Designing Bowie – Jonathan Barnbrook

Reinventing a legend

In September 2012 Jonathan Barnbrook, the iconic, controversial and renowned British designer was, for the third time, secretly enlisted to design the first David Bowie album cover in a decade, ‘The Next Day’. In this exclusive interview, Barnbrook sits  down with Clash to discuss concepts, code names and and the art of redesigning music’s ultimate chameleon.

“Working with a strong and creative artist like David Bowie is actually very free and very personal – it’s not like it’s a famous pop star at all. And because it’s very direct and we don’t think about the record company a great deal. If a record company marketing department had been involved we wouldn’t have done that cover. They would have said, ‘It looks like a Greatest Hits’, or something like that. They wouldn’t have got the symbolism that myself and David wanted.

There wasn’t a brief for the cover, it’s more an ongoing conversation. He has a big say in it, of course, but it’s very back and forth – although he, in the end, makes the final decision, he appreciates people’s contribution. Design-wise it was more trying to express  what was behind the music, and then there was a sort  of existential element about it, and the song ‘Where Are We Now?’ is really reflective looking back at the past. He can’t pretend that he’s Ziggy Stardust, which everybody wants, and I think it’s much more honest. My explanation of the album and the cover is people are always aware of your past. He’s not trying to destroy it, he’s acknowledging it and being subversive with it. It started off quite conventional – a retro image of him, titled – and then we started working on it. I came up with the idea of defacing one of his old album covers because I thought it would be quite a shocking thing to do and also play with this idea of image. And then we started designing and it wasn’t until we got something really, really simple… I remember writing an email saying, “Let’s not design it at all. Let’s just make it a really simple statement”, and then we went for it. It was this idea of subverting his past.

We originally started with ‘Aladdin Sane’ but subverting that didn’t work because it’s subversive in itself already, whereas with ‘Heroes’, there’s a distance in it. So, if you subvert ‘Aladdin Sane’, then you’re adding to it, you’re not destroying it.

The album wasn’t originally called ‘The Next Day’ – I don’t know if I can actually say what it was called originally… But I think because he was looking at all these images it helped develop his thoughts about what it was. I wasn’t even sure of what I was doing. It was quite hard. It was more difficult than ‘Heathen’ and ‘Reality’ to get something which encapsulated the album actually. The important thing was the subversion – the reason I think it’s a different kind of record cover from anything before  is that he’s one of the only  people famous enough who can play with a classic album cover of his own in this way.

I didn’t think it was going to be controversial. As I say, it’s just me and David talking so I didn’t realise. But I think that’s good because I think that people don’t normally discuss albums because the golden age of record sleeve design has gone. There are still good album covers around, but it is that direct thing of a designer working with an artist, which creates a nice energy, but I think you don’t see it very often now.

The design process was all very secretive, as requested, to be safe. And we never used David Bowie’s name or the album name – we had a code word for it: he was just called ‘The Artist and the album was called ‘Table’. I don’t know why. Someone from Sony suggested it and it was that to everyone until two weeks before the release. I don’t know how this album cover fits in with all his others. I think it’s a design of this time, you know? I mean, it’s not ‘Aladdin Sane’, but that’s one of the most significant album covers in the history of music. But for me  you can’t compare them  because this is about this time and who he is now and if this album cover had been done ten or fifteen years ago, people would have misunderstood it even more than they do now.

It’s been suggested that this art looks like a full stop to David’s career, but [producer]Tony Visconti was saying he’s done twenty-nine tracks for this album, so there’ll probably be another album not far behind this. I dont know.  I dont think he knows. He doesn’t owe pop music anything. The next album could be this one defaced again, you don’t know.”

Words by Rob Meyers

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