The Wild World of Barney Bubbles: a closer look at the enduring influence of the iconic graphic designer

Barney Bubbles is a name synonymous with graphic design. Treading the line between art, graphics and direction, Bubbles was best-known for his contribution to the British music industry, particularly between the 1970s-1980s.

And now, in celebration of what would have been his 80th birthday, Thames & Hudson has released The Wild World of Barney Bubbles: Graphic Design and the Art of Music by Paul Gorman, a journalist, author and visual commentator. The book is a comprehensive tome featuring the work of the recognised graphic designer four decades after his passing.

From designer for Sir Terence Conran and magazines Oz and Friends, plus album cover artworks and posters for Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello, Depeche Mode, Ian Dury, Hawkwind, The Damned and Nick Lowe; Bubbles' career is one that's deep-rooted in music. Alongside his graphics, Bubbles also collaborated with numerous artists and photographers and produced paintings, furniture pieces, set designs and promo videos – not to mention the infamous visuals for Ghost Town by The Specials, a trippy and dystopian view of the city featuring angular shots of high-rises and oddly empty streets.

To say that Bubbles' work was influential would be an understatement. He took the world by storm with his momentous contribution, with his very first poster released for a Rolling Stones concert. In the '60s, he refined his craft while working at a typographic studio in Soho, London's epicentre for grit, craft and music, before being recruited as a senior graphic designer by Sir Terence Conran.

"He was among the first artists and designers to make an impression on me and engage my interest in visual culture," says Paul Gorman. "The others in my mid-teens were Andy Warhol, via his magazine Interview, and Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood through their unusual boutique Sex. But in regard to Bubbles, I trace it back to his poster for an afternoon and evening of performances by Hawkwind and others at Camden Town's Roundhouse I attended at the age of 15 in the spring of 1975. "This green and red artwork is extraordinarily impactful and based around the depiction of a Native American chieftain with a third (all-seeing) eye surrounded by vibrating Push Pin-like lines. At the time, I knew Bubbles created the visuals for Hawkwind and so guessed that this wild design, produced for a one-off concert, must be his."

"A couple of years later, when I purchased the second wave of singles on the Stiff Records label (by the likes of Elvis Costello, The Damned, Ian Dury and Larry Wallis), I was told by the late Eugene Manzi, who ran a record shop in Swiss Cottage, close to my school in north London, that the audacious sleeves they were housed in, which chimed so much with the spirit of punk, were by the same person," Paul explains. "After that, I kept my eye out for adverts, posters, record sleeves and promotional campaigns which might be by him, though this could be tricky because he was so insistent on avoiding credit. This added to the intrigue and made him very enigmatic, though the quality and invention of the work often gave the game away."

Bubbles also produced products for Habitat and branched out into various degrees of design during this time, to such lengths that he even operated light shows at underground venues in the city and headed further afield to San Francisco. "The small furniture edition he produced in the early '80s chimed with the work of Memphis in being very pomo and playful. But the first set – which included a desk in the shape of a flying trowel set on a teetering column of books, a chair which channelled Gerrit Rietveld's Red Blue Chair and a cocktail cabinet made of '50s glitter-flecked Formica with a wavy crest along the top to suggest Ian Dury's Rockabilly haircut – were produced before Memphis was launched. He was the ultimate Zeitgeist surfer," says Paul.

However, Bubbles' record sleeve and posters are perhaps of his most recognisable. Designing during a time of punk revival and peak DIY aesthetic, his artworks were equally as anarchist as they were clever and of the moment.

In The Wild World of Barney Bubbles: Graphic Design and the Art of Music, Paul has collated hundreds of unpublished photographs, sketches, notebooks and original artworks. A rare insight into the legendary offering of the designer, viewers can marvel at the far-reaching practice of Bubbles while gaining insight into his life and career. Amongst his influential visuals, American designer Clarita Hinojosa has contributed an essay, and there are also 16 pages of ephemera collected by the author over the years. "As well as The Roundhouse poster, there were a few surprises such as the Glastonbury Fayre triple album from 1972, which folds out into six double-sided panels and includes a poster, a fold-out booklet with credits for people like David Bowie and Marc Bolan. There was also a build-your-own miniature geodesic dome and a small silver pyramid you created yourself by folding the card provided," adds Paul. "I loved how this engaged the record-buyer and offered up an all-encompassing alternative lifestyle which you engaged with while listening to the music.

"In the early 1980s, Bubbles directed several very striking music videos, the most successful of which was for The Specials' number one Ghost Town, which discussed the bleakness of recessionary Britain in the grip of Margaret Thatcher's hard-right government. Forty years later, the clip can still shock and even disturb. Bubbles' consummate art direction used the brutal built environment of the City of London to great effect, while he captured the band remorselessly careening around town in a classic American car in the dead of night. Like much of his work, it is of a piece with the music – Ghost Town is unimaginable now without that clip, just as the run of Costello and Dury records in the late '70s and early '80s are unimaginable without the sleeves, posters, adverts, badges and other ephemera produced by Bubbles."

Were there any surprises that Paul uncovered? "A lot; he remains a constantly surprising and revealing figure. After the first edition was published in 2008, I was contacted by an ex-girlfriend who posed for him for a Mods & Rockers project in 1963. She showed me the letter he sent with instructions and also outtakes from his photography for the session. The professionalism of Bubbles' approach is astounding for a 21-year-old, and it's no surprise that the poster which resulted from the project won him his first national award, an early version of a D&AD. More recently, I was sent a recipe book called Feasts Bubbles designed for the Knightsbridge fine foods purveyor Justin de Blank in 1974 – it's a beautifully realised document with very playful elements: rural scenes with foxes and rabbits are depicted as if embroidered for example."

According to Paul, Bubbles' influence on design, in general, was best summed up by Peter Saville. He cites the moment he and fellow designer Malcolm Garrett first saw Bubbles' sleeve for punk band Generation X's 1977 single Your Generation. "This simple red and black arrangement which suggests the 45 rpm of the 7inch record it houses, quoted not only a 1929 catalogue cover by El Lissitzky but also a work by Polish op-art pioneer Henryk Berlewi of a few years earlier," says Paul. At that time, Saville remarked: "We saw the Generation X cover and received a very clear signal: Mr Barney Bubbles was saying, 'Constructivism has my blessing'. Our response was, 'Yes, this is the way'."

"What Peter is articulating is the freedom that Barney Bubbles gave to contemporary and successive generations of designers," Paul adds. "These days, his influence remains, but it is largely silent, having been absorbed so thoroughly over the decades, which is why I think it is necessary to remind designers and design consumers of the richness and innovation of this important and still exciting body of work."

Keep up to speed on the ever-spinning wild world of Barney Bubbles via Instagram and visit the first official Barney Bubbles shop at The Wild World of Barney Bubbles: Graphic Design and the Art of Music by Paul Gorman will be published by Thames & Hudson on 30 June 2022.


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