Storm Thorgerson creates the kind of surreal images you feel as much as you see, images which reveal themselves over time and can be simultaneously understood and misunderstood, crystal clear yet somehow utterly confusing. He is best known for his Pink Floyd album covers. There appears to be an eternal sense of mystery to his work, which - aside from its sheer aesthetic beauty - is what makes Thorgerson’s art so ineffably memorable and hypnotic.
He was born in Potters Bar, Middlesex. He went to school at Summerhill Free School and then Brunswick Primary, Cambridge, followed by secondary education at local grammar Cambridge High School for Boys. While in Cambridge, he became friends with Syd Barrett, David Gilmour and Roger Waters. Thorgerson earned a BA Honors in English and Philosophy from Leicester University (1963 - 1966) and finally an MA in film and TV from the Royal College of Art, London (1966 - 1969).
In 1968, Thorgerson and Aubrey "Po" Powell formed Hipgnosis (pronounced like hypnosis), a graphic design studio specializing in creative photography. This creative company predominately worked within the music business designing the album covers for rock 'n' roll bands such as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Black Sabbath, 10cc, Paul McCartney, and Peter Gabriel amongst many others.
Hipgnosis primarily consisted of Storm Thorgerson, Aubrey Powell and later on, Peter Christopherson. In 1968, Thorgerson and Powell were asked to design an album cover for Pink Floyd’s second album called A Saucerful Of Secrets. They completed that project and soon commissioned additional work from EMI, which included photos and album covers for Free, Toe Fat and the Gods.
Being art and film students, the pair was able to utilize the darkroom at the Royal College of Art, but after they graduated, they had to set up their own facilities and in early 1970 they rented a space and built their famous studio.
Their unique company name came from graffiti found on the door to their apartment. They liked the word because it sounded like hypnosis and they combined two somewhat contradictory terms, “hip” for new and cool and “gnosis,” which related to ancient learning.
Hipgnosis' novel approach to album design was strongly photography-oriented, and they pioneered the use of many innovative visual and packaging techniques. In particular, Thorgerson & Powell's surreal, elaborately manipulated photos that utilized innovative darkroom tricks, multiple exposures, airbrush retouching, and mechanical cut-and-paste techniques were a film-based forerunner of what would, much later, be called photoshopping.
“We were self-taught,” writes Powell in the book, For The Love Of Vinyl. “What we did was come up with ideas based on the music. The design ideas were poorly sketched in the early days and required a lot of accompanying blag to be understood. Our usual strategy was to talk the job through with each other and then use photography as a means to express it.”
Hipgnosis breakthrough came in 1973 when they were hired to do the cover for another Pink Floyd album, Dark Side Of The Moon, which is one of the most recognized album covers in the world. After the success with the Floyd cover, they were in high demand and soon took on jobs for Led Zeppelin, Genesis, UFO, Black Sabbath, Peter Gabriel and The Alan Parsons Project, to name a few.
Peter Christopherson joined the company in 1974 as an assistant and later on he became a full partner. The firm employed many talented assistants, of particular note were freelance artists George Hardie, Colin Elgie, Richard Manning and Richard Evans.
Another interesting side note is that the company did not have a set fee for designing a particular album cover, instead they asked the musicians to “pay what they thought it was worth,” a policy that would occasionally backfire according to Thorgerson.John Mackie's interview with album designer Storm Thorgerson, Sept. 5, 2007 at the Oh My Godard Gallery in Vancouver:
Sun: Is Storm Thorgerson an Icelandic name?
Thorgerson: No. What do you mean, is it a nickname? I'm being insulted already. No, it's Norwegian.
Sun: It's a great name, but how did you wind up in England?
Thorgerson: The family is English. My mother had daughters' names, but not a son, so she asked my father [to name him]. [The surname is] his father's name, my grandfather, who is Norwegian. I'm named after my uncle, my great uncle.
Sun: How did you get into graphic design? Were you one of those Pink Floyd Cambridge guys?
Thorgerson: Yeah, I'm one of the Cambridge guys. Pink Floyd are from Cambridge, and I knew them at school. They asked another mutual friend to do the cover of their second album. He declined.
Sun: Who was that?
Thorgerson: He was a painter called David Henderson. He declined and said he didn't want to do it. I was eavesdropping at the door, so I said 'Okay, I'll do that.'
