, 3/12/2000). (Eventually the British Council realised it was missing a trick and started to give touring shows a short run in the UK, with a Press and Private View to provoke media interest).

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This is the poster, in situ, displayed at the entrance to the Tokyo venue, The Ground. Instead of installing the exhibition at the British Council headquarters, it opened in this concrete-lined bunker (not the easiest place to hang a show) close to the epicentre of Japanese trendiness (between Harajuku and Meiji-Dori). However, in some correspondence The Spiral is named as venue, which would have been an even bigger deal! David’s brief called for an exhibition of UK music graphics; from the golden years of vinyl when British designers helped to invent the genre of “album sleeve art”, to recent annexation of the aesthetic high ground by indie labels and various subcultures. The aim was to come right up to date with examples of ingenious CD packaging.
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Catch the moment; Composite, LDF and the British Council talk design

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Composite
Two Columbia Road
2 Columbia Road, London E2
20 to 25 September 2011

“Composite is both verb and noun, an action and an outcome, a process and a finished product. Within it are roots and hints of other words — compose, composition, posit, position, site and compare — all of which relate to art, architecture, fashion and design. This exhibition brings together a disparate group of creatives who’ve crossed those borders, gone beyond all comfort zones. Often working in collaboration, they’ve mutated their practice to produce hybridised, surprising solutions.

Questioning traditional processes, reusing discarded materials, exploring overlooked technologies, composing disparate elements, exposing the artificial, celebrating the mundane; these are just some of their tactics. The end results, the works on show, are diverse but they share two things in common, a degree of intricacy and ‘a way in’. They’re not exclusive, instead we’re encouraged to engage and play, inspect and manipulate, delve and re-arrange. Complex, interactive, considered, non-precious; this work is of its time. We live in a composite world.”
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From the Archive; five curators interviewed

As a contributor to Design Week in its print form, I worked with Lynda Relph-Knight and her editorial team for fifteen years; she was the first editor to commission me as when I became a freelancer writre in 1994. Until recently it was possible to search the entire DW print run, via its website, and find “full text” of years and years of design journalism, so I could access my back catalogue of articles including a regular column. Not only was this a useful research tool (with a search box), but it also functioned as a (stop-gap) personal archive too. However, a recent website redesign has adopted a sub-Instagram interface that displays just a handful of results, which can neither be saved nor downloaded, and, mysteriously, DW has cut years off its age!

Scrabbling around at home, I found “some” (but not all) tear sheets of articles and this particular one seemed relevant to share. In early 1999 I interviewed five curators who were producing design exhibitions, and we talked about their current shows. To foreground the curators’ voices I edited our conversations into monologues (the interviews were taped). Each curator also discussed the nascent field of design curating, which was evidently flourishing. Design was in the air during the build-up to the opening of the Millennium Dome (big party 31/12/99, cue Prince); the press was full of stories about architects and designers as controversy surrounded the various exhibits planned for the Dome. Stephen Bayley, ex-Design Museum Director, had been in charge but by the end of 1997 he was ex-Millennium Dome too; he resigned. See Chapter 6 on the Dome, in The Trojan Horse: The Growth of Commercial Sponsorship by Deborah Philips and Garry Whannel (Bloomsbury, 2013).

At the time the prospect of a “Millennium Bug” melting down our PCs was freaking people out but the world was still on the cusp of digital connectivity; the Internet was dial-up and mass adoption of websites by business and government was still to come. So this design-curating activity and these exhibitions remain under-documented online – just try searching for them. When I’ve found “traces” I’ve added links, but it appears that some of the exhibitions have nudged off “past projects” pages (if the curators have a website). I’ve also included links to information on individuals to show their subsequent career paths. The catalogue cover images are from my own copies.

“Display cases”
by Liz Farrelly
Design Week
26 March 1999, pp.41-48

Standfirst: Five curators describe, in their own words, their experiences and the highs and lows of managing and producing an exhibition. Liz Farrelly acts as custodian.
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Grayson Perry; Weaving Media

iPad and iPhone app by Aimer Media

iPad and iPhone app by Aimer Media

The Vanity of Small Differences
Victoria Miro
26 Wharf Road, London N1
From 7 June to 11 August 2012
Visited 21 July 2012

Currently at Royal Academy of Arts, London
From 10 June to 18 August 2013
and Sunderland Museum, Tyne and Wear
From 28 June to 29 September 2013

Not just an exhibition; it’s a six-tapestry cycle, “The Vanity of Small Differences”; a three-programme television series, “All in the best possible taste with Grayson Perry” on Channel 4; a London show and national tour; a book by Hayward Publishing and now an app by Aimer Media; the multiple-media by which Grayson Perry has disseminated his thesis on British class and taste is an impressive exemplar of cross-platform marketing and, in academic terms, of engagement and impact. If Perry were earning REF (Research Excellence Framework) points for a higher education institution, it would score off the scale.

Last summer I watched the TV shows (thanks 4oD) and then stood in front of the tapestries on a sunny Saturday afternoon. It felt like half the Guardian readers of London were doing likewise, but the Victoria Miro gallery was spacious and calm (thanks to a recent addition by minimalist-maestro Claudio Silvestrin). Because it’s a commercial gallery and doesn’t attempt to capture visitors for an all-day session (with cafes and shops), the crowd milled and departed. It was a diverse audience too (possibly because of the TV-tie-in), providing an excellent opportunity for people watching and eavesdropping. A second gallery sofa would have been nice.

A reinterpretation of William Hogarth’s “A Rake’s Progress” (1732-1733), the project is a moral tale for 21st-century Britain. In the TV shows we hear Perry’s aims and motivation, travel with him around the country and go behind the scenes, witnessing his working process, a blend of research, drawing and making.
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