Art Chantry Designs For Music

Art Chantry, legendary graphic designer.

by Rasmus Rasmussen on August 24, 2010

I asked the Internet who it wanted to see featured here on Another Passion. “Art Chantry” it replied (on my Facebook wall), so I got in touch with this absolutely legendary designer and asked if he would be willing to share a little wisdom with the rest of us. And he was!

Art Chantry’s distinctive design work became famous along with the grunge wave in the 1990s, when he designed posters and album covers for countless bands, several of which went on to become quite big. If you ask him, he’ll probably say something about being in the right place at the right time. Or that he was lucky. In spite of his reputation as being a bit of a tough cookie, Art is actually quite charming in person and though his work is most certainly art, he remains very humble about it. The fact that it has been shown at places such as the Louvre, Seattle Art Museum and the Smithsonian has not jaded this designer, who still does his work the old school way — by hand.

AP: Your iconic style mixes retro, photography, lo-fi and hand crafted, “punked up” elements. How did you discover and evolve this look and feel?

AC: I think I first learned to appreciate this graphic language form through my involvement with American pop/trash culture as a kid. It’s a combination of comic books, monster magazines, bad television and junk food – classic ignoramus Americana.

Later, as a young school kid, I encountered DADA (in the school library). That sorta popped my cork. From that point on, it was total immersion in edgy DIY thinking. When punk came a long (stapled on telephone poles) it was as if I finally found like-minded folks who understood the language I was already studying. They didn’t know squat about DADA or surrealism or the various art world ‘isms’. They mostly were too young to remember MAD magazine or even Gilligan’s Island. But, they were actually speaking the same graphic language as me. So, it was one of those moments where the popular culture ripped at the seams and revealed the underlying primal communication style I was already enamored of.

So, I was just lucky, I guess. Or maybe I’m just a product of those same cultural forces.

AP: What is this connection you have between design and music? What is it about designing for music that attracts you as an artist?

AC: The creative act is famously exercised in so many forms that we tend to forget that creativity is all closely related. The structure of aural art and the structure of visual art is still structure (aka – ‘design’). I listen to music by listening to the structure of it and trying to imagine what exactly the creative folk involved were thinking, what they were actually trying to do. It’s endlessly fascinating.

As to how I work with musicians, it’s primarily as an advertising/marketing effort. I really have no involvement in their actual music at all. if I’m lucky, the collaboration results in a fine-tuning of the vision and the visual identity of what they are trying to do with their own creative aural efforts. However, most of the time, the musicians think they are also visual artists and you just become a “wrist” for them (if they even allow somebody else to do any of the work). That’s why most music oriented graphic design looks so amateurish. It’s literally done by amateurs. Makes total sense.

But, when you actually achieve a good collaboration between the client and yourself, it doesn’t get any better. The results speak for themselves. If it turns out great, everybody spots it. They immediately understand what is trying to be expressed. It becomes a seamless whole. That’s when it works the best.

AP: What is the hardest part of visually communicating a band’s sound or the feel of an album, and when do you know you’ve succeeded? Is there a particular reaction or story that sticks out?

AC: A great example is working with all those bands and labels in the ‘Seattle scene’ of the early 90′s. The complexities of it are fascinating. to begin with, I was working at the time (early 1990′s) with many many small record labels in the northwest area (sub pop, estrus, eMpTy, popllama, etiquette etc.) as well as many individually produced records (vanity label work). Every single label had a specific brand identity (often graphically developed by myself, as well) even within the music chosen to release. Sometimes these various bands and performers would release on several of these labels simultaneously. To top it all off, each band had to look like that band’s style and personality and yet look like the label and that label personality/brand that they were releasing on as well! Yet, they couldn’t look like any of the competitor’s brands and they couldn’t cross-over into the wrong genre of music. So, I was literally juggling the style/identities of dozens of bands on dozens of labels through dozens of release over many many years.

It was tough to keep track of. After a while, you just got to know what to do for every occasion. I mean, a band may release on Estrus for ages, then they suddenly might also release a record on Sub Pop. That record still had to look like that particular band’s thinking, but also it had to look like Sub Pop rather than Estrus – which was very different. Then you had to do a cover for another release by that same band, with that same band personality developed on the estrus label and now released on a third different label (like eMpTy) – again very different brand than Estrus, but not at all like Sub Pop, either. Yet it had to look like the same band but also within that new label’s style and brand and personality, but still reflect the spirit of the genre and style developed on another label.

See what I mean? I had to keep track of all of it and make it work and keep everybody happy. I worked on instinct after a while. It’s one of the places where I learned to trust my instincts. I didn’t always succeed 100% (I managed to piss off some folks I really cared about, too.) but, I did better than I thought humanly possible.

AP: How do you typically go from idea to finished design? Do you have any work-related habits or rituals that help you get the job done?

AC: I do a lot of procrastinating. It’s actually part of my neurotic “process”, I think. The creative process happens at an unconscious level of the mind. The way I’ve learned to use it is simply by filling my head with as much research as possible (client meetings, books, dialog, whatever). Then I simply push it to the back of my mind and do other “life” things. When I decide the deadline is getting near, I simply sit down at a blank piece of paper and it comes out of my hands.

I know that sounds like magic, or lazy, or BS, but it’s true. It’s like driving a car. When you drive a car, do you REALLY think about every little action? Do you think about moving your hand to the turn indicator or it’s time to brake or checking every move you make when you turn left? No, you’re listening to the radio or thinking about food or telling off the boss. You’re doing anything but thinking about actually driving. Yet, you are still driving beautifully. How is that possible?

We don’t even have to stretch to figure that out – another part of our mind has taken over the driving actions for us. We have total confidence in it, too. The creative process works exactly the same way. The thing is, that it’s taken over 30 years for me to be able to trust that process. I learned to use distraction to allow me to trust my ‘other’ mind enough to let it ‘take over’ my hands. Basically, I listen to music when I work. I think about the music, how it was made, what were they thinking, that sort of thing. And my mind just “drives” my hands and makes the work. I still have to constantly check on things and make corrections and all. But it becomes like driving that car. Some people call it a ‘trance’ state. That may be a bit extreme, but it can be blissful.

AP: With such an impressive body of work, what would you like to create that you haven’t done yet? What does your dream project look like?

AC: I’ve been asked that before and my answer is usually just a flip little remark. The truth is, that I don’t really have a dream design project any more. I’ve done so many things for so long that I have (in a way) done it all – at least all that I really care about. I mean, back in the 1990′s in seattle, I got to actually brand an actual cultural moment, ya know? How does it get better than that?

I think I’m more interested in documenting things right at this moment. One publisher has expressed interest in doing a book of “Everything I’ve Ever Done” in book form (little postage stamps size images – and it would still be a huge thick book.) I’ve done sooooo much stuff over the years. A huge volume of crap, thousands and thousands of individual projects.

The problem is that to do a book like that would take me months of time and I really can’t afford to spend that much time working on just one project on ‘spec’. I still live close to the edge – I’ve never made very good money doing this work. If you look at my clients, they are very small fry clients. Even the big name clients were small potatoes when I worked for them. I simply helped make them big and then they moved on. That’s the pattern. It doesn’t allow for big pay.

So, I literally can’t afford to actually do this documentary book about my work. I need a wealthy patron to support me while I spend the time needed to put this book together. But, it’s no big deal, I’m VERY well documented already. It’s just that you asked about a dream project and that’s maybe the only one I could think of.

There’s more Art Chantry on Facebook, he has a minimalistic website and a Wikipedia page.

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