Throughout the better part of four decades, there was no album art designer more iconic, more iconoclastic, and more enduring than Storm Thorgerson. With a unique style that emphasized sharpness and clarity in otherwise surreal images, Thorgerson was one of the most in-demand album cover designers from the late 1960s all the way to the mid-2000s.
In 1968, Thorgerson formed the art collective Hipgnosis with graphic designer Aubrey Powell. Their styles were in stark contrast: Powell was highly trained and meticulous, while Thorgerson had little formal training and was more focused on ideas than execution. Together, the pair would design some of the famous pieces of art ever associated with music.
The work of Thorgerson, and of Hipgnosis as a whole, will forever be associated with their number one client, Pink Floyd. Having grown up as a close friend of Syd Barrett, Roger Waters, and David Gilmour, Thorgerson got his start in the art world thanks to his friendship with the band. Pink Floyd insisted that EMI let them hire their own outside art company to design their covers, and from that point on, nearly every single Pink Floyd album would feature a design by Thorgerson.
Thorgerson garnered a number of strong associations outside of the Floyd over his illustrious career. He was the go-to designer for 10cc, The Alan Parson’s Project, Bad Company, Biffy Clyro, UFO and Wishbone Ash over the years. His one-offs were fascinating as well, often creating large-scale works by building massive structures and photographing them. This was how Audioslave’s self-titled album and Anthrax’s Stomp 442 were created, and grand scale became a Thorgerson signature.
In order to get the full scope of Thorgerson’s work, we’ve limited each band or musician to one pick. That means some of his most iconic designs with Pink Floyd, including Wish You Were Here and Animals, have been omitted. Thorgerson will always be most associated with Pink Floyd, but his scope extended well beyond his most well-known collaborators.
T. Rex – Electric Warrior (1971)
Thorgerson was still dedicated to his work with Pink Floyd when he and Hipgnosis began to expand beyond their friendly confines. Having greatly expanded their number of yearly works by 1970, the collective created their first masterpiece in 1971 thanks to a commission from glam rockers T. Rex.
Featuring Marc Bolan, guitar in hand, stood in front of his amplifiers in a pure rock star pose, Thorgerson cranked up the contrast until Bolan was a silhouette with an other-worldly glow around him. The image was striking and immediate, far from the group’s more esoteric work with Pink Floyd. Electric Warrior screamed rock and roll, and now it had a cover that did as well.
Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
The single most iconic cover that Storm Thorgerson ever designed, the art for Dark Side of the Moon came from a simple request from Rick Wright, who wanted something “simple and bold”. Although they were undeniably striking, the previous Floyd album covers had been relatively haphazard. The group wanted something clean and immediately identifiable.
And so the prism design was born. Thorgerson took inspiration form the band’s light show, from Wright’s instructions, and from the themes of the record. The result became inextricable from the music – a change from monochrome to full colour. The illuminating work would be Thorgerson’s calling card for the rest of his life, even as he constructed more elaborate and fantastical images to come.
Roy Harper – Lifemask (1973)
Roy Harper was laid up in hospital during 1973 and was dealing with illness so severe that his mind turned towards the possibility of death. Out of this period came Lifemask, a haunting folk album that ended with Harper staking out his own last will and testament in the record’s 23-minute closing song.
Thorgerson agreed to cast a death mask for Harper and included it on the album’s cover, but he had an ingenious idea: make the album open from the centre instead of from the side, revealing a picture of Harper while he was still very much alive. The atypical design was the creativity that Thorgerson became known and valued for.
Wings – Band on the Run (1973)
1973 was a good year for Thorgerson: three of his most iconic works of art were featured on albums, plus additional works from the likes of Electric Light Orchestra and Humble Pie. Thorgerson was even slated to create the cover for Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, but when his design offended Jimmy Page thanks to a visual pun that the guitarist implied as Thorgerson saying Zeppelin were making “a racket”, Thorgerson’s Hipgnosis co-founder Aubrey Powell got the job instead.
