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The Collaborative Spirit Behind Brian Eno’s Record Sleeve Designs

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It was Brian Eno who invented the term ‘scenius,’ which counters the myth of the lone genius and credits the collective effort. There might be one name on the front of the record sleeve, though there’s usually a whole cast of important contributors with their names written in tiny lettering somewhere on the inlay sleeve: the scene, as it were. Eno often appears to have a unique perspective on the world we live in, though he’s canny enough to always find other great people to work with in order to bounce around ideas and bring a project with a unifying theme or concept to fruition.   

Nick Robertson has worked with Eno on and off for the last 25 years. Straight out of St. Martin’s School of Art in the mid-’90s, he took the often fruitless step of pitching himself to All Saints Records, and was surprised when the founder Dominic Norman-Taylor called him in and then promptly gave him work. One of the main motivations was the hope of working with Eno — which has subsequently borne plenty of fruit. Robertson has not only assisted him with graphic design and artwork for record sleeves; he’s also been involved in installations and art projects such as 77 Million Paintings

Robertson formed his agency Wordsalad in 1997, which he wanted to be “more nebulous than just a design company,” he says. “I wanted to create a presence which wasn’t as easily identifiable, so it would be more like a tool for exploring my own personal ideas as well as doing commissioned design work.”

With many artists, there are visual motifs that unite their back catalog with their latter work, though you’ll probably be unsurprised to learn that Eno’s classic, post-Roxy Music albums from the 1970s are never knowingly referenced, according to Robertson: each album lives in its own universe. It’s that ‘scenius’ idea which unites the following sleeve designs: two from Robertson and three from the ’70s.

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Brian Eno, FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE, Nick Robertson

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FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE (2022)

Nick Robertson: “The idea came about through two different directions, which were initially unconnected. Brian had worked on a set of lithographs called Helica. These lithographs are black and white and very simple abstract shapes which are almost like shapes emerging into a dark room. They inadvertently combined with a personal project that I was working on which involved me photographing electricity pylons at particular angles so that it abstracts the shape and keeps the angles almost as recognizable structures. 

One of the initial discussions with Brian was about the chaos of all the different ways we communicate… I began to think about a unifying factor within all of this — electricity

“Brian’s lithographs and my explorations of pylons [were] sitting on my desktop at the same time… without necessarily thinking that they’re coming together. But then I took the pylon and put it on top of Brian’s lithograph and just thought that something was really fusing there, taking this rather brutalist manmade structure and imposing it onto this very ethereal atmospheric background. That set up a whole set of experiments combining these two contrasting ideas: something very organic and mysterious, and something very brutal and manmade. 

“When the album came along, one of the initial discussions I had with Brian was about the chaos of all the different ways we communicate at present. And I began to think about a unifying factor within all of this — electricity. Brian also started telling me about the environmental concerns that he wanted to address, and that too seemed appropriate because one of the things I was thinking about when I was producing these images was man’s relationship with nature. We’ve got rolling fields with these pylons dotted through them which I think is a beautiful juxtaposition; they’re absolutely functional and that gives them a certain genuine, unaffected beauty. A very big part of the environmental question is around producing energy with fossil fuels. I wanted to touch on that not necessarily by showing the way that energy is produced, but rather the way it’s distributed.”

Small Craft On A Milk Sea [with Jon Hopkins & Leo Abrahams] (2010)

Robertson: “The artwork was all about recollection. We hired a boat on the Thames, and quite a lot of the photos were done looking out of the back — you see the wake of the boat [the wave a boat generates as it moves through the water] and things regressing into the distance. That seemed to chime in with the idea of tides changing; moments disappearing. 

“The cover is more or less a straight photo. I think I’ve colored it, but there’s very little manipulation. Within all of the artwork, I don’t just stick to photography or drawing or typography, I’m the opposite of a purist. So most of the images mix photography and printmaking — all sorts of different techniques from monoprint to lithography to photographic contact printing. 

