iMaGe Conscious: Malcolm Garrett
Malcolm Garrett is one of the most influential graphic designers you have never heard of. Whether or not you own one of his designs, you will instantly recognise his work most famously his sleeve for Duran Duran’s ‘Rio’, which has become a defining image of twentieth century pop culture. Under the pseudonym Assorted iMaGes Garrett’s Pop Art/Constructivist style helped define the graphic language of the punk and new romantic movements, and later pop music in general. From the Buzzcocks to Peter Gabriel, for over a decade he produced some of the most iconic record covers of his generation and along with his contemporaries Peter Saville and Neville Brody, spearheaded the postmodern design movement in Britain. Yet, despite his success in the grand scheme of things the importance of Malcolm’s role has become overlooked.
“If I am being unkind, I think the people who were successful from that period are the ones who were a little bit more single minded” Garrett says. “They knew the thing they did, and they did it, and did it, and did it. I always tried to do something different with each project, which meant I seemed determined never to capitalise on anything, and I think that I still do it.” Indeed, one thing Malcolm cannot be accused of is a lack of creativity. In 1977, his design for the Buzzcocks single ‘Orgasm Addict’ was a revelation and became the major influence on punk and new wave design. In its contemporary take on DaDaist collage the alchemic jumble of color and typography sees the cover art literally turned on its head and, reflects the band’s contradictory mix of punk nihilism and bubblegum pop. “For me, it was much more than just designing record sleeves” Malcolm explains. “I was more interested in how all the components fit together. I did not see a record sleeve as a twelve-inch square to put a picture on. I saw it as a flat box that had a round thing in it so I was playing with the front and the back and which way up it was.”
In the wake of punk, Garrett’s “anything goes” approach caught the mood of the time and enabled him to work with a wide roster of exciting new groups. Whether designing the neon-boho sleeves for Culture Club, or sleek, cosmopolitan record covers forDuran Duran, key to Malcolm’s success is his ability to utilise the group’s image rather than dictate it. “I am conscious that whatever you do there is already an image” Malcolm explains. “So I am working with that image. I am modifying and controlling it. Therefore, it is my duty to do it in their best interest, not my own.” Key to Garrett’s philosophy is the anonymity of the designer hence his adoption of the alter ego Assorted iMaGes. “My approach was to act as if I was a member of the group,” Malcolm says. “Genuinely, I thought – I do my job best if nobody knows I have done a job. This is where I have disagreements with some other designers. I didn’t want to look at a piece of work and say, ‘that is by designer x’ rather than ‘group x has an interesting sleeve’.” Whilst other artists may feel frustrated by a lack of recognition, Garrett is comfortable blending into the background. “I think a term that could be coined to describe me best is ‘leading from the back’” explains Malcolm. “If you ask me to volunteer to be the leader of a group or contribute from the start I may well have no ideas, but as soon as you start to do something I have a tendency to take over. I always think there is a better way of doing something or, if you like, once a course of action has been set, then I think I can improve on it, which is probably why I became a designer.”
Born in 1956, Garrett grew up in Northwich, a sleepy town in Cheshire. As a child, he was a quietly confident individual who excelled at school. Outside of the classroom Malcolm immersed himself in pop culture and growing up in the 1960s he was spoilt for choice with his spare time dedicated to watching “TV oriented science fiction” shows like Thunderbirds, meticulously collecting bubble gum cards, and memorising the words to Beatles songs. “In many ways it was the normal stuff” he reflects. “Although, I like to think I was a more outward looking and intelligent TV kid. For example, in the classroom, I used to sit at the back of the class but I was not an unruly or disruptive child, I just saw myself as more left field.”
After finishing school at eighteen, Garrett went to Reading University to study typography. Here he learnt “the ‘isms’ of early twentieth century design: Futurism, Vorticism, Cubism and Constructivism ” styles that would have a profound impact on his work. Frustrated by the academic constraints of the course in his second year Malcolm transferred to Manchester Polytechnic to study graphic design alongside ex-school friend Peter Saville who himself would later design record covers for Joy Division and New Order. Garrett immediately took to the liberal atmosphere of Manchester Polytechnic and began experimenting with his newfound freedom. “I half-heartedly thought: I will restart Dada” he chuckles. “So, with a couple of guys on my course we used the idea of a new Dada movement as a way of experimenting with typography.” In a recent interview with Fact magazine Peter Saville recalls, the work produced by Garrett had an immediate impact. “He referenced this modernist stuff from his books, but then he fucked around with it in a pop way” Peter says. “And it was really weird that, this referencing of modernism seemed to sort of rattle some fucking cages amongst the staff. Things that they’d had to learn earlier, in maybe the early 60s, and they knew it was good, but they’d forgotten it. Malcolm was like a wake up call to them. It was Roy Liechtenstein meets El Lissitzky in Malcolm’s stuff. Screenprinting in dayglo in dotscreens – basically the early Buzzcocks look – and it was wild – the staff actually liked it, but in a way it shocked them.”
