Work in progress—Barney Bubbles: Offset Identities


“When I went to art school, we were trained to be designers—if you could draw you became an illustrator; if you could just about draw, you became a designer; if you were just hopeless they would put you into exhibition display.” —Barney Bubbles, The Face, November 1981

There’s an astonishing quote residing on page 136 of Paul Gorman’s monograph Reasons to Be Cheerful: The Life and Work of Barney Bubblesone that only graphic designers can fully appreciate. It’s in a brief anecdote that succinctly summarizes why the man born Colin Fulcher is the graphic designer sui generis. Non-designers reading the sentence would likely skim right over it, unaware of its import.

The subject is the proposed title for musician Elvis Costello’s third album; the speaker is Costello’s long time manager and label honcho Jake Riviera (once known as Andrew Jakeman). Bubbles had already designed Costello’s first two albums, as part of his role as lead designer at Stiff and then Radar Records. “Originally Elvis wanted to call it Emotional Fascism but Barney was totally against that, so it became Armed Forces.”

By this time in the book, Gorman has provided numerous examples of notoriously strong-willed reps and artists contentedly deferring to Bubbles’ judgment. That this instance stars the acid-tongued and headstrong former Declan MacManus is of no special import. (The degree of Bubbles’ disfavor, however, intensifies between editions of Gorman’s book; the first quoting Riviera that “Barney just didn’t like it”).

Costello himself relates a different, briefer account in his recent memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, one that doesn’t necessarily contradict Riviera’s telling. “Accepting that no radio station would play a record called Emotional Fascism, the album was eventually titled Armed Forces,” writes Costello. While Bubbles isn’t explicitly given agency for the change (nor is anyone), the designer is immediately invoked in the next sentence: “It came wrapped in a folding envelope of Barney Bubbles’ pop art design.”

A simple swap of common for proper nouns illustrates what makes Riviera’s statement so astounding: “Originally the client wanted to call it X but the designer was totally against that, so it became Y.” That sentence, especially among designers, is unheard of. Usually, designers take what they get. At best, they might boast of swaying the client to a particular approach for the art. Even among designers famed for their association with particular labels, such as Reid Miles and Blue Note, Vaughn Oliver at 4AD, or Barbara Wojirsch of ECM, this type of influence is unprecedented. And for designers overall? That’s crazy talk.

In his book, Gorman’s fuzzy on exactly why Bubbles enjoys such favor. Multiple individuals who worked with the designer testify to his “genius.” It’s the last statement in the book, provided by Nick Lowe on why there’s a book in the first place: “Barney was the closest we’ll ever get to genius, we’ve got no choice.”

The constituents of Bubbles’ virtuosity, however, aren’t really articulated. This is unfortunately common with the majority of designer profiles. The subject’s superiority is regarded as self-evident—just look at the work. As rewarding as that is, the visual aspect is only one aspect of his facility. That Bubbles was provided unparalleled authority and latitude is established. However, what’s more significant and profound is what Bubbles did with his favor.

In terms of skill, he was virtuosic at everything he took on. Short of photography, he handled every possible aspect of realizing a graphic design piece. His illustrative proficiency in pen was matched by his painting, equaled with his collage. His typography was unerring and exacting in contemporary and historic styles, plus displaying a range of arresting emotions and evocations.

But it was in his conceptualizing, its acuity and comprehensiveness, that he remains unparalleled. In many instances, Bubbles went places with his work that designers—and definitely clients—wouldn’t think to go. Most wouldn’t recognize Bubbles’ endpoint as a potential destination. All the while, he was adhering to and espousing the fundamental, mundane commercial imperatives of graphic design and advertising. But rather than following the orthodox, predetermined route to a result, he truly started from zero, remaking design as he added on.


He was a riddler wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma slipped within a foot square cardboard folder. That’s the perception at the tone-arm’s-length distance between an LP sleeve designer and the record-buying audience. Though Bubbles had the freest of hands over content, he declined to draw attention to his role by setting it in type. Even though he sported an alias, Barney Bubbles eschewed a design credit, to this day making a full inventory of his work an ongoing venture.

It wasn’t, however, a striving for anonymity. It was a selective withholding that drew attention to itself. Bubbles toyed with ideas of identity and identification throughout his work. In this, as he was in all pursuits, Bubbles was fully invested. His design, his art, had no conceptual boundary. The design credit —and lack thereof—was an element of the design concept. That concept, and his art, extended outward and was ultimately his life.

