Technicolor Dreamcoats

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By James Gaddy

“Uncle Frank, what’s existential terror?” asks a bright-eyed little girl in a recent spot for VH1’s pop-culture show Best Week Ever. She’s sitting with a small boy, both of them cross-legged, on a set that looks like a relic from a kiddie program about the family farm.

Cut to Uncle Frank, standing dreamily in front of a wooden fence while a jaunty acoustic guitar plunks away in the background. He has stringy long gray hair, leather sandals, and an ankh necklace; he looks like the coolest stoner uncle a kid could wish for.

“What’s existential terror?” he asks. He raises a pinched thumb and forefinger to his lips as though he’s smoking a joint, and as an animated, pastel-pink sky and green grass fill the screen, he proceeds to describe a very funky mind-trip that involves Mr. Sun beaming rainbows, Professor Scarecrow dancing, and the inevitable cruel voice of Satan. Exhausted but content, Uncle Frank declares, “That was the best . . . weed . . . ever.”

Even for its young audience, the spot (produced by Waverly Films in Brooklyn, New York) scores a genuine “WTF?” moment. But young designers with ties to both the art and music scenes are tuning back in to the ’60s, turning on to its explosions of visual stimulation, and dropping it into inspired new patterns that remix and redress the cacophony of modern life. Data is the new LSD.

ABOVE: Stills from “Sunday Stew” by Brand New School.

It’s become a catchall label, but psychedelic design can be roughly defined as transcendental patterns of form and lettering juxtaposed with dominant “hot” colors like purple and red. Yellows, blues, greens, oranges, and pinks can fill up the patterns as well, and—at least in the ’60s—usually formed curvilinear shapes. The form reached its peak with Heinz Edelmann’s Yellow Submarine animation, Martin Sharp’s album covers like Disraeli Gears, Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, Peter Max’s cosmic imagery and softly rhythmic lines, and Victor Moscoso’s almost unreadable San Francisco posters for Janis Joplin’s Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Thirty-five years later, “psychedelic” is a loaded word conjuring up VW microbuses, free love, and the fervent hope that sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll could overturn the existing order. But today, the Age of Aquarius has been reincarnated without the overt politics and peace signs. The neo-acoustic “freak folk” scene has taken off, metal bands channel the repeating chord structures of experimental composer Terry Riley, and cool kids play bluegrass standards on the banjo. Even the pop-hit-making team Gnarls Barkley claims that its most recent record, which spawned the summer hit “Crazy,” draws on psychedelic bands of yore. Mind-expanding music videos and backdrops to live shows are common, as wild as Uncle Frank’s trip and engineered as carefully as the sound.

In the fine-art world, work from Yayoi Kusama, Virgil Marti, and Ira Cohen—in the form of his just-released 1968 film The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda—brightened recent Whitney Biennials. At New York’s Deitch Projects in SoHo, artists like Assume Vivid Astro Focus and Jim Drain explore immersive environments. And just like that, psychedelic images are everywhere—in books (a new biography of Timothy Leary was published this summer), films, and reissued records from the likes of the Byrds, Love, and the Beach Boys.

The difference between the first psychedelic revolution and this one, says Justin Cone, an interactive designer who runs the constantly updated, is that designers today are filtering the ’60s style through the lens of the 1980s—and deliberately skipping the ’90s. Like the prism on the album cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, this lens fractures both the colors and undulating rhythms of throwback psychedelia into a new style, one that incorporates ’80s pop-culture references, underground comics, anime, science-fiction archetypes, street art, kaleidoscopic filters, and tongue-in-cheek clip art: multicolored rainbows, stars, and geometric shapes set to Atari video-game sound effects.

Saiman Chow, a designer and former art director at motion graphics firm Brand New School, grew up in the ’80s, and he’s thought a lot about the ’60s. “It was just so free,” he says. “They made the best music, 1967, when Sgt. Pepper’s came out. The Kinks, the Zombies—they don’t make music like that anymore.” As a student five years ago at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, Chow fell in love with the music and culture of that time. He was also fascinated by Japanese animation. When Topher Sinkinson from Nike approached him to work on a short film for the company’s Art of Speed campaign, Chow thought it would be fun to combine the two styles.