Sun: That was Saucerful of Secrets?
Thorgerson: Yeah. 1968.
Sun: Were you in graphic school at the time, or art school?
Thorgerson: Actually I was at art school, doing film and television. I had delusions of grandeur that I would be a film-maker. And I wasn't, and I'm not. Well I am, a bit. I didn't know anything about graphic design or about photography, and learnt quickly.
Sun: What were you trying to with the Saucerful of Secrets cover, which is very much...
Thorgerson: Of the period. I think that I was trying to represent the things that interested the band, in a format that interested them. It's what is called a 'vignetted collage.' It's not a hard-edged collage, the boundary is not very clear, it's soft. The loosening of boundaries is a very common occurrence in the '60s, although you would be too young to know that. The ingesting of certain substances which of course were totally illegal and not to be talked about tend to loosen the boundaries, both metaphorically and physically. So I thought we were trying to represent that in an attractive fashion, with ingredients that reflected the band's interests.
Sun: When you say you were a friend of the band, were you a friend of Syd Barrett's ...
Thorgerson: Yep. A friend of Syd's, a friend of David [Gilmour], a friend of Roger [Waters]. Syd and I and Roger were at the local grammar school in Cambridge. But we knew each other anyway. Syd was part of our gang. Like any gang in a small town, you run around together, and he was a friend.
Sun: After you did the Pink Floyd album cover, did you become a full-time graphic designer? Is that when you formed Hipgnosis?
Thorgerson: It was, yeah. We needed some umbrella to work under, because suddenly we were going to have to do invoices and charge money. The other people wanted us to do proper business, but we had no idea how to do that. We still don't.
Sun: How much did you get paid for your first Pink Floyd cover?
Thorgerson: We got paid, yeah. I can't remember how much. Probably not a lot.
Sun: Did you wind up doing a bunch of psychedelic posters?
Thorgerson: No. We tended to do album covers. After we had done a couple, we did a couple more and the record company said do a couple more and management said do a couple more. Then we did another Pink Floyd cover, Atom Heart Mother. No, sorry, Ummagumma. And Ummagumma worked very well. Obviously if it works well you tend to keep the relationship going, because it works. This would be true of music and covers, it would be true of everything. If the relationship functions, you might as well keep it. It's a bit like a marriage. If the marriage works, in business as in the rest of life, you tend to maintain it. So in fact we've maintained it now for 40 years.
Sun: And with others as well.
Thorgerson: Yes, not only with Pink Floyd, a few others.
Sun: Let's talk about some of your big designs. Dark Side of the Moon, what inspired that design?
Thorgerson: I think their lighting show, really. Here's a new rendition of it [in the Vancouver show], this is a new example. This is for the SA CD in 2003. I made that out of stained glass. So there's like a stained glass window in a church, it's very lovely actually, very nice. The original was designed to reflect or refer to their light show that they did in concerts. And also to the keyboard player, who said he wanted something graphic. 'A cool graphic,' he said, 'not one of your pictures, Storm.' I said 'What do you mean, not one of my pictures?' I nearly cried in my cups, as it were. So we did the prism and it seemed to work, as far as we know.
Sun: When you do something like that, which is in every house...
Thorgerson: Well, not in every house, John. In quite a few, yes.
Sun: Do you get paid a flat rate, or do you get a royalty on every...
Thorgerson: You can answer that question yourself. If I had a royalty, would I be talking to you today?
Sun: Well, I've talked to Dave Gilmour. He talks, he does interviews and he gets royalties.
Thorgerson: He gets royalties. Did he talk to you? Have you?
Sun: Oh yeah. Nice guy.
Thorgerson: Nice guy? Yeah. Great guitarist, more to the point. In fact, is he the world's best guitarist, rock and roll guitarist now, do you think?
Sun: I actually prefer Tim Renwick [another Cambridge guy who has played with Pink Floyd live].
Thorgerson: Prefer Tim? For God's sake, don't tell anybody.
Sun: I told Dave Gilmour that, actually. He laughed.
Thorgerson: I'm going to get tired, I'd better sit down.
Sun: What did you do to your leg?
Thorgerson: It was a stroke.
Sun: How long ago?
Thorgerson: Four years.