As if one nom de design wasn’t enough, Bubbles inserted an additional layer of offset identity by employing an assortment of fanciful pseudonyms (“Big Jobs, Inc., Grove Lane, Sal Forlenza, Jacuzzi Stallion, Dag, Heeps Willard”) or cryptic designations (his VAT—tax identification—number on Get Happy!!) as identifiers. His mask donned masks; Bubbles existed as a Constructivist-decorated nesting doll.

The absent acknowledgements was another throwback move, much like the period styles and references Bubbles transmuted for his layouts. It was only in the late 60s, a few years before he began doing sleeve work, that it became customary for designers to be provided a credit. Skipping it was simply consistent on sleeves that graphically evoked the previous era.

By using alternate aliases, Bubbles showed his game wasn’t anonymity but evasiveness. Ironically, a further proof can be found in his use of “Barney Bubbles” in design credits. Prior to his joining the Stiff circus in 1977, spotting a variation of “Sleeve design: Barney Bubbles” wasn’t uncommon. While unusual in his graphics, he was conventional in noting his agency.
Personally and professionally, the punk era marked a transition for Bubbles. He pared down both his personal appearance—gone was the beard, long hair and wardrobe of his hippy days—and graphic approach (Gorman: “brutal cropping, stark isolation of images, gritty photo-play”).

However, while the “Barney Bubbles” moniker spanned these periods as his preferred personal identity (Gorman quotes Stiff staffer Suzanne Spiro: “As much as I got to know him, I never knew his real name and in a way I think it’s a shame it’s been revealed. If you asked him he would just shrug his shoulders and giggle”), its removal from the album credits was simply conceptual due diligence.

Even then, it was a porous barrier. Work outside the Stiff/Radar/F-Beat network might note: “Sleeve design: Barney Bubbles” (Clover, Unavailable, Polygram, 1977) or “Sleeve design and artwork: Barney Bubbles” (Dr. Feelgood, A Case of the Shakes, United Artists, 1980). Still, releases with Bubbles’ design such as Depeche Mode’s debut Speak and Spell (Mute, 1981), and The Psychedelic Furs Forever Now (CBS, 1982) only acknowledge their photographers.

When asked how he regarded his role in his lone published interview (The Face, November 1981) and why he shunned a credit, Bubbles’ answer would have made any old school Modernist design pro proud: “I feel really strongly about what I do, that it is for other people, that’s why I don’t really like crediting myself on people’s albums—like you’ve got a Nick Lowe album, it’s NICK LOWE’s album not a Barney Bubbles album!”

Practically, being dodgy about his credits had a deleterious impact on Bubbles’ professional career. As noted above, bands outside of his home base sought him out. This extended to superstar territory: in 1978, The Who’s management invited him to propose a design for Who Are You. (Bubbles’ concept of spelling the title out in power cables was rejected but adapted for the photo that was eventually used.) However, according to Paul Gorman, Bubbles shopped his portfolio in 1982 “to some of the bigger music labels, only to hear his unsigned work had already been claimed by others.”

Gorman documents other brushes with high-profile music-industry clients, showing Bubbles had visibility and credibility in the field. Aborted and unrealized projects go with the territory. Gorman also cites unnamed sources as speculating that Bubbles’ naming evasiveness was a tactic to avoid tax problems. If so, it was inconsistent—and ineffective.

That Bubbles’ was engaged in a comprehensive gaming of identity is affirmed by his extension of the play into the graphics. In at least two prominent instances, Bubbles inserted fanciful self-portraits onto album covers. Right away, this is the ultimate audacity for a designer. The first example, considered a definite representation of his profile, is on Armed Forces—the record that Bubbles demanded and received a title change. He can be found in the abstract shapes to the left of the yellow paint splattered title “Elvis Costello and the Attractions Armed Forces.”

af_mini_innerbag_open_01In its original U.K. incarnation, this graphic is within the package, after unfolding the back flaps. The designer is literally behind the scenes on the album, embodied at the center of a mélange of high and low historical graphic styles. In a delightful irony, Columbia, Costello’s U.S. label at the time, evidently finding the U.K. cover unacceptable (a deliberately-kitsch painting of stampeding elephants adorned with discreet typography) made the inner splatter graphic the front image. Having rejected the designer’s preferred layout—probably as too British and obscure with tiny type—the company punished Bubbles by putting his grinning face on its cover.

For the second—though Paul Gorman hedges that the image is possibly lead singer Lee Brilleaux—it would be in keeping if Barney Bubbles’ profile was again dead center on the illustrative cover of Dr. Feelgood’s 1982 album Fast Women & Slow Horses. Seeing stars after an implied punch from a buxom, boxing-gloved mare, the man’s face emerges from the top of a large black ampersand. If it’s Bubbles, he is again one with the artwork. He is (the) design. Another potentially sly reference is that as a designer, his role is an “&” to the musicians.


