Words: Erica Karnes
Download all the Fantasy 12 record covers as avatars and wallpapers via WeTransfer. Head to the Bonafide shop to buy the prints while stock lasts.
For Donal Thorton, lifelong music buff and founding mastermind of Dublin-based graphic design studio Practice & Theory, it’s not just about the music. “When you have a record in your hands,” he explains, “it’s this tactile, tangible experience. Yes, the cover is obviously the cover. But you flip it over. You take in the back of it. Then you open it up. You look at the paper finish. You notice how it’s wrapped, and note where the sticker is, and examine the inner labels.” He continues, “With sleeve design, you wonder what the labels will look like when they’re rotating. You picture how the paper will appear. You visualise how the record will slide out of that paper.”
“Designing for an MP3 or CD doesn’t require as much thought,” Donal adds. “But with records? He grins. “Look, my record collection isn’t huge, but it’s like a photo album or diary. I can pull any sleeve off the shelf and go ‘I remember getting that in Portugal’, or “I bought that right before my daughter was born’, or ‘a pal of mine gave that to me’. There are stories to them, and you value them.”
Given the often sacrosanct practice of record revelling (let alone the intoxicating nature of nostalgia) one could assume those collaborating behind-the-scenes—the musicians and producers and visual artists such as Donal—are tapping into a creative process that’s an equally seamless experience.
As it turns out, that is rarely the case.
Enter Greg Spring: Fellow Dubliner, industry enthusiast alongside Donal, and cofounder of the publication This Greedy Pig and online contemporary art store Hen’s Teeth Prints. When a conversation between Greg and Jeff Jank, Stones Throw Art Director and occasional Bonafide cover designer, addressed this tumultuous give-and-take between musicians and sleeve designers, Fantasy 12 was hatched.
“I was interviewing Jeff about his work, and he was talking about collaborating with musicians and the process of interpreting their music visually in a record sleeve,” Greg explains. “I had always assumed that there was this perfect, symbiotic relationship between artist and musician. But Jeff explained that most musicians are like every other client in that they don’t always know what they want. He mentioned certain clients going through 100 different iterations of sleeve design before settling on their final decision.”
It was this insight that ignited Greg’s project that—since it’s opening two months ago—has snagged the attention of music and culture buffs everywhere. Greg explains, “I started thinking about how much good shit must be laying on the cutting room floors of record labels—shit that has never seen the light of day. And the idea for a gallery show kind of stemmed from that.”
While several record labels were initially interested in getting involved, potential legalities around rights (let alone long-withstanding relationships between their musician clients) forced Greg to shift focus. “We decided to reach out to a bunch of artists who have worked on iconic covers in the past and asked them to reimagine another album of their choice.” He grins. “Basically, our pitch was ‘choose any album you want and redesign it however you want.”
“Basically, our pitch was ‘choose any album you want and redesign it however you want.”
Needless to say, nearly everyone they contacted was immediately enthralled.
“That brief was like a blessing and curse,” laughs Donal. “To have no rules? No restrictions? Like… anything I want.” He continues, I work on pretty much every genre of music, but at the time when I was mulling over Fantasy 12, I was listening to a lot of reggae and jazz. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (the cover Donal wound up running with) was definitely in rotation.”
He continues, “I had done that kind of hand illustration years ago and hadn’t had a chance to use it. But I kept it in the back of my mind, knowing that someday it would fit something.” Weeks before Greg’s pitch, Donal found himself at an exhibition by artist Patrick Scott. “His work is all about sacrament and ritual,” explains Donal, “he uses a lot of gold and circles. It’s beautifully understated. Amazing stuff.”
With hand sketches on the backburner, a soul full of Scott’s geometrical gold leaf, and Coltrane crackling around the turntable, it was mere hours of concentration before Donal looked over his completed piece. “It’s a weird one,” Donal grins, “it’s like the stars aligned. I finished that sleeve in a few hours, and then worked on it for weeks and weeks afterwards. But I always went back to the version I did that first night.”
Complementing Donal’s masterpiece in Fantasy 12’s final collection are the works of multiple other legendary artists. Nigerian designer Lemi Ghariokwa, with a client list including Bob Marley, Gilles Peterson and Fela Kuti, turned in a reinterpretation of Fela Kuti & Egypt ‘80s album Big Blind Country. Vlad Sepetov, having penned album art for the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q and Vic Mensa, and Stephen Serrato, art director for Flying Lotus’ 2014 album You’re Dead! also signed on.
“James Marsh, who’s worked for artists spanning Jamiroquai to Bjork, reimagined a Bob Dylan cover,” Greg explains, “and the day we released the prints was the day Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize. So that’s proved really popular.”
With a successful Dublin opening wowing the masses is October, Fantasy 12 is slated for both Los Angeles and London premiers in the near future. When asked why such a project has resonated so profoundly among global audiences, Greg simply grins.
“Whenever I think back to albums that I’ve loved—before I even hum a tune in my head, I visualise the artwork. It’s a ritual of sorts.”
“I know vinyl is having a resurgence right now, but album artwork seems to be a dying thing. But it’s always been that really important thing.” He continues, “Whenever I think back to albums that I’ve loved—before I even hum a tune in my head, I visualise the artwork. It’s a ritual of sorts. The most vivid thing in my mind is the visual. It’s a touchstone. And often this thing—this iconic piece of art you’ve seen 1000 times—you don’t even know who designed it. But the artwork on a record is so vitally important to the physical thing you hold.”
Donal nods, mirroring Greg’s sentiments. “If someone asks you ‘what’s your favourite meal?’, you can’t picture a taste. You picture shit on a plate. Similarly, you can recall a lyric and you can recall a sound—but in the iTunes of your mind, you’ll flip through album covers before your flip through melodies.” He grins, “the visual aspect of it is strong.”