Storm Thorgerson, a graphic designer responsible for the artwork on many vinyl record albums in your parents’ collections whose jackets still smell faintly of marijuana smoke, has died at 69. He had been suffering from cancer for several years.
Thorgerson got his first gig through connections: As a teenager, he had been schoolmates with founding Pink Floyd members Syd Barrett and Roger Waters. In 1968, at a time when the band was suffering from internal strife and Barrett was on the verge of being nudged out, Thorgerson and his flatmate Aubrey Powell were, he later wrote, “trying in some measure to act as intermediaries. The Floyd asked if anyone in our flat was interested in doing a cover for them.” Thorgerson and Powell “leapt at the chance” and produced the cover art for the band’s second album, A Saucerful Of Secrets, using the resources of the photo department at the Royal College of Art, where Thorgerson was still a student. They also dubbed themselves “Hipgnosis,” a pun typical of the sly wit and surreal edge that marked their visual designs.
In 1969, Hipgnosis produced a landmark in “Oh, wow!” album-cover art for The Floyd’s double LP Ummagumma, showing the band members striking various poses in a tranquil-looking pastoral setting; the trippy part was that a picture on a wall showed the band members striking each others’ various poses in the same tranquil-looking pastoral setting, with a picture on a wall that showed…and so on, and so on. Those who thought that they had Hipgnosis’ number, and were expecting even more fevered head-trip imagery on the next Pink Floyd album, Atom Heart Mother (1970), knew they were dealing with a couple of geniuses when the cover showed a photograph of a cow with its ass to the camera.
“For five years,” Thorgerson wrote in the text to a published collection of Hipgnosis designs, “we earned very little but did progressively more and more work. We lived off our girlfriends and gradually obtained equipment, made contacts, learned the mechanical side of doing prints and artworks, and improved our own abilities.” Their ship came in in 1973, when The Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon became one of the best-selling albums in history and made its accompanying album art iconic. Thorgerson designed the front cover, which was drawn by George Hardie, and modestly shrugged off taking much credit for it: “It’s a nice but simple idea. Refracting light through a prism is a common feature in nature. I would like to claim it, but unfortunately, it’s not mine.”
Out of the flood of work that Hipgnosis went on to produce for various artists, the designs by Thorgerson that especially stand out include the eerie, retro-futuristic images he created for Led Zeppelin’s Presence (1976); the cover for the 1976 Black Sabbath album Technical Ecstasy; and Peter Gabriel’s first three solo albums, which might well have come to be identified by their cover art even if they weren’t all titled Peter Gabriel. He also worked did himself proud with the astonishing visuals for Pink Floyd’s 1975 tribute to Barrett, Wish You Were Here, and helped wrangle the giant flying pig that the band had its heart set on for Animals (1977).
Hipgnosis, by then a full design company, disbanded in 1983. Thorgerson set up Storm Studios in 1987, but by then, the advent of the compact disc was on its way to eliminating “creator of expansive, elaborate visual designs for packaging music releases” as a job description. He began directing music videos, including several for the post-Roger Waters version of Pink Floyd. (He also directed videos and a concert video, and designed solo album art, for Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, and was best man at his wedding in 1994.) “I see myself,” he once said, “as a translator, translating an audio event—the music—into a visual event—the cover.”