Is the design of record covers a lost art? This is the question that the exhibition at the University of the Arts poses in technicolour, nostalgic tones, in its retrospective look at iconic cover art from the last four decades. Curated by industry veterans including Peter Saville, designer of LP art for Factory Records greats Joy Division and New Order, you can't help but wonder if the status of this concept is waning in an age where electronic downloads stand accused of rupturing a cohesive artistic process.
The exhibition includes album art from acts as diverse as Cream, the Clash, Groove Armada, James and The Gossip. Seen together, the social and historical context of the covers stand out - Adam Ant stands, retro and effeminate, tightly clad in black leather for B-side Babies; the original photograph used in The Streets' Original Pirate Material shows a wider view than the album cover of a sardine-like existence in a City Road high-rise, and the surrounding dense urban landscape that replicates it. Right up to the present, fluorescent neon light tubes clatter comfortably together on ShitDisco's nu-rave Kingdom of Fear, triggering an image of Hoxton kids in full day-glo glory.
The visual and the sonic connect not only in a cultural sense, but also in our collective memory. How many young people see the Chemical Brothers 1999 Surrender cover and associate what they see with a seething late 90s discourse: dance drugs in damp fields, New Labour and young British artists, all set to a throbbing, beat-driven soundtrack? Whatever your personal story, record covers mean something to us, as journalist Andrew Collins highlights: 'My seven-inches are as important and evocative as photographs from my youth'.
The exhibition itself is somewhat limited by the restriction of artists or designers who taught or studied at the university - where, for example, are the era-defining Oasis covers, the band lounging in Beatles-inspired psychedelia, or tossing grand pianos into swimming pools in a display of laddish decadence? Still, a visit to the gallery serves as a reminder of the connections between art and music, and what we lose when music formats cease to exist as tangible objects.
The exhibition at the University of Arts is open from 10am-6pm Monday-Friday and 11am-4pm on Saturdays at 65 Davies Street. It runs until October 3rd.
Image of Kestrel House, City Road, London, from The Streets' 'Original Pirate Material' cover courtesy of Digital Iarp's photostream under the Creative Commons Licence.