Momus | Essays

Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places

There's long been an intimate link between independent record labels and fresh graphic design talent. Indie labels like Factory and 4AD emerged in Britain in the 1980s strongly aware of the need to distinguish their products visually from the offerings of the major labels. Factory's Tony Wilson forged bonds with the young Peter Saville, and Ivo Watts-Russell handed over 4AD's visuals to 23 Envelope, a partnership between Nigel Grierson and Vaughan Oliver. In Saville's case, it's still the work he's most proud of.

I thought I'd make a little survey today of the visuals being produced for some of Europe's independent labels just now. This is an unapologetically personal selection: it's just stuff that's caught my eye, on the labels that I follow (mostly "boutique" electronica labels with a folk feel). I've e mailed a couple of the designers involved to hear their own take on the work they're doing.

We begin in Berlin, with Thomas Morr's label Morr Music. Since 2000 Morr has established a reputation for quirky experimental pop, releasing records by Germany's Lali Puna and Iceland's Múm. The centrality of design to the label's conception is clear from an e mail from Thomas Morr: "All our sleeves," he explains, "are done by Human Empire, as Jan, formerly o8 Design, is my best friend and we somehow started the label together."

I'm impressed by the poster advertising Morr's spring 2005 releases. In the style of a 1950s East German grocer's shop or organic market it shows "earworms" (the German term for a catchy pop song) emerging from a big shiny apple. What I like about this is the friendliness, the healthiness, the childish sense of fun. There's an absence of sharky cool; this poster seems the very antithesis of the 1990s techno club flyers which have ended up providing corporate identity for banks and wine bars.

I spoke to Jan Kruse, the poster's designer, by e mail. He works in Hamburg with his partner Malte Kaune. "The letters of the earworm are hand drawn (but with the mouse and a computer)," Jan told me. "I hadn't any template for these letters - but I remember that I had some old children's books from the former DDR (German Democratic Republic / East Germany) some years ago. They were printed on uncoated, yellowed paper and the style of illustration was very old fashioned and maybe a bit suburban. I think the book was from the seventies or so. The drawing also was inspired by the 70s - I had these colours and objects "in my head" for a long time but I really didn't remember if it was an old book or poster or whatever. I suppose I saw an illustration with these colours 20 years ago and liked it so much that it had to be revived now."

The sleeves made by Human Empire for the new Morr releases continue the organic theme. Benjamin Gibbard and Andrew Kenny's Home EP comes decorated with dead leaves and gorgeous hand-made lettering. The new Tarwater sleeve seems to contain an allusion to Peter Saville's original Unknown Pleasures design for Joy Division. Jan says he takes inspiration from "the Swiss/German Design (and maybe the Bauhaus) of the 60s. I had two professors in university who represented the clear, functional style and was really fascinated by it. Some years ago it was much more like this but it changed piece by piece to a more playful style. I really liked small figures, toys, stickers and collectors' stuff. Playmobil toys were my passion until I was 15. I did some illustrations for the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit where I use Playmobil figures to visualize political themes."

The Home EP sleeve shares something with Michael Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak (M/M)'s design for Benjamin Biolay's new album, and it's to their city of Paris that we head next. My favourite Paris label is Active Suspension. The label is run by Jean-Charles Baroche, who, unlike Thomas Morr, likes to give different sleeves to different designers. Recent Active Suspension sleeves have had a hand-drawn feel, whether it's Marie Daubert's pink squiggles for The Konki Duet or Mehdi Hercberg's drawing for Johann Lhuillerie (Pixel Crap)'s sleeve for o.lamm's Hello Spiral album. Last year's Random Veneziano album by Hypo came with a sleeve by Event10, the studio of Benoit Robert, one of the most promising new Paris graphic designers, responsible for some remarkable early Active Suspension releases featuring transparent CD jewel boxes, oddly-shaped inset cards, and thick black lettering on transparent plastic stickers.

Were there world and time enough I'd also tell you about Thorsten Lutz' Karaoke Kalk or Tom Steinle's Tomlab labels, places where music and graphics are equally exemplary. If Oscar Wilde's dictum that "it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances" applies anywhere, it's at boutique labels like Morr, Active Suspension, Karaoke Kalk and Tomlab, companies still small enough to be oriented to one individual's taste. If you pick up one of these records and find the sleeve appealing, there's a good chance that the music inside it will appeal too. After all, it's an expression of the same sensibility, a reflection of the personal taste of an entrepreneur-curator for whom music and visuals are equally important, a labour of love. Perhaps Mother Nature felt the same way when she created shiny red apples.

Posted in: Graphic Design

Comments [13]

Great post. It's nice to see some recognition for the album sleeve considering today's MP3 industry threatens to take it all away. I personally love the idea of having a physical collection of these objects but, I also feel a bit dated in that respect. arg.

At any rate, another label you might want to check out is Lex (younger hip hop leaning warp records sibling). They've been doing some outrageously beautiful work with a studio called Eh? out of London. Eh? has designed Lex's entire catalogue with one or two exceptions. What's really neat about their work is each album feels like it's part of a larger collection due in part to the uniform package design (a sleeve inside a sleeve). The artwork its self is ultra detailed, urban and intimate at the same time.

The biggest bonus of all is the music is fantastic too. Lex is truely on the fringe on Avant Garde hip hop. So check them out.

JT beat me to it, but I have to reaffirm that I think Lex is far and away the label with the best design as a whole. The cohesive packaging is great, but its also the extra details that eh? adds to each package that makes it obvious that they have design at the top of their agenda. Even the promos they send out are well done.