Stills from “Oggo” by Saiman Chow.

The result, 2003’s “Oggo,” remains a touchstone for modern interpretations of psychedelia. Set inside a runner’s head, the story surrounds a community of two-armed, two-legged, unbearably cute pillow-like beings who run awkwardly, panting like puppies with their tongues hanging out. They race against each other using an endless array of powered vehicles, trekking through candy-colored environments that look like old racing video games, pinball machines, and Japanese cartoons. A long-haired guitarist rains down thunderbolts from churning, purple-and-green mushroom clouds. The six-minute short, directed by Chow and Han Lee, fractures Peter Max through the lens of hallmark youth experiences from the ’80s.

The year “Oggo” was released, German publisher Die Gestalten Verlag published ABC+, a monograph for Laurent Fétis. The French designer may be best known in the United States for creating the album packaging for Beck’s 2002 album Sea Change, but he has also created catalogs for the Centre Georges Pompidou and the French band Mellow that shows a versatile amalgam of oversaturated color and muted edges, reflecting the layered, swirling music it accompanies. At the end of the ’90s, he says, a cold “computer aesthetic” dominated graphic design. Fed up with the “Neville Brody style,” Fétis set about reviving the plastic freedom of the ’60s using modern tools.

Robert Klanten, the industrial designer who founded DGV, agrees. People got bored with the rationalist sobriety of ’90s design, he says, and they started looking for ways to humanize the attendant technology. The influx of new software and a diverse range of media options allowed designers to emphasize style with far more freedom and individuality.

The New York–based design collective Lifelong Friendship Society embodies this new breed. Revolting against the “super-clean, sterile corporate look of the ’90s [and] early 2000s,” says Brian Close, a co-owner and creative director, the group maintains a distinctive style across all types of media. They have created alternately spaced-out and aggressive spots for Volkswagen and the TV channel Fuse, a mind-melting entry for the DVD magazine *smilefaucet, as well as print work for Cranbrook, CMYK magazine, and the design conference Semi-Permanent.

The designers at LFS argue that even if the current wave of psychedelia seems like just another retro trend, it remains the embodiment of our time. In a visual world dominated by MySpace, TiVO, YouTube, and text
-messaging, updated ’60s imagery is a reaction to media overstimulation that’s a way of life in modern youth culture—and might even be its antidote. When the boundaries are blurred between text and image, the digital screen and the tactile experience, viewers and listeners may need, if not a return to nature exactly, at least a clean mental state. The LFS vision is a “backlash against so many promos and TV spots that are the same type of noise,” Close says. Travis Spangler, another LFS co-owner and creative director, agrees and adds approvingly, “It’s this peak noise.” In a carefully managed commercial culture awash in cynicism, opening oneself up to a collection of sounds and flashing colors becomes a radical act, if not the kind that Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin ever predicted.

The work is noisy, to be sure—it’s an aggressive sensory overload, influenced by the Fort Thunder noise music and art scene in Providence, Rhode Island, during the mid-’90s and early ’00s. Bands like the avant-electronic group Black Dice, the metal/hardcore duo Lightning Bolt, and the three-person art collective Paper Rad maintain a visual aesthetic that, as Black Dice member Bjorn Copeland puts it, “has an assaultive quality.”

Indeed, a Black Dice show is a crash course in stroboscopic lighting, infrared effects, collaged body parts, lines and swaths of color jammed together, strange beings, and hypnotic, asymmetrical patterns. Danny Perez, a longtime friend of the band who directed the band’s video “Smiling Off,” orchestrates punishing visuals during live shows. “People have seizures at shows,” Copeland says, in slightly hyperbolic praise of the mix of light and sound. “They throw up. . . . We are interested in a total loss of control.”