Within all of the artwork, I don’t just stick to photography or drawing or typography, I’m the opposite of a purist

“In one of those pictures you can see red vertical lines and a lighthouse; and one of the big things that I was thinking of with this ‘milk sea’ was that the inside of the lighthouse was a safe space, with outside being dangerous and risky. The red lines were photographed inside North Foreland Lighthouse in Broadstairs [a coastal town in South East England]. It’s an old Tudor lighthouse, which you used to be able to get into, but you can’t now. I went up and they’ve got antique lenses which refract the light — they’re about 200 years old, something incredible like that.  

“There’s another shot where there’s the wake of the boat going round, and it’s very purple. It’s a straight shot: there was a really weird environmental condition that day and the atmosphere actually was that color. It was so strange: it only lasted for about two or three minutes, and then everything went dark.”

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Brian Eno, Another Green World (1975), Tom Phillips

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Another Green World (1975)

The cover for Another Green World is not technically graphic design, but rather a painting that Eno took a section from called After Raphael (?). Now the property of the Tate, it was painted in 1973 by Tom Phillips, Eno’s lecturer at Ipswich Art School from 1964. At 11 years Eno’s senior, Phillips could be described as a mentor figure, introducing him, variously, to Nabokov’s Lolita, the writings of Wittgenstein and, perhaps most significantly, Silence by John Cage. 

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After Raphael (?), 1973Tom Phillips

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In an interview with Lucy O’Brien in The Independent in 2011, Eno said of Phillips: “He was very authoritative, whereas a lot of teachers in the ’60s had an ‘anything goes’ attitude. And he had a rigorous approach to being an artist… His coolness was intriguing. Also I think I wanted that kind of rigor. The artists of the past who impressed me were the ones who really focused their work. Mondrian, for example, he was the product of that kind of thinking — making clear decisions about what one wanted to do.”

Phillips gave Eno permission to use the image, though he was apparently flabbergasted when he saw that the picture had been truncated. However, the pair have remained in touch.    

Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974)

The Berlin-born British artist Peter Schmidt was another big influence on Brian Eno. The painter, sculptor, and sound artist had his ear to the ground, and introduced a 20-something Eno to his beloved Velvet Underground back when they were still very much a niche concern. A painting of Schmidt’s adorned the wall at the Grantully Road studio in Maida Vale where Eno set up home in the 1970s; and furthermore, Schmidt’s 1974 hand coloured image series Mother and Daughter, depicting a metamorphosis from his mother Erika to his 12-year-old daughter Valentine, caught Eno’s eye and became the basis for the artwork for Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). Eno had asked Schmidt to make a series of posters for the record. “Using the technique developed in Mother and Daughter of working from a single litho plate and deleting part of the image between each printing, I produced an edition of 1500 posters,” Schmidt said in 1978. 

The German photographer Lorenz Zatecky, who snapped the cover of Here Come The Warm Jets, is credited with shooting a series of head and shoulder shots with a Polaroid camera, though it has also been claimed that the pictures came from a photo booth. Peter Schmidt made the series of posters with some of his students at Watford School of Art in 1974: some were sold through E.G. Records and others were given to friends, while several were immortalized on the record sleeve of Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)

(No Pussyfooting) [Fripp and Eno] (1973)

The fashion photographer and filmmaker Willie Christie has snapped everyone from Cary Grant to Grace Jones, the Rolling Stones to Darcy Bussell, and he clearly looked the part in front of the camera too, being asked to mime with Roxy Music on Top of the Pops one time thanks to the band’s Spinal Tap-like knack for haemorrhaging bass players. Perhaps Christie’s finest and most enduring moment though is the infinity mirror trickery of (No Pussyfooting), Eno’s first album out in the wilderness after the great Roxy Music Bryan/Brian schism of ‘73 — an ambient album no less, with his King Crimson EG labelmate Robert Fripp.

Coming at the beginning of his solo career, the limitless reflections of the adjacent mirrors hint at the explorations to come. Quite possibly inspired by Lucas Samaras’ 1966 installation Room No 2 (better known as Mirrored Room), it’s one of the “greatest record sleeves of all time,” according to writer Paul Gorman. “We hired the mirror from Chelsea Glassware and the zinc ‘floor’ came from a session I’d just done for Over 21 [magazine],” Christie told Gorman on his blog. “I’ve always felt badly for Brian that he didn’t share the credit, since it was his idea and we worked on it together.”