Like Barney Bubbles, the designer Art Chantry engages and communicates by combining illustrative invention and graphics excellence with a finely honed wit and a way with intervention.
A couple of years back he published the indispensable Some People Can’t Surf, so it’s with great pleasure we post this exclusive tete-a-tete packed with insights into Barney’s working practices and enduring influence.
“I wish his voice were still active,” declares Art. “We need more monkey-wrenchers!”
We started our chat at the beginning:
PG: When did you first come across the work of Barney Bubbles?
AC: Living in the remote upper Northwest corner of the United States, I really didn’t take notice of him until the punk era. I was unaware of Hawkwind or even Oz, but was in college when punk first started to emerge (in the Pacific Northwest, that was the mid-70s) and that’s when I encountered him through his work for Stiff and, of course, Elvis Costello.
I didn’t know what to make of it. I was a budding young graphic design student, reared on hippie/disco culture, comic books/TV and fine art history.
The first time I saw a real punk poster on a telephone pole, I was stopped dead in my tracks. I peeled off that poster and hung it in my little apartment and stared at it for weeks. It took me a long time to process what I was looking at.
When I ran into Barney Bubbles’ work shortly thereafter in a record store, it was like looking at messages from Mars, utterly alien to everything I had learned about design and art. Even after the initial impact of punk, it was still an intensely foreign language to me.
What singled out his work from that of other sleeve and poster designers?
Several things struck me immediately. Of course, he had an intense colour sense. His personal palette comprised bright primaries and stark contrasts. This was unlike most of the work of the 1970s, when (at least in American popular culture) earth tones dominated in the beautiful designs produced by people like Gary Burden for the mainstream Southern California rock scene: Eagles, CSN&Y, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne.
To be suddenly smacked between the eyes by Barney Bubbles’ colours was a sound jolt.
But the really contrasting aspect was his thinking. Whatever was going on, he did the opposite. It may not have seemed that way in his mind (for instance his industrial and architecture work in your book points out a seamless path to the work on The Damned LP cover Music For Pleasure), but to the general pop culture trend at large around him, it was coming from an alternate position. It even seemed contrary to punk.
Compare his careful, studied, playful work to the other major design tastemaker of the period: Jamie Reid. Again, he is totally opposite. It was even startling from the punk perspective.
The other major factor which grabbed my attention – more than all of the other designers working in the period – was his wondrous sense of humour. He must have been a wonderful guy to hang out with.
Every one of his covers is a carefully rendered inside joke. To me he is at his most marvelous when he references the very process of design itself – through intentional MISTAKES!
I found the off-registered version of Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model in the import bin and it blew me away. In America, they released the cover which eliminated the joke. Apparently, the captains of the music industry didn’t get it, and thought it was a real mistake or something. You could only find the original design in the import section – along with most American punk, which had to imported before it could be sold in an American record store. Strange times.
This Year’s Model completely flabbergasted me. It actually took me a long time to figure out it wasn’t a misprint. And, when I realised it was a joke, I never looked at graphic design in the same way again.
I firmly believe that “contrary thinking” was his biggest contribution to graphic design. His ability to step outside of the accepted conventions and poke them with a stick endeared him to an entire generation of designers desperately trying to re-invent the language of design. And that’s why punks loved him.
Do you detect a coherence given his variety of forms, methods, materials and styles?
Yes, definitely. I hate to use Picasso as a comparison in any context, but Barney Bubbles’ use of medium precluded his method and style. It really didn’t matter what his material or form, his work remained idiosyncratically his own and simultaneously reflective of the mood of the times.
Like Picasso, who would work in graphite, oils, assemblage, or metal or stone or ceramic, etc, etc, yet the end result always looked like a Picasso. Barney Bubbles’ masterful approach made his chosen method or style just a simple tool to get his thoughts across.
The work was never anonymous. You could always spot him, no matter how dramatically his style shifted from project to project.
Tell us about your favourite Barney Bubbles design.
Aside from This Year’s Model that would be the (again) imported-from-Europe, un-American version of Get Happy!! by Elvis Costello And The Attractions. That carefully scraped “wear ring” around the area where the vinyl record label would actually have rubbed through the printing as it was handled? That knocked me for a loop.
As I examined the cover further, I saw how he crudely overlapped colours to create new levels of imagery, just like the old-time album sleeve designers in the era he was referencing. It just nailed it for me. Get Happy!! was a brilliant tour-de-force of inside-graphic-design fetish-collector humour. I love that.
In what way has Barney Bubbles influenced you?
You see Barney Bubbles’ thinking popping up everywhere in my work. He was a huge influence on my design development. I’ve used his “wallpaper” idea from the cover for Do It Yourself by Ian Dury & The Blockheads over and over again. Only once have I used the actual wallpaper sample idea – on a poster – but I have taken the basic approach with velveteen paper, metal, garbage, etc, etc.
That stepping outside the printing process and then throwing in a spanner will forever be part of my thinking as a designer. I’ve also used the “wear-ring” idea, the “off register’ ideas, the primary color overlapping humor, the retro-revival of lost styles idea…
All of these quirks and jokes have been morphed into a base-level part of my particular graphic dialogue. I NEVER grow tired of that sort of thinking.
Do you detect his influence on other contemporary designers?
Barney Bubbles’ influence works directly through people like me. I’m of the directly influenced generation. Then there are the successive generations who not only see his work, but have seen mine and the work of so many others (including Paula Scher and Tibor Kalman) and simply followed the trail.
By now Barney Bubbles’ influence has become so diverse and foregone in the language of graphic design that his thinking is used and referenced without awareness. His ideas worked their way into the shared language of graphic design so that, at this point, he is one of the most often imitated master thinkers, and it’s all unnoticed. He has become a prime influence through his imitators.
Had he lived, where do you think Barney Bubbles’ work would be at today?
I think it would stem from his manipulation of processes. He would be one of those guys taking computer systems apart and exquisitely breaking them and re-wiring them to do things that were never meant to do, so obvious and yet ignored. I wish his voice were still active. We need more monkey-wrenchers.
Why is the revival of interest happening now, more than 25 years after his death?
The very idea of “graphic design” as a worthy discipline is still in its infancy and the history of this discipline is still in the hands of the academics and the amateurs.
They tend to gather around the pillars of the imagined “great men” of graphic design, ignoring the vast majority of design language out there that is created by direct interaction with popular culture.
Barney Bubbles’s work is NOT academic. It’s learned and intellectual, but decidedly outside of academia. As a result, he has been hidden from the mainstream of design culture thought.
Most of the truly great design dismissed as “vernacular” by academia is unfairly judged to lack introspection, history and authorship.
Nothing could be further from the truth and Barney Bubbles personifies my point. The historical and visceral power of his ideas is as plain as the nose on your face. Yet, like so many before and after him, he has been overlooked. At least until now. Thank you for writing this book. We all thank you. And thanks for this opportunity to ramble on about one of my heroes.
Check out the trailer here.