In adopting a creative guise—one evidently identical with his everyday semblance—he was in league with the musicians for whom he designed. Many adopted or were given stage names, especially at Stiff. Bubbles was back-stage named. Even if using their natal names, artists craft professional personas. These are carefully managed and strategically deployed. However genuine and real that singer seems, it’s a performance. Sincerity is how convincing you repeatedly enact intimacy with an audience.

Bubbles’ deep interest in the avant-garde art from the beginning of the 20th century also suggests a purpose. In her introduction of the catalog for National Gallery of Art’s 2006 exhibition Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris, Leah Dickerman, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Gallery, writes, “Artists within the movement gave birth to a striking number of alter egos, which served as parodic, at times debased, inversions of a rational and authoritative masculinity.” Dickerman points to Duchamp’s “Rrose Sélavy” as the ultimate reversal with the artist changing sex.

Bubbles never ventured into this realm of invention; his pseudonyms were all masculine. His life/design still adeptly illustrated how identity is mutable. Individuality is a postmodern playground, not a fixed state. He did this through the panoply of bespoke logos he generated for Stiff and F-Beat—and with himself. Bubbles formed an identity that was composed of its antithesis: flux. He grasped intuitively the elements that make up graphic identity and handled them effortlessly. Along the way, he effectively branded musicians and labels.

Note: This is the introductory section of what will be an extended essay on Barney Bubbles that will further discuss his identity play in his logos, the clues provided by his album as “The Imperial Pompadours,” his influence on contemporaries such as Malcolm Garrett and Peter Saville, a comparison/contrast with Paula Scher (who worked at Columbia designing albums at the same time as Bubbles was working), his unique status exploring and exploiting the physical aspects of commercial print production, his fascination with regal imagery (“King BB”), and more!

Transmission (Part 1)

Walt’s Transmissions has a new sign, its third in as many years. It took a while for me to notice, even though I drive past twice a day on the way to and from work. The new sign was placed to the left of their garage door, posted no higher than an average person’s height, on the side of a small addition to the cinder-block structure. The cab of the battered pick up truck stationed in front easily obscures the sign. The previous two signs announced from the obvious spot facing the main street, just below the apex of the roof. This one may have found its less prominent location not so much out of some sense of self-effacement than someone’s diminished desire to climb a ladder.

Whatever the reason for its less than optimal positioning, the new sign was an encouraging sign. From all appearances, the shop appeared in the process of closing: activity slowed, the number of distressed cars in the fenced-in yard decreased significantly. That latter development first seemed a positive step toward a leaner, meaner, and cleaner facility. Then I noticed the shop’s sign—its second—had been removed along with the junk cars. What appeared at first to be a freshening up quickly took on features of a winding down.

My interest in Walt’s was largely due to its original sign, which I had delighted in. It was hand painted directly onto the building, by someone with a degree of experience or training. The letter forms were fanciful, more in keeping with graffiti than professional sign painting. Corporate logos and the stylized lettering of packaging influenced graffiti itself. Here was culture sampling and remixing itself. And the artist had signed the work.

Having avoided any transmission trouble with my car, I had no practical connection with Walt’s. If I had the need, I would have gone elsewhere, to mechanics I already had a relationship with. As much as I treasured the sign, it didn’t affect my consumer choices. It’s problematic if this or any sign could provoke me to a service purchase.

While my attention to Walt’s was for purely aesthetic reasons related to the sign, its replacement represented basic debates on the purpose and capacity of design. It also came to stand for our area’s revitalization attempts. Long-awaited changes were underway in our borough of South Norfolk, Virginia. Many more were planned or hoped for, all to rescue a sorely neglected section of Chesapeake. After decades of decay, any change seemed for the better—even a new sign for a transmission shop.

Technically, Walt’s was just over the city line and in Norfolk proper. But its proximity—a ten-minute leisurely stroll east over the railroad overpass—brought it within the scope of what I consider our locale. The quality and character of the streets and houses were consistent well beyond the borderline. Our area was a zone of “before” pictures yearning for an “after.” Or, as a designated historic district, longing to return to its beneficent before.

Walt’s sign entered emblematic status in its substitution. Not long after I got around to documenting my beloved sign, it was covered over with a new one. The replacement was a dully commercial product, surely promoted as able to increase visibility—AND sales! In place of the eccentric lettering was the consistency of a typeface. Though in this context, was unconventional in its own right, being “Souvenir,” a 1914 creation of eminent type designer Morris Fuller Benton that found its full favor in the 1970s. (I’ll always think of it as the Innervisions type, as my first exposure to it was on the sleeve of that classic 1973 Stevie Wonder album.)

