- Aug 17, 2010
- Reaction score
Storm Thorgerson, who has died aged 69 after suffering from cancer, was "the best album designer in the world," according to the writer Douglas Adams, and it was an assessment shared by generations of music fans. A lifelong working relationship with Pink Floyd began when Thorgerson designed the sleeve for the group's 1968 album A Saucerful of Secrets. Subsequently, the unforgettable creations from Thorgerson's Hipgnosis company became the first choice for such influential shapers of the rock era as Led Zeppelin, Peter Gabriel, the Nice, Paul McCartney and Black Sabbath, as well as for more recent stars including the Cranberries, Anthrax and Muse.
When he started studying at the Royal College of Art in London, Thorgerson shared a flat in South Kensington with his friend Aubrey Powell, who found a job as a scenic designer at the BBC. It became a hub for a variety of artistic and musical characters, including Pink Floyd. The invitation from the Floyd to create the artwork for A Saucerful of Secrets, their second album, came after Thorgerson and Powell started out in design by creating book covers for a publishing friend of Thorgerson's, in which they experimented with infra-red photography.
The pair devised the name Hipgnosis for their partnership by combining "hip" with the Greek word "gnosis", meaning "learning". For Saucerful, they concocted a cosmic, swirling design featuring multiple visual elements, perfectly in synch with both the album and the era. It caught the attention of other musicians, who were soon beating a path to their door.
Their client list expanded steadily to encompass Genesis and the solo Peter Gabriel, Yes, the Alan Parsons Project, 10cc, Bad Company and Paul McCartney & Wings. The Madcap Laughs – the solo album that Syd Barrett released after leaving Pink Floyd – T Rex's Electric Warrior and Wishbone Ash's Argus all benefited from Hipgnosis's visual mystique.
The Argus sleeve prompted Jimmy Page to invite Hipgnosis to create artwork for Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy, and they responded with an image of strange naked children crawling over rocks. It was inspired by the Arthur C Clarke novel Childhood's End, and used a collage of photographs taken at the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland.
Hipgnosis's approach to design started from photography and applied techniques such as airbrushing and multiple exposures to create surreal dislocations and disturbing juxtapositions. Today similar effects could be created using software such as Adobe Photoshop, but Thorgerson's retort to this notion was: "I prefer the computer in my head to the one on my desk."
He cited as influences artists and photographers including Man Ray, Magritte, Picasso, Kandinsky, Juan Gris and Ansel Adams, and described his working method thus: "I listen to the music, read the lyrics, speak to the musicians as much as possible. I see myself as a kind of translator, translating an audio event – the music – into a visual event – the cover. I like to explore ambiguity and contradiction, to be upsetting but gently so. I use real elements in unreal ways."
Working with Pink Floyd always seemed to give Thorgerson an extra shot of inspiration. The prism design for the group's 1973 blockbuster Dark Side of the Moon genuinely merits that much over-used term "iconic", and the image of a blazing businessman on a studio back lot on Wish You Were Here provoked endless late-night discussion among Floyd cognoscenti.
The cover shot for Animals, depicting a pig flying over Battersea power station, was both startling and comic. During the photo shoot, the lighter-than-air pig slipped its moorings and presented a hazard to aircraft approaching Heathrow airport. For the cover of A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Thorgerson painstakingly arranged 700 hospital beds stretching away into infinity on a beach, later admitting that it was "madness to do it".
Thorgerson was born in Potters Bar, north of London, and attended AS Neill's Summerhill in Suffolk – "the original free school," as Thorgerson put it – before moving on to Cambridge high school for boys. He commented that his adolescence was blighted only by his parents' divorce.
During his teenage years in Cambridge, Thorgerson went to school with Barrett and another future Pink Floyd member, Roger Waters. He had an additional connection with Waters in that their respective mothers were good friends, and he also knew David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and Powell from his Cambridge days. Thorgerson said: "I look back fondly on those teenage years – great friends, illuminating experiences, and of course the music."
He graduated in English and philosophy from Leicester University in 1966, and at the RCA took an MA in film and television.
Eventually the compact disc began to take the place of the LP album, and in 1983 Thorgerson branched out into video by forming Green Back Films with Powell and Peter Christopherson. It made clips for Paul Young, Yes and Robert Plant before falling apart in 1985.
Thorgerson continued directing videos on his own, and extended his reach by working in commercials, though he found the latter environment "emotionally, intellectually bankrupt". Nevertheless, his droll commercial One Great Thing, for Tennent's lager, won a Golden Rose award in Scotland. He also made TV documentaries, including 1993's The Art of Tripping (with a soundtrack by Gilmour) which investigated the effect of drugs on creativity, and a science documentary called Rubber Universe.
He continued to work on Pink Floyd projects, but also designed album artwork for many newer artists. He and Powell presented highlights of their work between hard covers in For The Love of Vinyl: The Album Art of Hipgnosis, while Thorgerson wrote several books on album cover design including The Art of Hipgnosis: Walk Away René, Mind Over Matter, and Eye of the Storm.
Taken by Storm: The Album Art of Storm Thorgerson was a limited edition book and box set priced at £500 a copy. In 2009, Thorgerson and Powell made some of their original work available to art collectors for the first time, selling a selection of favourite pieces through Heritage Auctions Galleries.
He designed the cover showing a prism spreading a spectrum of colour for The Dark Side Of The Moon.
His credits also include albums by Led Zeppelin, Peter Gabriel and Muse.
His family released a statement saying he died peacefully on Thursday surrounded by family and friends.
"He had been ill for some time with cancer though he had made a remarkable recovery from his stroke in 2003," it said.
"He is survived by his mother Vanji, his son Bill, his wife Barbie Antonis and her two children Adam and Georgia."
Pink Floyd guitarist and vocalist Dave Gilmour released a statement in which he said the artworks Thorgerson created for the band had been "an inseparable part of our work".
He said: "We first met in our early teens. We would gather at Sheep's Green, a spot by the river in Cambridge and Storm would always be there holding forth, making the most noise, bursting with ideas and enthusiasm. Nothing has ever really changed.
"He has been a constant force in my life, both at work and in private, a shoulder to cry on and a great friend. I will miss him."
A statement on the Pink Floyd.com official site said: "We are saddened by the news that long-time Pink Floyd graphic genius, friend and collaborator, Storm Thorgerson, has died.
"Our thoughts are with his family and many friends."
Thorgerson began his career with UK design group Hipgnosis, founded in the late 1960s and his distinctive style made him one of the industry's most recognisable artists.
There was the mournful-looking cow on the front of Atom Heart Mother, the burning businessman on the sleeve of Wish You Were Here, the giant pig flying over Battersea Power Station and the prism spreading a spectrum of colour across The Dark Side Of The Moon.
He told the BBC in 2009: "It's a nice but simple idea. Refracting light through a prism is a common feature in nature, as in a rainbow. I would like to claim it, but unfortunately it's not mine!"
The idea was sparked by Pink Floyd's keyboard player, the late Richard Wright, he explained.
"He said, somewhat provocatively, 'Let's not have one of your photos, we've had your photos before. Can't we have a change? A cool graphic - something smart, tidy, elegant.'"