The art of the house style

As well as good design, I love music. Particularly inspiring are album cover designs that successfully capture the essence of the music.

There are many examples of great album covers but for me the most interesting, from a brand perspective, are those that are part of a record label’s house style.

The Sound of Siam

Developing a visual language

With a house style there is the opportunity to develop a visual language over many releases – the room to visually explore a genre of music that matches what the artists are doing for the label. The music and the accompanying design are then a part of something bigger instead of being a singular release.

Not as restrictive as a style guide, a good house style is more open with room to develop and adapt for each release.

Reid Miles & Blue Note and other successful collaborations

Lee MorganOne of the most successful examples of this is the design for jazz label Blue Note, recently celebrating its 75th anniversary. Almost all of their covers were created by Reid Miles who designed over 500 sleeves during the 1950s/60s. The style that evolved used bold, playful typography and often witty design set against the black and white artist photography of Francis Wolff. This modernist approach perfectly suited the new, largely hard bop jazz. The design captured the movement, the joy, the intensity, the lightness of touch, and above all the freedom of expression of the music.

Reid Miles wasn’t the only designer pioneering a modernist aesthetic for LP covers. Ronald Clyne designed for Folkways from 1948 to the mid 1980s. The Jawharp

Folkways is a label dedicated to cataloguing the folk music of America and around the world. In the same way as Miles, the style of his covers often consisted of black and white photography with bold, expressive typography. The designs not only visualised a vast array of musical styles but also captured a way of life and traditions rapidly disappearing.

Other successful designer/label collaborations, where the design aesthetic captures the essence of the music, include: Vaughan Oliver for 4AD, Barbara Wojirsch for ECM, Peter Saville for Factory Records, and Barney Bubbles for Stiff Records.

The house style now

The Soundcarriers

Two current labels that utilise unique house styles to support the music are Ghost Box and Soundway.

Ghost Box channels the sounds of library music, TV soundtracks and radiophonic electronic experiments. It’s a world influenced by the 1960s/70s but definitely of today. An experience where dreams and nightmares blur into reality. The design matches the music perfectly. It is underground and subversive, urban yet pastoral, but above all mysterious.

Designed by Julian House, no stranger to album cover artwork, the house style for Ghost Box enables a deeper exploration of the music. To buy music by any of the label’s bands is to enter a very particular world.

Soundway also captures the spirit of the music, Ondatropica with its exuberant cover designs. The artwork is largely illustrated, with strong colours, rough textures and expressive typography. As a label that explores musical styles from across the globe, both from the past and what’s happening now, the designs are tropical and exotic but also streetwise. This is captured in the artwork of Lewis Heriz, where the artwork perfectly visualises the sounds of the various locales, whether that be Cumbia from Columbia, Nigerian/British disco or the Luk Thung of Thailand.

In short…

It is important that with all of these labels, the listener be immersed into a unique world, a singular vision. Mind of GoldThe house style as a focused visual language can help make this possible.

My own foray into album cover design has been with the band Joker’s Daughter. Not strictly a label house style but a consistent approach to album and single releases that captures the mood of the music. Using specially created stencils and spray paint I created a playful style referencing 1960s psychedelia and British folk music.