Copeland designs all of the band’s packaging, saying they are looking for something to visually represent the music. The band, with their friend Jason Rothenberg, published Gore, which incorporates a cut-and-paste approach to psychedelia. Likewise, the comics makers and midnight image bakers at Paper Rad repeat patterns of red, purple, blue, green, and yellow—along with pop kitsch like Garfield and My Little Pony—in sharper, less curvilinear, and more geometric shapes, set to flashing backgrounds and other hypnotizing effects.

Page from Gore by Black Dice.

Inevitably, the acid aesthetic is showing up in corporate design as well. Nathan Crow and Camille Sze, two creatives at Rubin Postaer & Associates, enlisted the help of director Roman Coppola to create a 20-second commercial for the new Honda Civic Hybrid. In the spot—set to a folk-tinged ballad by the indie-rock band Grandaddy—a young couple talks in speech bubbles where images of seahorses, jellyfish, and flowers stand in for words. About halfway through, these bubbles morph into a three-second collaged panel that becomes a mother lode of images colored like an ’80s-era, Lisa Frank–designed Trapper Keeper on drugs: exploding volcanoes, electrified planets, a giraffe eating a cherry, and a praying mantis with sunglasses. Sze echoes the idea that these images are a response to the modern world young people live in. “We communicate with images, e-mails, text messages,” she says. “We don’t speak in sentences. This is how people with interesting brains would communicate.”

Between 2003 and 2005, the interesting brains at Brand New School (based in New York and L.A.) made similar graphics for MTV’s popular programming block “Sunday Stew” that incorporated saturated colors to heighten the sense of disorientation. Jens Gehlhaar, a BNS creative director, says that the first year, they shot a “parade of oddities”—discarded computer monitors, bags of trash cut and pasted together with deliberately crude animation, diagonal background patterns, and giant mushrooms.

About those mushrooms. There’s no designer equivalent of Timothy Leary here, but there’s no need for one; drug use among the form’s appreciators is presumed. The references tend to be mischievous or cheeky—as in “Best Weed Ever”—or they may be clever updates on raver visuals of the ’80s and ’90s. Or else they’re more subtle, as in a recent Sprite commercial in which a man is laid on a bed and a white-jacketed figure places two square tabs—a yellow one for lemon and a green one for lime—on his tongue. The rapid-fire images of blooming flowers that follow traffic in the iconography of tripping.

Hallucinogens aside, it’s clear that the ’60s have kept their hip cachet. After the scrubbed-clean, government-issue images of the ’50s, the ’60s generation rediscovered color’s passionate, chaotic, and vibrant possibilities, and that’s welcome inspiration. Motionographer’s Justin Cone remembers his dazzling first encounter with this kind of surreal freedom, via Lenny Kravitz’s video for “Are You Gonna Go My Way” in the mid-’90s: “The free-love vibe, the long hair, the retro clothing—it all seemed oddly familiar and infinitely cool.” He’s still under the influence. As is Chris Palazzo, a motion-graphics designer and animator whose work contributes to the growing scene. He points out that in this case, familiarity breeds respect. The psychedelic look is “zany and wacky, but it’s been done before”—by the ’60s hippies who are now the consumers looking for something they can relate to. “It’s speaking a language they know,” he says.

The designers and musicians channeling the decade tap into this familiarity, and the digital world of image retrieval makes it easy to appropriate and adapt. “It is largely not a conscious effort, but a kind of subconscious sapping of the zeitgeist,” Cone insists. At LFS, Brian Close thinks he knows the zeitgeist and the future: “It’s just a matter of time before the commercial is just colors and a logo at the end.” Uncle Frank might call it the best ad ever.

"The Future of Shopping," an ad for Diesel.  Designer: Saiman Chow


Psychedelia is making a triumphant return. But in the updated Age of Aquarius, data is the new LSD.

This article appears in the September/October 2006 issue of Print.

About the AuthorJames Gaddy is senior editor of Print.Also in this issueSeptember/October 2006The God of Small ThingsBusiness Graphics 2006

"The Future of Shopping," an ad for Diesel.

Designer: Saiman Chow