A Grand Design Narrative
Few record labels have fostered such a close relationship between design and music as Manchester’s legendary Factory Records. Formed in 1978 by self-mythologising television presenter Tony Wilson, the label went from cottage industry to major music-industry player in their 14 years of existence. And, along the way, its design aesthetic —from their 'corporate identity' to the largely-present ‘house style’ of albums— reflected industry; drawing from the industrial milieu of Manchester.
Releasing records by Joy Division, New Order, A Certain Ratio, the Durutti Column, and the Happy Mondays, Factory has long been celebrate for its musical output. Matthew Robertson’s art-book anthology Factory Records: The Complete Graphic Album chooses to focus solely on the label’s visual output.
Reproducing every Factory record-cover, poster, promotional material, and even the three architectural spaces the label presided over (infamous nightclub The Haçienda, ‘continental’-styled bar Dry, and the final Factory offices), Robertson’s tome catalogues the work of the various designers Factory had ongoing working relationships with.
Across The Complete Graphic Album’s glossy pages, Peter Saville and Trevor Key’s career-long work with Joy Division and New Order clearly holds the most power: defining the label’s singular ‘look’ whilst never feeling like the product of a house style, seeming at once of-the-era and intensely classical, and capturing the essence of the music in its stride.
Though the cover happily enshrines the color-decoding iconography of New Order’s otherwise-anonymous Power, Corruption & Lies LP (which itself played on the infamous floppy-disc-inspired, titleless cover for Blue Monday, the largest-selling 12” single in history upon its release), other works herein jump out.
Section 25’s Always Now LP was an envelope enshrined with the most brutally-unformatted typography, and Stockholm Monsters’ Fairy Tales used gold-foil lettering and faux-leather stock to mimic old-fashioned book-binding. And then there’s the wickedly-conceptual work for Durutti Column’s debut album The Return of the Durutti Column, which was housed only in a Situationist-inspired sandpaper sleeve designed to harm any records it was stocked alongside.
Its Place Upon the Coffee-Table
As a collection, the Factory catalogue certainly isn’t perfect. Design group 8vo’s then-cutting-edge, dawn-of-desktop-publishing typographic work for the Durutti Column in the late-’80s and early-’90s, for example, may be best left uncelebrated. In wanton embrace of technological possibilities, the designers authored images that, now, seem naught but howlingly overwrought.
But Robertson’s sparely-essayed tome doesn’t dare suggest that every sleeve is meaningful. Its central conceit is simple and forceful: that, by forging such close links between the audio and visual representations of music, Factory wilfully pressed design culture —and thereby intellectual relationships to visual art— upon the music-listening masses.