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An exclusive interview with Jonathan Barnbrook

September 30th, 2018 | by Matteo Tonolli
An exclusive interview with Jonathan Barnbrook
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Interview conceived and conducted by Matteo Tonolli for David Bowie News.

Jonathan Barnbrook portrayed in Berlin by © Marc Eckardt (2010)

Jonathan Barnbrook portrayed in Berlin by © Marc Eckardt (2010)

 

Jonathan Barnbrook is undoubtedly one of the most talented and well-known graphic designers in the world. From his London studio, founded in 1990, he works across a very wide range of disciplines including print, art, industrial and typeface design, motion graphics and much more. As well as that, he is also involved in a number of political and social causes.

     He not only collaborated with David Bowie, designing the artwork for his latest albums, but also, by increasingly improving and incorporating his own artistic ideas into the music of the alien god of rock, finally reached a sublime synthesis of conceptual art and music manifesto with Blackstar. Barnbrook managed to amplifiy and enhance Bowie’s melodies and lyrics by adding his visual touch to a considerable number of music artefacts, from vinyls to CDs, singles, anthologies and so on. Additionally, he completely redesigned Bowies official site Bowienet and was strictly involved in both the creation and development of the exhibition David Bowie Is, as well as in the realization of the catalogue for it.

    In this interview, Barnbrook talks about his art, his job, his new musical project but above all generously shares his memories about a certain someone who, rather than a client, was an incredible collaborator and possibly a friend.

 

Mr. Barnbrook, you met David Bowie through your collaboration with artist Damien Hirst. I know that later on David came to your studio to get some ideas about his wife’s book I Am Iman. What was it like to meet him and to have a great artist like him around?

Like everyone who met him for the first time (and also plenty of times after that), I was terrified of course. I had been a big fan of Bowie, so it was a really big deal to me. I have to say though that when we met he was funny, humble and instantly put me at my ease. He was so unlike a big star. I remember him sitting there, chatting away and smiling. This doesnt mean he didnt have a great presence: he managed to be friendly, but he really wanted the best from you if you worked together. Iman was witty and very intelligent. I also remember seeing how much they were in love – they genuinely had this wonderful energy between them.

What were, aesthetically and artistically, your points of contact?

Well, it may sound a bit silly to start from this but… we both shared the same British sense of humour – very self-deprecating, satirical. Once we got to the point where we could make jokes about each other (yes, I even made fun of David Bowie), then we realised we understood each other.

      Artistically, the similarities were that we both work in popular‘ areas of the creative world but bringing in some rather unusual influences or the avant-garde. Design is seen as a very commercial area but I have always felt that it was important to know what was going on for example in painting and philosophy to generate original ideas.

    When David and I worked on an album, the influences would be far-ranging. There was definitely a complete lack of snobbishness in the way he viewed his influences. He was as interested in comic art as he was in renaissance painting, so we slipped between these kinds of subjects easily. My explanations for the influences on the designs were always quite long, and uhm somewhat pretentious – but he would always understand immediately the references I was making.

I AM IMAN is a book published by Booth-Clibborn Editions in 2001, with fantastic typography, gatefolds, diecuts, interactive elelments and frames commisioned and realized by Jonathan Barnbrook. It contains an introduction by David Bowie and photographs by Anna Leibowitz, Ellen Von Unwerth, Sante D'Orazio and Michel Comte among the others.

I Am Iman is a book published by Booth-Clibborn Editions in 2001, with fantastic typography, gatefolds, diecuts, interactive elements and frames commisioned and realized by Jonathan Barnbrook. It contains an introduction by David Bowie and photographs by Anna Leibowitz, Ellen Von Unwerth, Sante D’Orazio and Michel Comte among the others.

 

I own the book I Am Iman, designed by your studio, and I consider it very good. The first pages are so unconventionalAnd it is great throughout, with interesting contributions, beautiful photos and wonderful graphics… though I have to admit that a different font from one chapter to another confuses me a little. What were David and Iman looking for exactly, and how did you feel about the final result?

I think it is an unusual book. If you think about most books about people who have become models, they are completely devoid of meaning – a way of showing nice photos. Iman was very aware of this, very concerned to talk about the wider issues such as being a black model and what that means in America. She was also very concerned to make the book fun and understandable to everyone.