Sun: But you've more or less full recovered mentally...
Thorgerson: Mentally recovered, but not physically. I'm sure the leg and the arm will always be a bit impaired. It sucks, it's a pain in the butt. But we don't talk about it. What is there to say? It's really boring.
Sun: How old are you now, 63?
Thorgerson: Sixty-three, yeah.
Sun: Your album cover designs mix and match a lot of stuff. Houses of the Holy, what inspired that one?
Thorgerson: Well the music, it's always the music, really. Or if I know the band, it'll be my knowledge of them. Obviously if I get to work with them a few times ... David Gilmour is somebody I know. When you get to know a band...we've just been working with a great band called Biffy Clyro, they may not be out here, a Scottish band. I get to know them in the course of working [with them]. So it's always the music, but it's informed by knowledge of the band. A knowledge that includes their attitudes towards other things, not just music. That knowledge of the band, and talking to them and asking questions, often about the songs, informs the image that is derived from the music, primarily. Most of the time what I do is listen to the music again and again and again until I'm sick of it and it's deep inside me.
Sun: And that particular Led Zeppelin cover...
Thorgerson: Came partially from the music, partially from knowing Led Zeppelin. I think it came from wanting it to be something grand, something large, something slightly futuristic. Spiritual. The literal idea came actually in part from a book that I had read by Arthur C. Clarke called Childhood's End. But every artist has cultural influences, you know, including their upbringing, the media or films or books they've seen, the art they've seen, etc., etc. All these things get kind of put together against the music.
Sun: Were you doing paintings or photography in between album cover jobs, or were you just a full time album cover designer all these years?
Thorgerson: Mostly I've been full time. Luckily I got work after other work. But not always, there was a big gap in the late 80s. I tried at one point to direct documentaries, but found it not entirely to my liking, or me to it. It to me, me to it. So I returned to music. I think that's because it's what I enjoy the most. Also I'm better at it. Also, I've always been given quite a lot of license to interpret what I thought was most suitable. And that's quite good. People pay me for my dreams. So I'm lucky, aren't I, really?
Sun: Have you ever had anything rejected? Have your dreams turned into a nightmare?
Thorgerson: Oh God yes.
Sun: What was a good example?
Thorgerson: Nickelback are a good example.
Sun: You did a Nickelback cover?
Thorgerson: No we didn't, because they turned us down.
Thorgerson: I'm not very pleased about it.
Sun: They're from here, actually.
Thorgerson: I know they are. I said this on radio this morning, I'm hoping I bump into them so I can give them a piece of my mind.
Sun: Did you get paid?
Thorgerson: Yeah, we got paid for submitting a rough, as it's called. It wasn't that. It was that I felt they didn't give us enough information. Maybe they weren't interested, maybe it was the record company's idea rather than theirs. We also got turned down the year before last by the Red Hot Chili Peppers that was upsetting. It was upsetting mostly because what they do instead is often not so good. If it was good, maybe you'd bite your lip and say 'Well that's the way it goes.' But Red Hot Chili Peppers in particular did a really dull cover. Stadium Arcadium is really dull. In fact Nickelback's is pretty dull, it's a car on a road. Cars have been used quite a lot, wouldn't you say? They're like girls. What are you going to put on a cover? A girl. A car. Oh, really.
Sun: Do you feel constrained by the CD format, compared to record covers, which were much bigger?
Thorgerson: Not particularly.
Sun: No? That's surprising.
Thorgerson: Well, I design for the music, which is bigger. So I always design big anyway. I know it's going to appear as a poster or a billboard or an ad, so the CD is not...you have to remember, a cover is like a flag. It's the front-runner, it's the advance warning. So it doesn't necessarily only appear in one place. Anyway, in the last six years I've discovered the art of making fine art prints from the original artworks. To me they work really well, and they're much bigger and much nicer. And that's what allows us to do an exhibition.
Sun: This is what you brought here?
Thorgerson: This is what I brought here. They're fine art prints made from the original artworks. You cannot get any better quality, and they're limited, there may only be a 100 or 50 or whatever it is. That's all, and after that there are no more. These are for sale, so if somebody buys one, they not only have a nice picture, and a memory of the cover, they also have an item which in effect is rare. Most of the time covers are mass produced, so the fine art prints are nice, because there's only a few of them.
