I’m every bit as big a sucker for good design as I am good music. So when the two come packaged together, I’m a very happy consumer. Why is it then that so few record labels ever managed to weave together a distinctive musical and design style to create a satisfying package, not just for one album, but for an entire catalog of music? Blue Note and ECM are the classic examples. Rune Grammofon and Die Schachtel are two contemporary examples. But I’m struggling to think of any others.
After running a boutique jazz label for a few years, I understand how hard it is to follow through on an ideal of design purity. I experienced firsthand the conflicts that occur between established artists and an unproven label as artists demanded their persona be presented in a way that didn’t jibe with the label’s aesthetic principles. The ensuing compromises made for less than compelling design and obliterated any thoughts we entertained of establishing a recognizable, consistent look.
In the early ’90s, as my hunger for new sounds outside of rock and pop music began its manifest destiny campaign, I became interested in modern composition. But unlike jazz, where it’s easy to find a musician you like and explore his catalog and be turned on to other musicians, classical music presented a daunting conundrum to a 20-year-old with no idea where to begin digging. Thankfully, there was Deutshche Grammophon’s 20th Century Classics series.
For a few years, I bought every 20th Century Classics release I could find. I loved the design at the time and really appreciated that how the artwork made the CDs easy to spot while rummaging the classical section. Without this series, I would likely have never discovered the work of Luigi Nono, Bruno Maderna, Luciano Berio, or Alban Berg. Or at least I wouldn’t have discovered it when I did or on my own. The music was great because DG didn’t skimp on the production. All the recordings featured the top conductors, orchestras and soloists. And the design of the sleeve art gave the CDs that “have to have it” quality which seems non-existant today, at least outside of the super-specialty niches.
While I can’t rate the design as high as the classic Blue Note stuff or the other labels listed above, there is a simple elegance to the folded paper and creative lighting and subtle use of color which I think still holds up today. In a world where owning a physical copy of a record is optional, I have to admit to a creeping, covetous nostalgia as I was putting all the covers into Photoshop. I know there are probably newer and maybe even better versions of all the works on the CDs pictured there, but they definitely wouldn’t look as impressive on the shelf. Sadly, the series is discontinued. Impractical as it is, I’d love to see remastered editions of the entire catalog. I’m sure they’d sell two or three…