           As for the design, if I re-did it today I would make it a lot simpler – but it was designed in the spirit of the age, which is important. I think it stands out as a brave book in an area of pretty boring books. It absolutely has Imans personality on it. In the process of working on it, we would have honest discussions about the text and the images and both of us would adjust accordingly.

An excerpt from I Am Iman

 

Shortly afterwards, you started collaborating officially with David. You said that it had been your ambition as you were a fan of his music. From a music point of view, which is your favourite Bowie, before and after 2001?

I was first attracted to Bowies music was when I was 14. The first albums I was aware of were Low and Heroes. A guy at school who was obsessed with Bowie insisted that I should listen to them and when I did it was so unlike most of the music my parents listened to, or I saw on TV – his music created complex emotions inside me. They definitely werent American but from somewhere I could identify with much more. A place which had depth, a place I felt I could live in. It was a starting point for many things: the discovery of Kraftwerk; a desire for modern European history; a deep interest in Electronic music and Central / East European culture & politics. As for the later period, of course Blackstar is my favourite. I was sitting next to David when I first heard the album, and I was so happy when he played it. It felt like something very new, and honest music for this very dark time.

Barnbrook has been a constant collaborator through Bowie's latest career, designing the graphics and the packaging for his last four albums: <em>Heathen</em>, <em>Reality</em>, <em>The Next Day</em>, <em>Blackstar</em>, and one of David's most recent collection:<em> Nothing has Changed</em>. Barnbrook also completely re-designed the official website BowieNet

Barnbrook has been a constant collaborator through Bowie’s latest career, designing the graphics and the packaging for his last four albums: Heathen, Reality, The Next Day, Blackstar, and one of David’s most recent collection: Nothing has Changed. Barnbrook also completely re-designed the official website BowieNet

 

What was the ‘modus operandi’ in your mutual collaboration? Was it different from album to album or quite the same?

As the collaboration progressed David trusted me more and more, which I was always grateful for. Generally, most of the work was done through email or Skype. It may not be very well known but David was an extremely well organised – I think it was to do with wanting to be there for his daughter – so his messages would always be written at ridiculously early times in the morning and he was always clear and concise in what he thought, which is a great help. I can’t fault his way of working with me – he was always respectful and encouraging, while guiding you to a solution he thought would work. Having worked with many different people, famous and not famous, in the 30 years of my career in design this is a rare skill, which very few people possess. It is clear that he didn’t do that just with me but with all of the musicians and other collaborators he worked with.

The booklet for Heathen (2002)

 

I really love your work on his albums in the noughties. My favourite, visually and packaging-wise, is probably Heathen: its classicity, Klinko and Indrani’s wonderful photos and that strange aura that pervades everything. Was it your idea or David’s to desecrate religious images?

Thank you MatteoHeathen was of course the first one I did, and I was brought into the project quite late. I remember chatting to David on the phone the day before the shoot, which was pretty much when he told me that he wanted me to do it, and then him saying: We have the photo shoot tomorrow so if you have any ideas that you want us to include, let me know. I kind of went into a cold sweat and mumbled something about emailing him. Then when I did, I just asked him to come up with something and I would create a design with it. So it wasnt that planned, but then sometimes a creative process can work well that way. So the idea of desecrating the images (not specifically religious) was from me, but prompted by the objects they had photographed. It was directly based on a project I had done when I was at college, which was about the beauty of destroyed paintings.

For Reality there was a collaboration with Rex Ray. Were you directly in touch with each other or not? In an interview before he passed away Ray stated that he was pretty satisfied with the cover, but that many fans didn’t like it very much. Whats your opinion? And what was your approach to the packaging?

I was in touch with Rex and I found him an absolutely lovely person to work with. I know a lot of fans don’t like that cover and honestly I have my doubts about it too, mainly because I felt like I didn’t go deep enough into understanding the music to create something original for it. I look back and wish I could have done a better overall design for it. There could have been more ideas in there and it could have aesthetically been more tuned to what was right for David. I think improving as a creative person means that sometimes you need to accept that there are things that don’t go so well and learn from them.