Sun: Where have you been with this, all over North America, Europe?
Thorgerson: Yep. San Francisco, L.A., Chicago. Also Mexico City, Tokyo, London of course. Amsterdam, Milan.
Sun: Are you surprised, or pleased, that stuff you did 40 years ago is probably just as popular now as it was then?
Thorgerson: It's great. I don't think you can be a designer, or even a painter, without liking something about it. In my case, I certainly like doing them, and I certainly like being appreciated. I don't do them for me only, they're mostly for other people. They're for the fans. I don't meet the fans very often, but usually they're very nice to me. They're very nice to me at exhibitions, particularly. They come in and say hello and ask me to sign some of their old covers or whatever. They're always very friendly, so it's very nice. I'm hoping that mostly they like them. That's what I'm trying to do, do a picture, a design, an image, that somehow speaks about the music.
Sun: The Pink Floyd Animals [print], that seems to be a direct cover image as opposed to the Dark Side of the Moon print, which is a new version.
Thorgerson: They're different. Most of the stuff I do is like a performance of sorts. This wouldn't be true of the first Dark Side, but it is certainly true of Houses of the Holy, because these people were climbing the rocks for real. And in Animals, which is a picture of a power station with a [flying] pig, it was done for real. It's like a stunt, or a performance, a show, which is put on for the benefit of the camera, so that everybody can see it. Many of the things we do are in remote places, so you can't get an audience for that. So we take a photo of it so that you and others can see it. You still have to think of it, you still have to art direct it and produce it, but it's not quite the same as straight graphic design, which is what Dark Side was. I do all sorts of stuff. I do photographs, I do stunts with people, with objects, with props. I do events that last one second, I do statues that could last for year. I do whatever seems right for the music, really. I think of it and then wonder how I'm going to do it for real.
Sun: Did you ever do any lighting or stage design for the Floyd, or just graphic design?
Thorgerson: [Shakes his head]. And some films. Which are also in the show.
Sun: So what is the favorite one that you did? Sorry, you've probably been asked that a thousand times.
Thorgerson: The one I'm doing. We just finished working for this Scottish band Biffy Clayro, which is fine, it worked very well. We've been preparing our books, there are two new books out very shortly, and doing these exhibitions. The next design piece...I'm not sure. We've done a couple of calendars. We do books, calendars, album covers. Got to do a poster when I get back, and 22 T-shirts.
Sun: You still live in London?
Sun: Let's talk about some other album covers. You did a bunch of 10cc covers.
Thorgerson: We're going back in time, John. You're giving away your age here.
Sun: One of my favorite bands.
Thorgerson: Favorite band of mine, too. I'm just about to work for them again.
Sun: 10cc are getting back together?
Thorgerson: Not exactly. The bass player Graham [Gouldman] is keen to continue the band, even if the others aren't. I think he's going to re-use the name. He's just done a concert, and I think I'm going to work for him. 10cc are a nice band, I agree. Fun to work with.
Sun: Deceptive Bends is the one with the diver that must have been fun to do.
Thorgerson: Yes, that was what we call a pastiche shot. It was supposed to be a bit like an old film poster. A bit. A diver who's got deceptive bends thinks he's a hero and he's saving a lady from some horrible fate. It's like the Monster from the Black Lagoon. I used to draw these drawings of strange aquatic men in divers suits saving girls from some horrible octopus in a dark black lagoon. So it was a bit like that.
Sun: AC/DC, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.
Thorgerson: Why would you remember that?
Sun: Actually I didn't. I was kind of surprised when I was looking at your c.v. online and found it.
Thorgerson: I have done quite a lot, John. I've forgotten about them too.
Sun: How many have you done?
Thorgerson: I don't know, about a thousand.
Sun: That was quite witty, that AC/DC album cover.
Thorgerson: I'm not averse to a bit of humor, John. If we can get away with it.
Sun: What bands have you worked with lately?
Thorgerson: I've been working for Audioslave, for Muse, for a band called the Mars Volta.
Sun: And you did Mr. Love Pants for Ian Dury. That is a hilarious album cover.
Thorgerson: I think it will be one of the prints on show here. You can buy it, John.
Sun: So you and Ian Dury were friends? The late, great Ian Dury?