All told, the new sign was more professional. It included credit card info and a web address: indicators of an efficient and tech-savvy business. The sign wasn’t ugly—just anonymous and bland, despite the unusual typeface. The product of a standardized process, it was unlikely to acquire any admirers. But is that a sign’s job? What’s most important to the business? It’s specious to claim that the original sign, by virtue of its novelty, attracted more attention. And, from that, potential customers. Then again, is “artistic” signage what you’re looking for when you’re in the market for a CV joint? I want my mechanic to be like the sign: competent—but with a little personality. Still, all of the original sign’s information was perfectly readable. By basic rules of design, it was successful. Why replace it?

This gets us into another transmission issue: of messages by design, both perceptible and imperceptible. The design styling of the sign—or any artifact—modulates what’s transmitted. That original graffiti-sign probably was broadcasting a message that was too “folksy” for the owner. Or, perhaps, a new owner wanted to put his stamp on the business.

From the perspective of the neighborhood, any upgrade in a local business is a good thing. The area is economically depressed, in need of bolstering its tax base and drawing people in. And while a house on that corner would be more visually commodious and in keeping with the largely residential nature of the block, the area’s still zoned light industrial. Everything’s a trade off. As it is with the new sign: there’s not much you can do to make a transmission shop “sexy” graphically—except maybe an unusual font.

What you quickly encounter is the ongoing drama pitting “revitalization” against preserving the “character” of a neighborhood. Wrecking ball against renovation. It’s an impromptu theater piece being staged across the country in all varieties of communities. The scorched-earth urban renovation schemes of the 1970s instigated a preservation movement that has engendered its own backlash. This was echoed in graphic design as the modernist impulse sought to pave all visual culture with an austere Helveticascape.

Revitalization isn’t an abstract topic for me, having bought a home within South Norfolk’s historic district. Restrictions are placed here on what and how renovations may be made. However, in attempting to invigorate neighborhoods, the civilian review board that must approve all changes often misses the spirit of the initiative for the letter. The greater goal would seem to be encouraging conscientious homeowners to buy into the area to restore and maintain properties at a reasonable common standard. Instead, residents find themselves trapped under leaking tin roofs because of the expense of replacing them with identical materials. The mandate mutates into one requiring deep pockets rather than good faith.

Were our area composed of tracts with uniform house styles from the same era, the prohibitions on contemporary additions considered not in keeping would be consistent. However, our neighborhoods and the houses themselves—as they are everywhere—are mélanges. Still, with the establishment of the historic district, an arbitrary baseline was established. Existing structures were declared acceptable, no matter their peculiar makeup. For instance, common throughout the district are Craftsman-style bungalows retrofitted in the 1940s with brooding metal awnings. Neither historically “accurate” nor particularly attractive, the hybrids have been deemed acceptable and worthy of preservation. Meanwhile, our desire to construct an architecturally sympathetic second-floor sun porch gets squelched as improper, as it wouldn’t have been a feature on an early-1890s home.

The result is our mixed feelings about the guidelines and its attempt to standardize variety. The effort is another example of how the designation of “original” has always been a moving target, a matter of interpretation rather than objective analysis. While we acknowledge that the guidelines have been for the area’s betterment, the regimented, capricious application potentially thwarts our plans and frustrates us.

Fortunately, for most of us, graphic design isn’t macro-managed on the citizenry (it’s the high Modernist designers and visionary/grandiose architects/urban planners who count this as misfortune). Supervision occurs at the micro stage, within organizations. Unless it’s signage, graphic design occurs at an immediate, personal level. For his signs, Walt evidently worked off of his own, subjective sense of how design worked.

Corporations have much more at stake and adopt a more strategic approach. Their situation is somewhat similar to crafting and enforcing guidelines for historic districts, as they aspire to retaining graphic aspects of their established identity—their brand—while injecting stable doses of contemporaneity.

Companies may have come to their graphic identity through happenstance—meaning it was adopted before the rise of focus group testing of designs. However, the companies incur significant risk from deviating too far from established characteristics. It’s the younger graphic designers that may chafe under the resultant regimented identity systems (mandated by other designers)—much as I do under the historic district’s decrees.

But it’s also graphic designers—primarily the older, seasoned ones—who raise the hue and cry when some iconic logo receives an update—deviating from identities fashioned by other, often legendary designers. When Paul Rand’s 1961 UPS logo (the company’s third) was reworked 42 years later, numerous designers rejected the change solely due to the original being a work of the master. You don’t revise Paul Rand—like you don’t revise a Picasso.

(To be continued.)