Barney Bubbles was an English graphic artist whose work encompassed graphic design and music video direction. Bubbles, who also sketched and painted privately, is best known for his distinctive contribution to the design practices associated with the British independent music scene of the 1970s and 1980s. His record sleeves, laden with symbols and riddles, were his most recognizable output.
Bubbles joined Stiff Records as designer and art director early in 1977. With the label's co-founder Jake Riviera he generated a body of creative work that helped to secure Stiff's reputation as an exciting new independent label. Bubbles created sleeves for bands including the Damned, Ian Dury and Wreckless Eric. Often these were accompanied by quirky logos such as the face logo for Blockhead, advertisements and promotional items.
1977 was a busy year for Bubbles – another iconic project was the design of a 7-inch single for Generation X, the Billy Idol-fronted punk band. The Your Generation / Day by Day 45 featured an avant-garde composition inspired by the work of Polish theorist, painter and pioneer of graphic design Henryk Berlewi printed in red and black. By cloaking punk music in a Constructivist skin, he placed the music in a historical context of similar movements.
Bubbles’ fascination with other graphic and conceptual themes would play out in almost every project of his career – from the investigation of banal home improvement via Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ Do It Yourself album to retrofitting the classic typography of Penguin book covers for his series of cover designs for Utility Records to subverting Soviet iconography for Nick Lowe’s Cracking Up. His experiments would span other media, as well, including art films, music videos for The Specials, Squeeze, Elvis Costello and others; stage design and choreography for Hawkwind; innovative Memphis-esque furniture design; and highly graphic paintings and artwork.
In 1979, riding on the reputation of his work for Stiff, Bubbles was engaged by the venerable UK music newspaper New Musical Express to spearhead a complete overhaul of its decades-old brand. Bubbles' redesign incorporated elements of Pop art and 1920's Soviet poster art into a "sleek, forward-looking" graphic format. His restyling included a fresh logo with "clean, stencilled, military-style lettering", which heralded the title's change from New Musical Express to NME
Bubbles’ mastery of graphic design and print production processes helped support his graphic authorship by exposing those processes in the work itself. He shifted the cover design of Elvis Costello’s album This Year’s Model left a few centimeters so that the CMYK color registration bars that would normally be trimmed off an album design became one of the primary visual components. The photo on the cover shows Costello posing behind a camera on a tripod – the model becoming the photographer, both the subject and the object of the album.
His signature style emerged as one that was colourful, playful, loaded with geometry, art-history and music-history references, jokes, cryptograms and symbols. The overriding appetite was for going against the grain of accepted design standards. His work is simultaneously complex in meaning and simple in its delivery.
This is one of the most appealing things about his work – he was creating new possibilities with his designs, infusing them with multiple meanings, potential readings, and visually rich form in a time where other designers were not operating in the same way.
In the early 1980s Bubbles created furniture designs, some of which were featured in The Face, November 1981.
After leaving college in 1963 Bubbles worked as an assistant at the design company Michael Tucker + Associates in London. Its clients included Pirelli. In a rare interview in November 1981 in The Face, Bubbles described Tucker's discipline as "very Swiss; very hard; unjustified; very grey. He taught me everything about typography." Tucker's studio produced the posters for Hugh Hudson's Pirelli-sponsored film The Tortoise & The Hare (1967), for which Bubbles designed the poster lettering on a freelance basis.