And I believe eh? is one person. Or at least everything I have seen in print refers to "it" as him.
Derrick Schultz

Die Gestalten press recently published a book entitled Sonic: Visuals For Music. It is a rich collection of music packaging and show posters from the indie music scene. Its scope is not limited to any one music genre or any particular area of the world. Enjoy!
Michael Brenner

This may be too obvious to post but, oh well! Intro has produced a few volumns called Sampler which feature some really great collections of album art work. Adrian Shaughnessy is a contributor. The featured works are really nice and well presented. So check them out too!

I learned of Design Observer because I'm an avid reader of your Live Journal. And I discovered your Live Journal because I'm an avid collector of the releases on the Le Grand Magistery record label. I own nearly all of the Le Grand Magistery titles including all 5 of your records and I find their design to be unique and refreshing. I look forward to each new release not just because of the music, though that is what keeps me buying more and more, but also because of the design. It's unfortunate they don't release as much as they used to.
Randall West

Memory of a 70's album cover, meshed with the sound, has had me searching on and off for visual traces of it. Music to my ears, Knucklehead and Soul Finger by The Bar-Kays are on iTunes but the visuals aren't what I remember seeing. It may have been a compilation album released outside the USA, I don't know. The graphics were definitely Pushpin-like and the swirly patterns of a beautiful black woman's afro hairstyle and the Mod skirt and/or tights she was drawn wearing in profile were to my childish eyes so mesmerizing. If I recall correctly it was a combination of intricate line-drawings of a party scene, bare, in the background like a coloring book with only certain dancing figures all colored-in.

Recently I was looking through wonderful pages of sumptuous fruits and vegetables, and Italian scenes of everyday life at the website of Stephen Alcorn, devoted to his Dad, John Alcorn, hoping I'd find it there.

Does anyone know anything about this LP?

Great post momus! Just like JT, I often think about the validity of a record cover both as a designer and as a consumer. As a consumer I keep every well designed package, however the majority do end up in the garbage. With the popularity of itunes it's quite possible to foresee a decline of quality and depreciation of design. Itunes lets you see a little picture of the cover, which not only substitutes the physical object, but renders it meaningless. As a designer I can't imagine Metallica's black album w/o a vivid picture of the cover or Rolling Stone's Sticky Fingers or more recently Modest Mouse's Good News... I wonder what will future bands look like when services like Itunes obviously underestimate the value of the artwork?

I agree with Momus that independent labels, who's products are not accessible via Itunes, incorporate the most interesting graphic design as they understand the value of differentiating themselves musically as well as visually.
Andre Andreev

Just a couple thoughts on the mp3/iTunes/angle: Since most of us carry our music collection in our pockets, many of us are searching for a way to fill the hole where album art used to be. I still buy the albums of my favorite bands, but the majority of my collection is digital. I fill the hole by collecting music posters. To me this is a much more personal interaction with design than album covers ever was, especially if I have attended the concert. That's why I am especially excited about hearing Jeff Kleinsmith talk about his work for Sub Pop at this year's How Conference.

This is an excellent post -- great design topic. It doesn't hurt that you also mentioned Ben Gibbard, who's on my heavy rotation list right now.
Isaac B2

I would also like to bring Non-format into the mix.

They have done excellent work for Lo Recordings, the Leaf label and The Wire magazine.
Peet Fetsch

I sent out an email to a bunch of old-time(r) friends the other day, who are/were in the entertainment/design business. I told them about going to the record store, years ago, when I was a young photographer, doing album covers, and I'd go and spend hours in the New Release section, poring over the 12" covers, analyzing the photos and the graphic design.

Then, we go to the Long Box CD, which reduced the art further, and then we go to only the JewelBox, which reduced it further, and now, we go to the tiny postage-stamp image on the iTunes/iPod LCD screen. No wonder the whole industry only does "headshots" for the cover art any more; that's the only thing you could make out on the iPod screen any more.

I also rememember keeping an eye out for 23 Envelope/4AD, and anything in that genre, in the IMPORT section of my local store. That was what we all aspired to shoot, even though none of our local clients would get anywhere near that adventurous.

It also hit me, as I read this original post, that, sadly, I don't even related the cover art to the release any longer; I only think of the title, ie "Moby/Hotel", because I buy all my music on the Apple Music Store now, and never see the cover, really. Can you imagine thinking of "Dark Side of the Moon" without immediately associating that cover image?
Mark Tucker

I can only comment about this from a southern hemisphere, New Zealand to be precise, perspective in regards to what I see as the latest international and national trends of 'indie' music.

It seems a larger number of traditionally independent artists are performing in mainstream popular music channels, where rightly or wrongly indie music is being catalogued as a particular visual style & sound instead of different types of music from independent labels with alternative visual styles.

Does this mean Indie music is being determined or stereotyped as having a 'one off' alternative style due to how it is portrayed in popular music media or because by most parts it is always 'alternative' as a representation of the type of music and design approach?

Any thoughts...

Of interest might be flyingnun.co.nz a prominent New Zealand Independent label.

For a truely radical approach to record sleeve design i would point you towards the covers of LOCA Records

The refreshing, exciting and original approach to graphics may not at first be obvious, as it does not exist wholly within the aesthetic. The point about the artwork and music on this label is it is released using a licence from the Creative Commons. That makes it free to copy, sample and distribute - as long as it is released under the same terms and proper credit is given.

Interestingly they have begun writing about these ideas and their reasons for doing it Eye (55) and organising symposiums Remix Culture
Xen Coop

 Momus Nick Currie, more popularly known under the artist name Momus (after the Greek god of mockery), is a songwriter, blogger and former journalist for Wired.

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