This is a frustratingly short piece of film—a mere 16 minutes—but it’s fascinating all the same for the brief views it gives inside the London studio of the Hipgnosis design partnership at the tail end of their golden decade, the 1970s. Being an occasional album cover designer as well as a minor Hipgnosis obsessive I like to see where so many of the team’s album covers originated. The two Hipgnosis founders, Aubrey Powell and Storm Thorgerson are both interviewed; the third member of the partnership, Peter Christopherson, is absent. The film is also undated but the discussion of the cover photo for Look Hear? by 10cc puts the year at around 1980. The views of the studio aren’t much different from the rather murky shots of the place in the first Hipgnosis book, An ABC of the Work of Hipgnosis: Walk Away René (1978), but the film gives a better sense of the dishevelled actuality: those stairs that Thorgerson runs up at the opening are the same ones that form the background to the melting Peter Gabriel photo used on the cover of Gabriel’s third album. Powell and Thorgerson are such engaging interviewees they really ought to have been profiled at greater length by the BBC or ITV, not given a few minutes to discuss some of their more notable creations by a small French film crew.
Aubrey Powell shows off the mystery object from the Presence album by Led Zeppelin.
The Hipgnosis studio occupied two floors of a building in Denmark Street, a minor thoroughfare off the Charing Cross Road that used to be a home to music publishers, rehearsal rooms and many of London’s musical instrument vendors. For a few years it was also home to the original and equally dishevelled Forbidden Planet book and comic shop, a place I first visited shortly after it opened in 1978. I always used to visit Forbidden Planet when I was in the capital but the Hipgnosis team had gone their separate ways by the time I found out they’d been based in the same street. Had I known about this earlier I probably would have wandered around for a while wondering which door led to their rooms. With its clutter and blithe disregard for client-flattering furnishings (the reception room, said Thorgerson, had nowhere to sit down) the studio was a long way from anybody’s idea of a well-appointed design business. The place reminds me of the offices occupied for many years by Savoy Books in Deansgate, Manchester: ancient, first-floor rooms whose better days were long past, with tools of the trade littering every surface, recent works-in-progress on the walls and old stickers peeling off the door. In Walk Away René, Thorgerson also admits that the studio lacked a toilet so they had to resort to pissing in a sink, a disgraceful expediency also shared by the Savoy office. In such places was art once made.