Nick de Ville’s Album: Style and Image in Sleeve Design is the best collection of album cover designs published to date and, if you are into this kind of thing, you will probably want a copy. De Ville is an intriguing person to take on the project. He collaborated with Bryan Ferry on some legendary covers for Roxy Music in the 1970s. The band’s Country Life sleeve, a brazen, Helmut Newton-like image, displaying two models in their underwear, was banned in the US – de Ville still includes this detail in his bio. Since 1996 he has been professor of visual arts at Goldsmith’s College, London.
De Ville has really covered the ground: Alex Steinweiss, Jim Flora, David Stone Martin, Reid Miles, William Claxton, Cal Schenkel, Neon Park, Hipgnosis, Barney Bubbles – they’re all here, as well as more recent figures. There are plenty of less familiar examples, too. You may treasure a copy of Burt Goldblatt’s 1955 sleeve for Carmen McRae, showing nine cut-out close-ups of the singer’s lips in action, but it was new to me. De Ville’s thoughtful appreciation of the subject is hard to fault. “What gives design for music its particular potency,” he writes, “is its contribution to the creation of the modern myths of popular culture, often located at the intersection of youth, beauty, and self-destruction.” He is less worried about whether sleeves conform to conventions of good design than whether they are “fabulous and evocative”. Exactly right, I reckon, though the genre’s relation to those conventions is a study in itself.
Yet there’s something slightly troubling about this enterprise all the same. Where did all of this information come from? A few years ago Time’s art critic, Robert Hughes, published American Visions, a monumental, 600-page survey of art in America, based on an acclaimed TV series. Art historians were dismayed to discover that the book contained neither footnotes nor a bibliography. Hughes is a brilliant popularizer, with a superbly energetic prose style, but it could hardly be the case that he had consulted no other authorities on the subject, or failed to benefit in the slightest from their research. All writing, as Barthes observed, is a “tissue of quotations”, drawing on and reworking the information, perceptions and arguments of previous writers. Some claim that superscripts and reading lists make a book look “academic” and that this is off-putting to ordinary readers, but anyone who is prepared to read a long, serious account of a subject would appreciate some pointers – a bibliography, if not detailed citations.
De Ville is hardly in Hughes’ league as a writer, but his book too lacks even a selected bibliography, listing a few dozen relevant titles. Perhaps, when investigating early sleeve design, he really didn’t feel a need to consult such recent volumes as Eric Kohler’s In the Groove: Vintage Record Graphics 1940–1960, or Alex Steinweiss’ For the Record, or any of the historical articles Print has published, though that would make him a less than diligent researcher. And maybe Julie Lasky’s fine monograph about Art Chantry left him cold. It’s possible that most of his information comes directly from the designers, or where they are no longer alive, from members of their families. I doubt it, though. I make a fleeting appearance in Album as an unnamed “Blueprint journalist” for something I said in a Peter Saville profile published in 1990. It’s not a significant point in itself, but it suggests that de Ville has done his work in the library, even if he’s reluctant to admit it. He actually concludes his introduction by saying that his book can only be an “adjunct to many others in telling the full story” of sleeve design.