Thorgerson: The late, great Ian Dury. He was great fun to be with. I imagine being married to him must have been hell, but maybe not. He was always a great raconteur and story-teller, and he put up with his infirmities with great...when I saw him, he always moved uncomfortably, because he had polio and had been disabled for a long time. He was great. He did do one of the great singles of all time, of course. That alone would be credit enough. Anyway he asked me to design [an album], and it was actually called something else. I think it was called Different Strokes, which is an old English expression, different strokes for different folks. And he didn't like our designs, I don't think. He didn't say that, he said 'I've changed the title.' I thought 'Oh s---, what do you mean, you've changed the title? You can change the title now.' I didn't say that to him, I said it under my breath. And he said 'Do you like it?' I thought 'No I don't like it, I just drew 10 bloody designs to the other title. How can I like it?' But actually I smiled grimly and said 'Oh it's great.' It was a better title. And I went down the steps of his house, and [he snaps his finger] I saw [the album cover] immediately in my mind. And he loved it.
Sun: Is it a bull mastiff?
Thorgerson: It's a boxer, and so he's wearing boxer shorts. And the shorts have triangles on it, as in Bermuda, where you wear shorts on the beach. As in Bermuda shorts. And all these kinds of connections made him laugh. But it turned out to be a really difficult job to get a photograph of the dog. We had to do it seven times to get the dog to look sufficiently lascivious, which would be like Ian Dury. Sufficiently leery, is a better word. And the dog looks great. The dog has got this grin on him, you know, a bit dirty. Ian thought it was a real hoot. I hope he chuckled to his grave.
Sun: There's a Peter Gabriel album cover you did, the one that I think was just called Peter Gabriel...
Thorgerson: Yes, he was clever with his titles. The record company were furious. They kept saying 'Can you put your name on the front?' And he kept saying 'No.' He didn't even want his name on the front. Well...when Pink Floyd did Atom Heart Mother, which is a cow, there's no name on it. Nothing. The record company went berserk, absolutely berserk, with me. As if I were responsible. I mean I was in favor of it, I thought it was better not to have any name, it makes it more mysterious. And Pete Gabriel also wanted not to put any name on. So then he put the plainest name in he could, Peter Gabriel I. Peter Gabriel II. Great.
Sun: That was just a photo of him in a car...
Thorgerson: No, excuse me John. Maybe you are like the English Sun. This print which is here as well, looks great. It's not just a photo of him in a car, although he is in a car. But it's not just a photo. Well, to me it's not. Maybe to you it is. To me the car has been dotted with rain drops, and it's about the rain drops. This felt special to me. I agree, it's a simple thing. Some things are very complicated. Pink Floyd's Momentary Lapse of Reason is really complicated, 700 beds on a beach. That was a real nightmare to do.
Sun: You actually put 700 beds on a beach?
Thorgerson: Yeah. And they're Victorian, they're made of wrought iron and f-----g heavy.
Sun: Where did you get 700 Victorian beds?
Thorgerson: I don't know. I hired somebody to find them [chuckles]. So when we did Pete Gabriel, it's the other end, if you like, on the scale of complexity and difficulty. But to me it doesn't make any difference, it's still as much a design, contrived if you like, artful. Still trying to say and be something. It was trying to say something about Pete Gabriel. And I think he always liked it. He's been very friendly. Although I did three covers with him and he said that was enough. 'Nothing personal,' he said.
Sun: Is there anybody you want to do an album cover for?
Thorgerson: Oh yeah. Bob Dylan. I nearly worked with Bob Dylan recently, but it fell through. Not because of him, I think the manager was a bit conservative. We are a bit left field.
Sun: I've always wondered why Hipgnosis was spelled Hipgnosis [and is pronounced hypnosis].
Thorgerson: Now you're going to be educated. It was actually scrolled on our door by some passing narcotic person in the middle of the night. It was scratched on the door of our apartment, and it appealed to us. It's a nice word, but it was spelled on the door like that. So it was a mixture of 'hip,' which is new, and 'Gnostic,' as is old. So it was old and new, a nice mixture, whilst being hypnotic, and therefore inducing trances. It felt like a really good name. In fact, I think it was a good name. I don't use it anymore, but I'm not unhappy with it.