Mark Farrow’s minimalist graphics have won him a place in the profession’s mainstream usually denied to music designers
Music graphics occupies the uneasy position within the firmament of graphic design. A distinct genre and established global industry in its own right, it has never been fully accepted, still less embraced, by the professional mainstream – by those who engage with the more routine and businesslike activities of corporate identity, packaging and annual reports. As design practices go, music graphics is not perhaps regarded, even now, as entirely grown up or credible. If graphic design, as traditionally taught and practised, involves the solving of communication problems, it is not always clear, to those on the outside, what the problems are in the case of 12-inch dance singles and chart-topping CDs. Surely you can do what you like?
The blind spot can be detected in the pages of the design history books, where you are more likely to find discussion and illustration of work by mainstream designers who also happened to produce some record sleeves (Ivan Chermayeff, Rudolph de Harak, Milton Glaser) than examples by designers who opted to specialise in music packaging (Alex Steinweiss, Reid Miles, Vaughan Oliver). And in the national awards annuals a similar selectivity applies. If, looking back, you were to rely on the Design & Art Direction annuals alone for guidance, you would hardly know that in Britain, in the 1980s, a small graphic revolution occurred – not in the main among the featured award-winners, but in the subcultural hinderland of the profession, among an unruly bunch of record sleeve designers (and other mavericks) who rarely found their way into the annual tome.
Of course, there have always been exceptions and for a while D&AD did have a “Record Sleeves & Promotion” section, though by 1990 it had been folded into general graphics. And that loss of confidence in the category makes the success of Mark Farrow all the more anomalous. Farrow, now 36, has won four D&AD silver awards – three of them for his work for the Pet Shop Boys – and as many nominations. He is the only British music designer whose work can be relied on to show up in the D&AD annual almost every year alongside industry stalwarts like CDT and Roundel. Farrow, more than any of his music biz colleagues, is seen by D&AD juries as one of us and the designer shares this view of his work. “I’ve always maintained that I’m a graphic designer,” he says, “not a ‘record sleeve designer,’ if you know what I mean. What I do could be applied to anything. It just happens, mainly, to be applied to music.”
This gives a pointer to the reasons for Farrow’s professional acceptance, but the repudiation is odd all the same. Music graphics designers are drawn to the work as a rule because they love the music, are part of the scene or subculture it comes from and very often know the musicians themselves. Farrow’s early years follow the pattern. Hanging out in Virgin Records in Manchester, he would often see Peter Saville and Malcolm Garrett, already celebrated for their post-punk designs. Working in another record shop, the Underground Market, its walls plastered with new wave picture sleeves, he met Rob Gretton, manager of the Factory Records band Joy Division, and many other groups. Until that point the surrealistic fantasies of 1960s design team Hipgnosis – by then looking rather dated – were a benchmark for Farrow. “What really changed everything,” he recalls, “was Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures coming out. It just blew me away. It had a massive impact on me because I suddenly realised what you could do with a record sleeve.”
Farrow had abandoned a foundation course at Tameside Polytechnic, near Manchester after just three months, preferring to learn on the job as a studio junior in a local design firm. He didn’t know anything about Pioneers of Modern Typography or any of the other sources that Garrett and Saville, designer of Joy Division’s monochrome enigma, were exploring. He couldn’t explain why (and still struggles when asked) but this “austere minimalism” just felt intuitively right. Inspired, he began to design flyers for local bands, handbills for the Russell Club, beer mats for Factory’s Hacienda nightclub. By 1983, he had made his D&AD annual debut with a single sleeve for Factory group the Stockholm Monsters.
In 1985, Farrow moved to London to work with the high-profile design team XL. He was fired (“they thought I was a bit of an upstart”) but quickly found a new base when Tom Watkins, a partner in XL and manager of the Pet Shop Boys, suggested forming a new company, 3, which evolved into 3a and, finally, Farrow. These days, after a fraught departure in 1995 from the company that traded under his name, even though he wasn’t the owner, he operates as Mark Farrow Design.
With his early sleeves for the Pet Shop Boys, Farrow found his voice as a designer. On the album Please, released in 1986 – an exercise in what Farrow calls “reverse marketing” – it is little more than a whisper. The central placement of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s postage stamp-sized portrait on a sheet of white space immediately recalls the beguiling (or bewildering) emptiness of Unknown Pleasures. As with all subsequent releases, the Pet Shop Boys are co-credited as designers and both Tennant and Farrow jokingly claim credit for the concept. For the dance-pop duo, Tennant explains, the design was a deliberate reaction against the ornamental excesses of early 1980s “new romantic” design. “There was lots of symbolism,” says Tennant. “There was a lot of gratuitous typographic design. We are often described as an 1980s group. The Pet Shop Boys were, in my opinion, the first group of the 1990s because we were firstly, in musical terms, concerned with pop and dance, in club music, and secondly we had this minimalist style of presentation.”