His final iconic cover of 1973 was for Paul McCartney’s band Wings and their new album Band on the Run. The group had recently been reduced to just the McCartneys and Denny Laine, so a cast of additional public figures were assembled to represent the band escaping from prison, including Christopher Lee and James Coburn. Although the cover was photographed by Clive Arrowsmith, Thorgerson’s fingerprints are all over the design.
Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)
Thorgerson proved to be adept at translating highfalutin concepts into immediately recognisable iconography. His greatest challenge was possibly Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, a lengthy tale conceived by Peter Gabriel that was nearly impossible to visualise and fully explain in a straightforward manner.
Thorgerson was undeterred, opting to depict three different scenes featuring the album’s main character, Rael. The first two visuals depict him during the songs ‘In the Rapids’ and ‘Riding the Scree’, while the third has Rael escape from the picture and look on at the first two scenes. Gabriel was enthralled enough with the results that he would later employ Thorgerson for the covers of his first three solo albums.
XTC – Go 2 (1978)
Although he became known for stark, eye-catching imagery and photography, those weren’t the only styles that Thorgerson explored in his career as an album art maker. Illustrations, collages, and even parody photographs were part of his palate, and when Thorgerson was approached by XTC with an eye at kicking back against traditional cover art, the result was the cover for Go 2.
A long single-paragraph essay decrying the traditional use of album covers to convince buyers to pay more money to record labels, the cover of Go 2 is, perhaps somewhat ironically, quite striking in its own right. Reading the entire thing might be a slog, but it’s immediately different from all other covers that would appear in a record shop, which was ultimately what Thorgerson was best at.
Led Zeppelin – In Through the Out Door (1979)
Thorgerson finally got his chance at redemption with Led Zeppelin after botching the initial job for Houses of the Holy. This time, Thorgerson made no statement on the band’s music and instead went with high concept: a scene in a bar where a man burns a letter. That on its own would have been interesting, but Thorgerson brought in a number of additional gimmicks to elevate the art.
First was that Thorgerson recreated the scene and shot it six different times, with each cover being from the perspective of someone else in the bar. Thorgerson then designed a brown paperback exterior so that record buyers wouldn’t know which cover they were getting. Finally, if water was poured on the black and white photo, it would suddenly appear in colour. For his grand concept, Thorgerson was awarded a Grammy for Best Album Package.
Peter Gabriel – Peter Gabriel III [Melt] (1980)
When it came to record sleeves that were outside the normal convention, Peter Gabriel went farther than most on his first four solo albums. All four would be devoid of titles, instead simply containing the singer’s name. The distinctions between them would come thanks to Thorgerson’s artwork, which would retroactively contribute to their unofficial names.
The designs for Peter Gabriel and Peter Gabriel II, featuring Gabriel in the windscreen of a car and Gabriel scratching the cover photo in real-time, were innovative, but the cover for Peter Gabriel III, with half of Gabriel’s face melting off, was the best of the bunch. By manipulating a standard photo as it was developing, Thorgerson and Gabriel explored new dimensions of album art.
Ween – The Mollusk (1997)
Thorgerson was already a legend in the music world by the late ’90s. His work output had progressively slowed, but he never left the medium. When he was approached by experimental rock duo Ween to create an image to fit their new nautical concept album, The Mollusk, Thorgerson put together a new creature made of a combination of different undersea dwellers.
Thorgerson listened to the album for inspiration and was immediately taken by the mix of sea chanties, old-timey barrelhouse sing-alongs, and scuzzy alternative rock. Thorgerson was so taken by the album that he created additional promotional materials at no additional charge, and continued to talk fondly of the album towards the end of his career.
The Mars Volta – De-Loused in the Crematorium (2003)
By 2003, increasing health problems, including a debilitating stroke, greatly reduced Thorgerson’s ability to work. For one of his last great works, the artist was approached by prog-rock provocateurs The Mars Volta, who asked Thorgerson to produce an image that could possibly encapsulate their sprawling new LP De-Loused in the Crematorium.
How do you possibly bring to life an album about a man who enters a coma after overdosing on morphine and rat poison? By creating an unsettlingly gold-illuminated head spewing light from an open mouth. Like all of Thorgerson’s best work, the image is strange and enthralling in equal measure, with a willingness to indulge in the stranger aspects of life and death.