An image of the ‘Berlin room’ from the David Bowie Is exhibition, designed by Barnbrook

 

After 2004, David disappeared for so long… and then everything changed. Health problems, family priorities and especially a new strategy in approaching the world as an artist: no interviews and very few public appearancesonly his music to speak for him. I have never been given a reason for this, even though I have to say I found it very intriguing. You worked with David before and after. Did anything change in the way you collaborated with him?

I was in contact with him around that time as there were various things going on, for instance the exhibition David Bowie Is, which was already being planned 5 years before it opened and I was very heavily involved in that, so it wasnt like we stopped talking. There were also a few smaller projects that were going on although not directly related to releasing new music. We would also just chat and send each other stuff we found interesting.

   When it came to releasing the new album, it was quite clear that it was going to be absolutely on his terms. I think he felt he had nothing to prove any more. The press had been rather unkind in the preceding years but I think the biggest factor was that he was older, part of a loving family. He had made some of the best records in the history of pop music and felt he didn’t need to seek success or approval any more. The working process actually didn’t change that much. He was still concerned that the design could be as good as it could be, but I did notice he was happier to sit back and trust me more.

 The other thing that was different about this release though was that it was all done in secret. We all thought it would be a great thing to suddenly announce the finished album, without anybody knowing about it. So it was… I think 6 months before that I got a phone call saying David wanted to chat to me about something. I was excited because this could only mean one thing. So everything was done without telling anyone. Even the people in my studio didn’t know in case it was leaked. It lead to some very funny conversations with people from the record company – we used a code word for the album which was tablein case our calls were being recorded, and I am sure if anybody heard them it would have sounded really strange. It was also great to have this secret knowledge – that there was a new Bowie album coming out, which nobody else knew about. I couldnt event tell the V&A staff when I was working on the exhibition. So they were really surprised when it was announced, and then they phoned me up to ask if they could have the cover in the exhibition too.

The Next Day album cover. Aesthetically I don’t like it very much, but I consider it a work of genius. A really postmodern piece of art, very conceptual. And probably only David could indulge in overlapping himself. In the per David Bowie Is exhibition a number of alternative projects were shown and I know you were really in two minds about it, and it was only the evening before the releasing that David convinced you. Which one would you have chosen alternatively?

When I listen to Where are we now? I understand much more why we used Heroes, but as a piece of subversion at the time I also though Aladdin Sane would have had a greater impactafter all it is probably Davids most well known album cover and to subvert that could have been even more shocking. But I am very happy with the final cover, especially about the discussion it caused. A lot of people were quite rude about it, but I think it was always great they were discussing a record cover, which hadnt happened for years, and David advised me not to get into online arguments with people as it was fairly pointless (he was absolutely right about that).

 The question of the aesthetics for the packaging is interesting: I intentionally made the graphics anti-popstar, anti-beautiful; the colours were harsh, discordant on purpose the typography minimal and the lyrics were styled like a very long monologue. While we were working on it, we discussed the ideas of existentialism and discontent that pervaded the album.

The very conceptual cover for the penultimate album by David Bowie, The Next Day (2013), overlaps the original photo by Sukita for “Heroes”

 

There’s only one original photo of David inside The Next Day booklet – quite a strange close-up, actually. A deformed look… Why?

Because we felt that there should be only one photo of him to stop this I am a popstar, look at me’ kind of thing. It is a man later on in his life, not the same man whod made Ziggy Stardust… and he was dealing with thoughts and feelings that only happen to you at a certain age. It also felt right to counter the single image on the front with a single image of him as he is now. Just gave it a bit more impact and meaning. As for the choice of photo, in this case this was decided by David.

The only original photo of David in the booklet of Heathen is by Jimmy King

 

Your studio was closely involved in developing some sections of the David Bowie Is exhibition and its catalogue. Did you make additional contributions to the other stops in different cities around the world in the last five years?

Each museum would get the project as a complete package and they could decide whether to use our graphics or not. In most cases they did their own version of what we had done, which sometimes was OK, sometimes really quite bad, and often made me wonder why they bothered to change it at all.

    Although I was also heavily involved with curation and direction of the original exhibition at the V&A, I wasnt really involved with it once they had the exhibition on in other places… except in Japan, where I gave a lecture. Sukita came to the lecture, and it was wonderful.

