English art design group Hipgnosis had a significant impact on the world of music from its inception in the late 1960s right up until its disbandment in 1983. Specialising in cover art for the biggest rock acts of the day, their imagery brought to life the works of Pink Floyd, T. Rex, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and even Paul McCartney and Wings.
The group was formed by Cambridge natives Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell in 1968, a duo who were approached by their friends Pink Floyd to design the cover art for their sophomore effort, A Saucerful of Secrets. The success of the album and the brilliant front cover opened the door of opportunity up to the pair by way of EMI, the band’s label. These included work with The Pretty Things, Free and The Gods.
At the time, Thorgerson and Powell were film and art students respectively and used the darkroom at the Royal College of Art to develop their photographs. However, by the time they had graduated, they had earned enough money to fund their own facilities. Thorgerson and Powell built a tiny darkroom in Powell’s bathroom, but by the onset of 1970, they had relocated to a more spacious studio on London’s historic Denmark Street.
The pair would find inspiration for their iconic name by sheer luck. On the door to their apartment, they found the graffiti ‘Hipgnosis’. Being the sardonic duo that they were, Thorgerson recalled that they liked the word for two reasons: the first was its pun on the term “hypnosis”, which evoked all the LSD and karmic sentiment of the era, and the second was for possessing “a nice sense of contradiction, of an impossible co-existence, from Hip = new, cool, and groovy, and Gnostic, relating to ancient learning”.
Between Saucerful of Secrets and their breakthrough in 1973, Hipgnosis would create the artwork for all of Pink Floyd’s subsequent records, including Atom Heart Mother and Meddle, ex-Floyd frontman Syd Barrett’s two albums The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, Rory Gallagher’s eponymous debut, and even T. Rex’s Electric Warrior, to name but a few.
Quickly making a name for themselves as the go-to artists for album covers, their big break would not come until 1973 when they would create two of the most iconic album covers of all time. Thorgerson designed the bold prism of Pink Floyd’s magnum opus The Dark Side of the Moon and Powell created the apocalyptic imagery on Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy.
After the pair of game-changing album covers, the duo became the most in-demand art studio in the world. They would again work with Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Black Sabbath, Yes and The Alan Parsons Project. It wasn’t just music though, the pair also designed the original UK cover for Douglas Adams’ iconic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and even Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron.
The studio expanded in 1974 when Peter Christopherson entered the fold and became a full-time partner. They also hired the likes of Richard Evans, George Hardie and Richard Manning in various capacities. Famously, the studio did not charge set fees; rather, it had a pay what you felt their work “was worth” rule. Understandably, this would backfire on occasion.
Another defining facet of the studio’s work was that it was mainly photography-based, although this wasn’t always the case. They were pioneering in their use of innovative visual techniques and expanded on the concept of packaging and augmenting an artist’s sound, they strived to create dense packaging that matched the artistic themes of the music.
Thorgerson and Powell were the masters at manipulating photos to create a surreal, and often thought-provoking piece of art. Multiple exposures, airbrushing and cut-and-paste techniques were their forte, and they helped to establish a forerunner of what would become ‘photoshopping’ – a huge influence on the creative fields.
An example of the studio pushing forward the boundaries of the album cover came with Led Zeppelin’s final album, 1979’s In Through the Out Door. The inner sleeve was monochrome but turned to colour when wet with water. Although it sounds very rudimentary and almost pointless today, it was this dedication to artistic progression that really marked Hipgnosis out.
Tacitly understanding the relationship between the audio and the visual, without Hipgnosis’ pioneering work, the visual arts and album covers, in general, would look completely different today. They took the baton from The Beatles in terms of pushing the boundaries of album artwork and repackaged it for the modern, consumerist age. Without their efforts, subsequent artists such as Peter Saville and Brian Cannon would not have had the room in which to flourish.
Listen to Storm Thorgerson in discussion below.