@studiocatherine Not in the slightest! Our printers just require a little extra time.
Geoff Hocking has seen it all. When he started, graphic design was still known as “commercial art”, and design classes were lucky to have three students. Hocking began his career working with hand-set type, and he’s still working and educating in the digital age. Hocking was also a member of the World Record Club studio in Melbourne, which designed covers for mail-order classical and soundtrack albums.
The World Record Club studio was something of an incubator for emerging design and illustration talent in Australia from the 60′s to the 80′s. Alex Stitt and Max Robinson (to name just two of the distinguished many) both got their start there, and were free to explore new ideas and techniques under the guidance of art director Geoff Digby.
The WRC catalogue is fascinating – colourful, playful, and frequently brilliant. You may have seen samples in your family collections or Op Shops around the country, but Hocking has also compiled the exhaustive collection into a book called “It’s Another World Record”. I spoke with Hocking about the history of the label, its experimental design studio, and exactly what life was like as a designer in Australia, decades before computers revolutionised the industry worldwide.
The World Record Club began life in London in 1958. How did it the label make its way over to Melbourne in the early 60s?
John Day, the founder of WRC had been an advertising copywriter at the Herald in Melbourne. He went to England where he was employed at Good Housekeeping Magazine. I don’t know how, but he was friendly with the record producer Fiona Bentley who later married a wealthy banker. Daly and Bentley were also friendly with popular film actor Richard Attenborough. It would appear that all three were fond of classical music, in all its forms, and decided to take the opportunity offered by the emerging technology of the long-playing record and make the most of their talents: advertising, record-production, and financing. With Attenborough, they had an entreé into the world of show-business, and when all these things were combined together – they had a product.
Cyril Fisher, who had also been at the Herald in Melbourne, and was at Good Housekeeping as well was something of a wiz-kid in the world of direct-mail marketing. This gave them the marketing angle. Another Herald alumni, Geoff Digby, was brought over to England to provide the design skills, and World Record as we know it was born.
Following the success of the company in Britain the team of expats decided to open in Australia as well, and Geoff Digby and Cyril Fisher came back to Melbourne to set up shop. John Day arrived a little later.
They established in Melbourne just as they had done in Britain offering Club memberships and selling pre-ordered produce via twice yearly catalogues, and monthly magazines — all direct mail. Shop fronts were set up in each capital city and in New Zealand, but the bulk of sales came via the mail.
Prior to the establishment of the Melbourne studio, WRC record covers featured very little in the way of illustration and modern typography, in fact the slipcases were quite bland and generic in comparison. Whose decision was it to start using emerging design and illustration talent for the covers, and how were those people briefed on individual covers?
The early British covers were quite ordinary, but once the company established in Australia it was decided to re-package everything with new jacket designs right from the start. No imported designs were used. Even though a lot of the product had been previously packaged abroad, everything was worked afresh. This was quite unusual, but it didn’t take long before the word got around that World Record Club was offering young talent the opportunity to do interesting work and artists were beating a path to Geoff Digby’s door.
The briefs were open. All the artist needed to do, and was usually able to do, was to read the liner notes and get on with it. It was assumed that the artist would find out about appropriate style for themselves. To do their own research, and to learn what the music was about. Very rarely were any artists able to listen to the recordings, because few had been pressed before the records were due for release. All WRC had was a sample pressing, and they were closely guarded by the label managers and the writers; usually the same person. Sometimes the writers would give the artist an idea of where they saw the art going, but that was just a starting point. You can tell from the wide range of styles that most artists just went away and did their own thing, without much regard for what they were told. Most artists soon developed a wide ranging knowledge about the product, the recordings, orchestra, composers and conductors.
Some artists kept to particular music styles: Max Robinson seemed to do quite a lot of Beethoven; Alex Stitt did a lot of Gilbert & Sullivan, the couple of sleeves that Bruce Petty did were for children’s records, and so on. Although there was no intention to pigeon-hole artists, and those above certainly did other things, there was also the opportunity to pick and choose what covers one would like to have a go at, from the extensive catalogue listing.
What was the reaction from the London headquarters and subscribers to the “new look”? Did you find you were able to attract a new audience and did any of the existing audience drop off?
I don’t know what London thought of this, although Geoff Digby says that the British arm did not like to use any of the Australian designs, so I guess that were none too pleased. It is apparent that the Australian covers were much more attractive than the British ones and that they were duly miffed. When Guus van der Hyde went back to his old college in Holland and showed some of his WRC designs they were shocked at the creativity and freedom allowed in the WRC studio. He recalled that the students there all decided to migrate and try to get into an exciting Australian studio. I doubt whether any did, and if they did migrate they would have found that WRC was the only studio of its type in Australia, at that time, anyway.
What sort of tools were you working with in the studio, and what was generally involved in the design and print of a cover?
For roughs, artists worked first on Bank Layout pads, using carpenter’s pencils, and coloured markers. Lettering was done with bow-pen, gouache and fine brush.
Artwork was paste-up on paster-board, using rubber cement [milliner’s glue]. Everything had to be drawn up by hand using t-square and set-square. I still have my extra large W&G plastic square, with inches down one side and mm down the other, and the whole surface was engraved with a grid of lines ¼ inch apart. When I went to work in London in the seventies I had taken my square with me, and was the envy of all the other artists in the studios were I worked, as they had never seen such a handy instrument. Illustrations were drawn by hand, by the illustrator. Coloured work was painted with poster paints. Poster paint dried flat and was non-reflective. When the art was photographed for color-separations it did not flare.
The studio had a wet-transfer photo-copier. A clumsy machine capable of producing line-only copies. Any photograph was instantly posterised with only two tonal levels – black and white. A lot of artwork featured black-line copies. Any tonal images used, and we used to borrow a lot of images from art-books, photographic bromides had to be sourced. This meant sending the book to a photo lab. The page would be marked and a little paper mask placed over the image to be copied, the size, or scale, of the required print written on the mask. A courier, or company rep, would call every day to see if we needed any pics, take away our books, and hopefully return the next day with a little parcel for the studio.
This meant that art production could be a slow process. Any typesetting was hot-metal, and could take more than just one day to gat back from a trade house. Galley proofs were sent back first, for reading and correction, then sent back to the typesetter, corrected and proofs for paste-up back the next day, or the next. The ink was usually still wet, so sometimes it was wise to wait before cutting and gluing took place; but usually everything was so urgent that wet proofs were used, and smudged. It was a frustrating process.
WRC covers were first printed on a flat-bed platen in a print-house on its own premises at Hartwell in suburban Melbourne. Prior to this early covers were printed in Adelaide, and art had to be flown over. The platen at the Hartwell printery was a large machine that printed one cover at a time, but quite fast. Plates and type were locked up into a metal chaise and placed in the bed of the machine, a roller inked the image as the plates passed under and paper then fed into the machine, another roller made the impression. An offset machine was installed in the mid-sixties and the economy afforded by the litho plate-making process allowed designers to use the back of the covers as well, to great effect, while incurring no extra cost.