The exhibition closed not so long ago in NYC and it has announced that this autumn it’s going to become a virtual and digital experience. Are you involved in this project, too?

I am not involved in this, but I gave permission for them to show my work.

David Bowie Is book catalogue – New York Silver Edition was published in June 2018 with an additional 32 pages booklet and a completely new carton box exclusively designed by Barnbrook Studio, limited to 1000 copies

 

I particularly appreciate the Silver Edition of the NY catalogue, though I would have liked more photos by Jimmy King in it. How is it to work on project like this again, now that David is not here anymore?

For the exhibition and the catalogue David, when he was alive, actually kept his distance as he wanted it to be an unbiased portrayal of him and didnt want to interfere. This is why I was involved: he wanted to make sure it was of a good standard and asked for people he could trust to be part of the panel putting it together.

  I always think that the catalogue for an exhibition is much more important than people think. Often it is the only thing left to represent the exhibition once the exhibition has finished. So it was important for it to be very much experimental in spirit. I also think people forget what a revelation it was in terms of new information and artefacts from the life of David. Most had not been seen before, so I wanted them to be clean and clear in the book.

    I love the concept of the title David Bowie Is. It took a long time to come up with the exhibition name, which was done by Paul Morley, who was also part of the curating panel. It made the exhibition very much in present tense, highlighting that David is still affecting society and music now. It also made it much more interactive, and helped understand Davids music more. The David Bowie Is’ started the phrase and something else ended it. For instance David Bowie Is Cut-up’ referred to his lyric writing technique, but also the hurt and pain in some of the music, and his appropriation. There were so many nuances and meanings in all of the phrases.

   Now David is not here any more it is very strange experience designing a cover for him. There is a big space where David once was. I am still used to hearing his voice commenting on designs, but now it is not there. It has changed everything of course – there is no new music, no possibility to adjust or rearrange with him, and one very important thing – it is very difficult to get more experimental designs past the record companies. If David supported something, it was certain it would get through. Now I dont have him to fall back on so often decisions are taken by them. I think it’s not they are not respectful of Davids legacy, just sometimes they are now much more difficult to deal with and interfere in a way which is sometimes completely unnecessary. It means it is often a lot harder to get an unusual idea through.

Blackstar vinyl (2016)

 

Lets talk about Blackstar. Some fans are still looking for new meanings in your artwork and the packaging. There are probably other mysteries to be found, and it’s a part of the encrypted game conceived by you and David. I was particularly struck by what the English painter Clare Shenstone told me in an interview (I know hidden in his final works… there are secret messages to various special people and only those people will understand or recognise the clues’. David is still talking to some of us.” Can you confirm, in one way or another?

I have promised not to comment on anything to do with the content of Blackstar, so it is better I dont answer this question. I would just like to say I think Blackstar is one of Davids greatest works, brutally honest – it took great courage for him to make that album and face the end of his life in that way. As to whether people have found the secrets or not, I think one of the fundamental things about being human is the ability to link together different symbols and make meaning or stories out of them. And in some cases it doesnt matter if people are right or wrong. The creation of the reason for the Blackstar secret by them is a very creative act.

The design for Blackstar won some prestigious prizes, among the others the Best Recording Package at the 59th Grammy Awards

 

Can we hope that a deluxe edition of Blackstar will be released one day or another, like The Next Day Extra?

Sony have been quite careful not to exploit Davids last album too much, so I am not sure if there will be. It is something they would decide though and then let me know.

You collaborated with San Marino AASFN producing three beautiful stamps. I like them very much for their retro style and I guess it wasn’t very easy for you to choose among David’s wide range of iconic images. You opted for Aladdin SaneLow and Major Tom. The latter appears under a black star… Were you free to make these choices?

Yes, I was free to choose whatever I wanted. I had a lot of other ideas as well but those three seemed to work best. I wanted to relate them very directly to the history of stamps. The one with the Blackstar and David as an astronaut related to many of the Russian stamps of cosmonauts from the USSR – I love the designs and romanticism of them. I also thought it would just be really nice to just see David as Major Tom in that style, celebrated as a heroic cosmonaut. The third one, which features the cover portrait of Low, is referred to the silhouettes of royalty which appeared on stamps in the past. This is why I also added the crown, to relate to this, but also to comment on what David meant to me and his fans. The middle one was an experiment to see how far one of the most identifiable record covers of all time could be abstracted. There were lots of different versions of this and this is the one that was most identifiable.