Three further white albums followed. The most memorable design, for 1987’s Actually, has a cover photograph that shows a frowning Lowe and yawning Tennant declining to play the fame game. It achieved iconic status and is still quoted in other people’s designs. Their singles often eschewed typography entirely. The sleeve of Suburbia, in 1986, a “design decade” fashion statement of finely honed blankness, based on a head and shoulders shot of Lowe, won Farrow his first D&AD silver award. “There’s no design in it,” he says now. “The design is the fact that there’s nothing there.” “The design is choice, ultimately,” adds tenant, summarising the Duchampian act of selection and framing on which this design method depends.
Post-punk designers such as Malcolm Garrett used packaging to foreground even “independent” music’s status as product. Peter Saville’s Factory covers extended the conceptual range of music graphics by combining rigorous minimalism with a cultural sophistication that borrowed freely from developments in contemporary fine art. If irony is by now one of the most overused words of the 1990s, as Tennant himself proposes, the Pet Shop Boys were among the first, in the mid-1980s, to make ironic detachment a central strategy – both musical and graphic – of the content, marketing and promotion of international pop. “We’ve always seen ourselves as using the mass market to do something different,” says Tennant. “I always like a wonderful mass market product because I think it’s the most difficult thing to do.” By adopting a stance that signalled cerebral aloofness from the ritual absurdities of the star-making process and underlined their control of all stages of their own presentation, the Pet Shop Boys appealed to an audience sceptical of pop’s manipulations as well as ordinary fans for whom such concerns were secondary if they mattered at all.
Both Farrow and Tennant see it as a “duty” to push at the limits of what music business and audience will accept. When market research suggested that the greatest hits album Discography shouldn’t have a white cover they went ahead and did one anyway. The changeover from vinyl to CD in the 1990s deprived them of the surface area needed for minimalist graphics to work their effect so they shifted their attentions from an identity based on photographic image to one based on a minimalist rethinking of the package itself. The album Very’s orange plastic studded box, conceived by industrial designer Daniel Weil of Pentagram and styled by Farrow, cost the Pet Shop Boys 24p (40 cents) for each of the 2.5 million copies sold.
Its follow-up, the sandblasted Bilingual CD, released in 1996, was intended to work like perfume packaging, with an advertising campaign based on the package itself. “We wanted to have this incredible international marketing feel about it,” explains Tennant. “You’d just show this beautiful object that people would want,” says Farrow. It is debatable, though, Tennant admits, whether such strategies actually work in the marketplace. Their record label, EMI, is tolerant but doubtful and would prefer photographs of the band. “There’s sometimes a feeling that this is a bit daunting for the consumer,” says Tennant, “that it is too cool, that it says to people, ‘This is too trendy for you, mate.’ I think that’s a pity. If people still think you’re cool after you’ve made records for eleven years, that’s how you survive. It’s part of our currency.”
For Farrow, projects such as Bilingual, which edge towards the territory of industrial design in their treatment of materials, offer an opportunity to rethink basic formats and – he makes no secret of it – keep himself interested. They also represent an increasing detachment on the part of the designer from the content of the package. In a project for his other main client, the dance record label Deconstruction, Farrow designed a bright red container that requires the buyer to tear open an orange perforated seal to gain access. It is undeniably striking, and won him another D&AD silver in 1996, but the pretext for the auto-destructive conceit seems thin – the album is called Archive one – and the package, with its super-discreet typography and prominent bar code, is more effective in expressing “designer” values than it is in saying anything about the music inside or the world it comes from (hence, perhaps, the award). In its torn-open state it just feels spoilt. “It was just me amusing myself to a degree,” Farrow admits.
Farrow may have arrived at a turning point. In conversation, he seems undecided how to position music graphics in relation to other forms of graphic design. He suggests the “inherent problems” are much the same as those for annual reports and packaging, and rejects the suggestion of some colleagues that there is anything easy about music graphics, but goes on to say, in apparent contradiction, that “to a large extent I don’t think what we do is problem-solving.” Music graphics, he concludes, is “purer” in the sense that it is less restricted. Farrow acknowledges that music means less to him than it did five or ten years ago. With occasional exceptions, such as the Lawrence Weiner-ish Manic Street Preachers campaign, he is more interested in working with his established clients than with new acts. He has designed a growing body of projects for Oliver Peyton, owner of the Coast and Atlantic restaurants in London and the Mash bar in Manchester, and is working on an identity for a new London art gallery. “I know he wants to be considered for annual reports and brochures and corporate identities,” says Sean Perkins, a friend and long-standing admirer of his work. “He doesn’t understand why he doesn’t get them.”
Perkins, co-founder of the London design team North, shares the view that Farrow’s work sets him apart. “I can’t compare him to anybody in the music business. It’s weird that he’s nearer to us and the corporate world.” But is it so strange? The affinity seems, above all, to be a matter of shared aesthetic taste for the late (very late) Modernist conception of design that has preoccupied an influential group of British graphic designers for more than a decade. Farrow has been accepted into the fold because his work embodies rather than affronts the profession’s core values, and does so with a sureness of touch and sometimes originality that has been arrived at, at least the way he tells it, almost entirely by instinct.
“It’s just a feeling,” he insists. “It’s knowing that something’s right: that the colours are right and the photograph’s right. It doesn’t come from having this great knowledge of how things should be.” Mark Farrow, one suspects, knows a lot more than he lets on.
First published in Eye no. 25 vol. 7, 1997