Malcolm looked to the history of art and design for inspiration combining different and often juxtaposing movements to create his own unique style. “There has always been a bit of the DaDa in me” Malcolm declares. “If I had a dogma it was to be dogmatic about having no dogma.” His 1980 cover art for Magazine’s album ‘The Correct Use of Soap’ utilises this post modern approach in its application of conventional text surrounded by emblems and motifs that appear to be lifted straight from a vintage Cadillac. Yet, Garrett’s knowledge of design history enabled him to appreciate both decorative excess and modernist minimalism. Case in point, his early designs for Simple Minds, on whose sleeves he applied modernist inspired abstract shapes to reflect the groups robotic sounding disco beat. “I do not have a favourite anything,” Malcolm explains. “I only have my favourite thing for doing a “something”. You cannot predetermine what is good or bad. It is impossible. Until there is a requirement, a job to be done, something to be said, a specific message to be conveyed, you cannot possibly know what is the right way of doing something.”
The move to Manchester was not only significant for Garrett creatively. “It put me in the right place at the right time” Malcolm states. At this point, the city was fast becoming a cultural powerhouse for the punk movement and provided Garrett with an opportunity to put his ideas into practice. “What happened in the second year was the Sex Pistols came along and it all just clicked” Malcolm says. “I was like ‘oh my god,’ the Dada movement I am trying to recreate but which is fifty years out of date is happening on the streets of Manchester!” Through a friend at college, Garrett was introduced to the Buzzcocks for whom he later designed all the record covers and publicity material. However, the move to designing record sleeves was not so much a conscious choice as a natural progression. “I fell into it as much as I was completely obsessed with music” Garrett enthuses. “I used to take the train to school and the ultimate destination was Manchester so sometimes I would stay on the train and skip school. I would go to this shop called ‘Rare Records’ where they had listening booths and best of all, German imports. I would spend the day listening to records and want to buy them all immediately.”
Garrett’s immersion in the culture he was designing for helped him provide a graphic language that suited the flamboyance, and theatricality of the time. It is therefore unsurprising that when a new magazine was set up to capture this Cultural Revolution Malcolm was drafted in to design it. “Kasper (de Graaf) was features editor at Smash Hits and had launched New Sounds New Styles as a one off” Malcolm says. “He was looking for somebody who was involved in and a part of this scene as he recognised the real design would have to come from within and not be imposed upon it by any old magazine art director.” Despite having never designed a magazine, Malcolm threw caution to the wind by playing on his inexperience. “I treated each page like a record sleeve” he remarks. “The reason magazines look the same every month is because they are too much work to change. We changed everything each issue. Every single page was new. The only thing we kept was the logo.” Due to the combination of a chaotic editorial policy, competition from other magazines, and the assimilation of the New Romantic movement into the mainstream, New Sounds New Styles lasted just thirteen issues. Whilst contemporary publications such as The Face have grown in their mythic status, NSNS has largely been forgotten. However, on this point Garrett is philosophical. “That is what history does” Malcolm says. “History compresses itself. I know and understand the way it works, as I am in the business so there is no point getting upset about it.”
In spite of the magazine’s downfall Garrett and de Graaf decided to extend the partnership to incorporate Assorted iMaGes. On their collaboration Malcolm muses: “he was a writer but he understood the immense importance of what the words looked like on the page and I was one of those rare things; a designer who read the copy. We figured out quickly that Kasper is a writer who can design and I am a designer who can write.” Garrett and de Graaf continued to work with together at Assorted iMaGes until Malcolm formally left the company in 1994 with the two still collaborating on and off to this day.
By the time of his departure, Garrett had for the most part stopped designing record covers and moved onto further exploring the interaction between digital media and design, a field in which he has gained the recognition he deserves. “Why do I not design record sleeves anymore?” he asks himself. “Because, in the same way that I was the right person to do New Sounds New Styles as I was immersed in the culture, I am the wrong person now as I am no longer immersed in the music industry. The music industry is for between fifteen to twenty-five year olds. After twenty-five, you are designing for the record labels not for the bands.”
words Dale Marshall