In 2017 the Azienda Autonoma di Stato Filatetica della Serenissima Repubblica di San Marino commissioned to Barnbrook a set of 3 stamps to commemorate what would have been the 70th birthday of David Bowie

 

How does working in close contact with artists of David Bowie’s calibre change the direction of your work? How much weight and influence does the designer’s counterpart have over the final choice, in such cases?

It creates a lot more pressureBecause you know everybody will see what you do, react to it, and tell you. But it also makes you aim higher. I would always do my absolute best in Davids projects. Therefore, the level of your work needs to go up, which means the thinking needs to be a lot bigger. It is not about how can you do a nice cover – it is about a thousand other factors, the most difficult one being: How do I do something new appropriate to David and his music?” Because everything has seemingly been seen and done before.

A still from the video clip I Can’t Give Everything Away, directed by Jonathan Barnbrook in 2016 and accompanying the digital release of the third and last single from Blackstar

 

You also directed the animated lyrics video clip of the last song in the last album by David: I Can’t Give Everything Away. Was there a suggestion or a decision by David about it or was it simply a posthumous inspiration? What was your approach to the song?

I didnt talk to David about this – it was all arranged after he passed away, but of course I wanted to do something sympathetic and appropriate, but not sentimental, to offer people something positive instead, as there was a huge amount of people very upset by his death. It was important for the video to have hope. This is why it goes from monochrome to glorious colour as a celebration of him and us who are still here. It is also why the spaceman appears at the end – I did think about this a lot as to whether to include it or not, but it made the tone of the video lighter without being disrespectful to him or his memory.

Recently a huge number of people have said kind words about David, not only as an artist but especially as a human being. He was so loved, and this love has definitely poured out after his death, with a lot of accolades, tributes and expressions of affection. How have you managed all of this – the aftermath of his passing?

There are two things here. Many hundreds of people have written to me to express their love for him. It has been touching. I try to answer as many people as possible and offer them some hope. Some people feel bad for feeling upset by the passing of a public figure they didn’t know, but I do say to them that music is an important thing in peoples lives, it is there at all the major events of growing up, getting married, having children, so that it is completely understandable.

  One of the reasons we put up the Blackstar graphics for people to download was because when I talked to people in the past who had used Bowie graphics for a tattoo or something like that, they always felt they were doing something wrong. I really didn’t want them to feel that way – commercial stuff is different, these people instead just wanted to express their love for David, so I wanted to make it clear they could do so once he had passed away. Giving away the graphics was something I discussed with David at the beginning of the process of Blackstar. I wanted it all to be available to be used by fans (although I didnt imagine the circumstances under which they would), and he was very much in agreement with that. This is why for instance the font is open source – it was meant to be available freely to everybody (www.bowieblackstar.net).

  Second thing, as someone who has known him, I of course miss him. I wasnt one of his closest friends but it is impossible not to when someone is such a great unique creative force, to not feel a huge vacuum when he has gone. I also miss his jokes…

Blackstar Art has been released for free by Jonathan Barnbrook to all Bowie fans

 

Your website (www.barnbrook.net) is so beautiful and amazing, full of incredible past projects… and constantly changing in its look. It consists of 30 years worth of work rephotographedYou have made books, exhibitions, commercial products and adverts, albums, singles and much more… Which are you most proud of?

Thanks for the nice words. Creativity is a complex thing. I am never very happy when I have finished a project. I think of all of the ways it could be better. It is only about 10 years later, when I have disconnected from the thought process completely, that I can be a little more objective about it. The projects that stand out are those where we have done something new. It doesnt happen that often in your life as a designer – to some creative people it doesnt happen at all. It is easy to be creative without being original. That is not a bad thing, its just that being original is not always a requirement for a job. So in over 30 years of work I think it has only happened a few times. Some of the later work for Bowie, the book I want to spend for Damien Hirst, and the early typefaces are the occasions when I felt I had done something truly original.

