You may not have heard of Optigram before, but if you’ve been paying attention to the finer side of electronic music for a while, then you’ll definitely recognise his work. Creating covers for several labels and brands including the likes of Hyperdub, Warp, Planet Mu & Red Bull Music Academy, his artwork has graced the covers of some of the most elegant releases of the past half decade. Often recurring to sophisticated geometric and repetitive patterns, Optigram’s artwork reflects the same experimental analogue niche sprouting from these labels. Haven been responsible for Ikonika’s iconic cover, and DVA’s brilliant new ‘Pretty Ugly’ LP cover, Optigram is proving to be one of the influential designers within the electronic music scene.
First of all, for those who don’t know, Could you tell us abit about who are you and what do you do?
I’ve been running the Citinite record label for just over five years and also do record sleeve design work for other labels under the name Optigram.
What is your artistic background?
After art college in Bristol and doing a couple of bits for Aardman Animations, I moved to Milan where I was designing watches for Swatch, then back in London worked as a freelance assistant for a few years at Blue Source (they specialised in record sleeves), and worked for a couple of years as a designer at the clothing company Maharishi. So it’s been pretty varied and I’ve learned a lot from working in all those different areas.
You have designed record sleeve’s for the likes of Hyperdub, Warp and Planet Mu. How were you first introduced into the electronic music scene?
From raving and DJing in Cornwall. I grew up with all the Rephlex lot and did a couple of designs for them. I met Mike Paradinas for example from when he released his first U-Ziq album on the label. So actually the majority of my friends since leaving college haven’t worked in design, they’ve worked in music. (And the designers that I do know tend to work in music also!)
Many people will recognise your work for Kode9′s iconic Hyperdub label, how did this collaboration come about?
Marcus, who manages Hyperdub and who is an old friend from Cornwall days, introduced me to Kode9 when he was looking for a designer to give Hyperdub more of an overall look. Since then I’ve also worked with Steve (Kode9) on a couple of his other projects, like his book ‘Sonic Warfare‘.
What drives the inspiration for your artwork?
Always the music that I’m designing for. Luckily (actually it’s ridiculously lucky) I’ve always been into the music that I’m working with. I did turn something down once cos I wasn’t into it.
There’s a quote on your website – “Two-dimensional marks dreaming of a three-dimensional world.” Is this a Optigram philosophy?
It wasn’t intended as one, it was only a semi-flippant caption for one of the projects, but actually I guess it could apply to other stuff on the site too. I don’t really think about my work as having any philosophies – it’s more of an emotional response.
Could you tell us abit about your record label Citinite…
One of the reasons I started it was because I’d heard some tracks by Robert O’Dell when I was over at Rephlex HQ and which I thought were amazing, but Rephlex didn’t want to put them out and I thought that was a shame. Around the same time I’d discovered the music of John Davis (electrofunk from 1984 which was criminally forgotten) and wanted to reissue those to give them a new and wider audience. So they were Citinite’s first two releases. Since then I’ve been trying to put out new music that explores different genres but with an element of funk at its heart, whether it’s music from Jimmy Edgar or Sweat.X or Gosub. Coming up next is a new side-project from Dâm-Funk.
Not only do you run the Citinite label, but you also design the artwork for the releases. Is it important you have that creative control and direction over the label?
Well, another reason I started the label was because I wanted to do more record sleeve work and things had dried up a bit! For sure it’s important for me to control all aspects, in many ways the label is an extension of me, but recently I’ve asked like-minded people who I trust creatively to do artwork for it too.
Aswell as creating artwork for the music industry, you have also worked for the likes of Penfield & Adidas and many other commercial companies and agencies. How does working for these big brands differ to your personal practice?
The Penfield and Adidas projects that I was involved in were collabs with Maharishi and the briefs were pretty open; fashion in general can be quite similar to music. But yeah working for large agencies can be very different. It’s sometimes not very easy to have control over or feel personally connected with big brand projects. When I’m designing for labels it’s all about the personal interpretation I have of the music, and I hope that the label and artist will see where I’m coming from and be into it too. Whereas with big clients you can’t be self-indulgent; right from the start you have to consider other people’s requirements, and there’s a risk that your work will suffer from compromises if your idea isn’t robust enough or doesn’t answer their brief perfectly. Occasionally a record label project can also have more of a firm initial brief and there’s lots of concept discussion involved, but that’s always cool and when ideas are shaped and reshaped it’s not about compromising, it’s about finding the right elements that click for everyone. Sometimes I can be a right stubborn bastard though.
With the rise of the digital age, do you feel people’s attitudes towards record artwork has suffered?
It did for a while, but I think there was a general lament and realisation that we were losing something and so people are appreciating good artwork again.
What do you consider the most iconic record sleeve of all time and why?
Too difficult! I’m sure my answer would be different every day, but just to pick the first one that comes into my head, Peter Gabriel’s second self-titled album from 1978, also referred to as ‘Scratch’ because of the cover image. It was a manipulated photograph taken by Peter Christoperson (of the band Throbbing Gristle) when he was working at the influential design agency Hipgnosis. It’s just a really great idea, really well executed. I have no idea what the record sounds like though.
Finally, What are your plans for 2012?
More of what I did in 2011 but better.