Following on from our discussion in part one, Geoff Hocking talks here about the evolution of the World Record Club and the new influences that were having an impact on the visual direction of the label. It is interesting to note the changing styles of the WRC sleeves throughout the years, slowly steering away from illustration and photography towards more geometric, abstract and typographic designs.
Geoff also shares some insights into how and why the label came to a close, and what impact the experience of working in the studio has had on him as a designer and educator today. Despite how much the design and music industries have changed since the demise of the WRC, the lessons here are as relevant today as they were then.
The World Record Club visuals evolved greatly over time, can you talk to me about some of the influences that were coming into the studio?
It is interesting to note that the main influences on illustration styles in particular were American, rather than British. Alex Steinweiss and Joe Flora were producing great distinctive covers for Columbia and their eccentric take on music and graphic styling was the starting point for a lot of Australian designers. But most soon evolved their own signature styles. The work of Martin and Alice Provenson was also important. The pared back graphic styling of their Iliad shook everybody up and set a new benchmark for graphic illustration.
World Record responded to all the art movements: pop, abstract expressionism, cubism, fauvism, surrealism, collage and even op-art. If it was happening elsewhere, WRC would pump out a few covers in response.
English magazines such as NOVA and The SUNDAY TIMES, and the German TWEN broke new ground with photo-essays and this style of creative photography was also picked up by WRC. Bob Haberfield and Guus van der Heyde created a lot of photographic covers in a European style whereas the society photographer Athol Smith produced stylish portraits of show-folk and lots of pictures of comely lasses for a variety of covers.
What lead to the end of the label and the design studio?
When WRC started dedicated record shops did not exist. Records were sold in musical instrument shops, electrical goods stores and some department stores. They were more often than packaged in a generic brown bag featuring the name of the store, and not the title of the work.
When WRC started to offer direct-mail delivery, customers all over the country had access to a product previously unattainable to them, if they lived outside the metropolitan, or a larger regional centre. By the late sixties a revolution had taken place. Pop–music dominated the music scene, and with a cashed-up teenage customer base, tastes in music changed as did the play-back equipment. For the first time teenagers had affordable play-back equipment in their bed-rooms, even in their cars. Record stores, that is shops dedicated to the retailing of a single product line sprang up all over the place. The demand for direct-mail, and even for the sort of ‘easy-listening’ product that had been the backbone of WRC sales diminished.
WRC was taken over by EMI and the bean-counters took over. Design opportunities were cut back to generics. In the end the product simply lost its charm. The music was still good, the product sound, but design was no longer a prime concern. The accountants expected the customers to stay wedded to then idea of the product, but no longer allowed for the whole package. Once they started selling steak-knives in the catalogues the writing was on the wall. WRC died a slow death.
How do you think your experience at the WRC design studio shaped your future work, and what do you think designers today could learn from the studio and its output?
WRC was incredibly important in shaping my design career. First, I met some incredible people. I was exposed to great work, and a demanding work ethic that taught me that it was all about the end product, how creative you could be and how much a part of the team you had to be. I think we all felt that we were honouring the legacy of those who had come before us, and setting a standard for those who came after.
When I left WRC, after a year or two in secondary teaching, I too travelled to Britain, and after a few months in advertising went back to the business as an art director for an EMI subsidiary, Paul Hamlyn’s Music For Pleasure. When I got there I felt I was at home.
Back in Australia I continued to design for local record companies: Fable, Image, Hammard, EMI and Rajon, and have produced hundreds of designs for records and CD packages. I went freelance after a couple of years in UK and started to do work for Hamlyn’s other arm, Books For Pleasure, illustrating for children. That experience set me up for my return to OZ and have also illustrated for most major Australian publishers.
At the age of 19 years, I assisted Geoff Digby, one evening, at his home in Camberwell, put together a styling for a book he was preparing for the Herald. I had never seen this done before. Today, book design is the major part of the work I do. We even have our own boutique imprint, NEW CHUM PRESS, and have so far published six titles. All are books I have authored. I guess that it is the experience at WRC that set me on this path. I learnt from enthusiastic old newspaper men, knowledgeable writers, talented musicians, creative composers and artists; cultured men, and women, with wide-ranging interests, excited by art, music, literature and all that a mind open to life’s rich experiences can enjoy.
I guess that is what I learnt. Never to stop learning. It is your knowledge that allows your art to make sense, makes it interesting and makes it communicate.
Geoff’s excellent, comprehensive book on the Australian World Record Club label and design studio is available to order from his site.