Last year I bought your Barnbrook Bible online, the book that collects your works up to 2007. I find it esthetically incredible: the different fonts, the colours, the graphics in general. Your projects always show an amazing mixture of old and modern, with a bit, if I dare say, of a futuristic style. Could you tell me more about it?

The main point of the book was to explain the work in a very clear but still personal wayto talk about my interests, obsessions, and the visual language that inspired me. I really felt like it was important not just for people to understand where the work was coming from but also for students to see that the design work they did could be complex, loaded with meaning as there is too much emphasis on the commercial these days in education. Graphic design is seen as very much the commercial part of art but I think this is not the case. Many artists nowadays are involved in some pretty big commercial projects and many designers create work which has so much more content than just what the commissioned project is about.

Published in 2017 for Booth-Clibborn Editions/Rizzoli, Barnbrook Bible is a very complete catalogue of what his studio worked on in about 20 years. It contains an essay by Bowie and an incredible number of amazing projects. The release coincided with the retrospective exhibition titled Friendly Fire, and showed at the Design Museum in London

 

Do you feel graphic design has a political role to play? If so, how do you see that play out?

Yes it does, if you look through the history of political protest graphics, design is at the centre of it.  Placards and graphic design, billboards, leaflets… they all help to put the political message across. Graphic design is at the centre of communicating to a large number of people. This means that it can be used for good as well as bad. In design there are many designers who would prefer not to ask if design is political, but if you choose to do some work for a major company rather than political work, then that in itself is a political decision.

Jonathan and his wife Anıl Aykan are Fragile Self, an electronic duo that is going to release the first album at the beginning of 2019

 

You and your wife Anıl Aykan form an electronic duo called FRAGILE SELF (www.fragileself.com) with a very particular music project. On the net it only a few songs are available, and some short audio and video excerpts. Everything is extremely dark but intriguing and fascinating, with a surrealistic style in its visuals… rigorously in black and white. When are you going to release the whole album? What is your approach to music and what are your inspirations?

I have always loved electronic music and I made it for quite a few years. When David passed away, I really felt that it was something I had to get on with finishing. My wife is also a musician but it took a number of years before we started to work together and then quite a while to get the feeling of the music right. Working together with her really brought a new dimension to music making. We are truly a group, where the end result is something very different and better than us working separately. The album is finished. but it will be out in the new year as there are other associated projects that are taking quite a lot of time.

Some audio excerpts are already available online on the Fragile Self official website

Some audio excerpts are already available online on the Fragile Self official website

The album will be released as a book with a download code. Additionally, there will also be a CD and vinyl version. The book has been a big task – at around 500 pages we have had to write, photograph (with a great photographer), get all of the image rights, supervise and arrange all of the printing. It is a huge task, but we think worth itIt is about the meanings, atmospheres, direct and indirect influences on the lyrics and music. It is probably the ultimate expression of the record cover and booklet. There is still magic and mystery in the music, not everything is explained but we hope this will help to give new depth to the songs. There are already other projects planned including a film and again other releases, so it is a long term project.

  This first album is inspired by many things: my wife Anıl is studying art therapy, so we both read widely on the subject and the associated extreme states of mind that this area has to deal with. Much of the album is inspired by this and how all humans, from day to day, have to deal with extreme states of mind yet maintain an idea of a normal self. The idea of normal is of course a very fragile thing. This was also the inspiration for the band name fragile self. Having said that, the songs are quite listenable and follow a very simple pop format because we want people to be able to enjoy the music on different levels. We hope people will say that the album is good to listen to first, rather than have to look at all the meanings of the songs.

Some unedited artworks from the future book that will be released with the musical project by the Barnbrooks

 

Other future projects?

There are one or two big ones… that we cant talk about of courseAlso I am concentrating on the music, this is what I love. Recently, I have been working with modular synthesis which is an amazing area of sound making. In design we are working for mainly cultural institutions as I believe that culture is one of the few positive areas where graphic design can make a difference.

 

Interview conceived and conducted by Matteo Tonolli (a special thanks to Sara Captain and Marc Eckardt). The images are mainly taken from www.barnbrook.net and published here only through explicit permission. 

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