A Box of Bubbles

Posted inGraphic Design

The first monograph on the work of Colin Fulcher, aka Barney Bubbles, filled in significant gaps of knowledge about a critical yet underappreciated figure in the history of graphic design. Today, the book, which came out in 2008, is out of print and selling from anywhere between $300–$1,900 online.

Fortunately, those that missed out the first time around are in luck: Volume is releasing a lavish and limited collector’s edition of the definitive monograph, The Wild World of Barney Bubbles, which has been revised and updated by the book’s author, Paul Gorman. The publication date coincides with what would have been Bubbles’ 80th birthday on July 30, 2022.

From the late 1960s until his untimely death in 1983, Bubbles quietly became one of the most respected and sought-after designers on the independent British music scene. He designed album sleeves, posters, and ephemera for numerous bands and musicians, such as Hawkwind, The Damned, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Depeche Mode, and plenty more. He didn’t like to sign his work, but when he did, he used various pen names, such as Jacuzzi Stallion, Heeps Willard, and Barney Bubbles. 

In today’s world of digital downloads and music streaming, it’s easy to forget just how powerful a record cover’s design could be or how intertwined it became to the music itself. The graphic components of an album were often a consumer’s first point of contact with new music and became inextricably linked to it from that point forward. 

Alex Steinweiss, widely regarded as the father of album cover art, started the tradition of using graphics to sell records beginning in the 1930s. At the time, music came in bland, uniform record albums. “To my mind, this was no way to package beautiful music,” he said. After he convinced Columbia to invest in his new idea, sales increased by a whopping 900 percent. Record executives took note, and it paved the way for what would become the golden age of album cover art, spanning the 1960–1980s, of which Barney Bubbles was one of the leading figures.

Over the past few years, Gorman worked with the Barney Bubbles Estate to incorporate 16 additional pages of rare and previously unseen material. A Box of Bubbles is generously packaged in a clothbound, bubblegum pink Solander box and screen-printed with Bubbles’ design for Ian Dury and The Blockheads’ hit single, “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.” Also included in the clamshell is an eclectic array of Barney Bubbles ephemera, such as a 21-piece “Galactic Tarot” set designed for the band Hawkwind, a make-your-own pyramid printed on reflective foil stock, and a “Dome Sweet Dome” geodesic dome, naturally.

Volume’s packaging for this collector’s edition feels very much in the spirit of Barney Bubbles, who was known for incorporating playful production flourishes into his designs. An experimental imprint of Thames & Hudson founded by Darren Wall and Lucas Dietrich in 2017, it uses a crowdfunding model to produce collectible books for niche audiences. Volume’s strength lies in identifying subject matters with a strong fanbase that might otherwise get passed over by big publishers often compelled to produce books conservatively out of financial considerations. 

When I interviewed Wall about Volume last year, he described how raising money in advance gives the publishing house the ability to pull out all the stops on production. Instead of making conservative estimates about how many copies it might sell, the Volume team can collaborate with its authors to create objets d’art. Its goal is to deliver a book that would be the holy grail for hardcore fans—luckily, that’s what you get with A Box of Bubbles precisely.

Part of the joy in viewing Bubbles’ work, especially gathered together in book format, is in the dizzying array of visual cues culled from early 20th-century art movements, comic books, and other cultural reference points, which he brilliantly repurposed to create new meaning. There are the early Hawkwind albums like Roadhawks influenced by Art Deco; Space Ritual borrowed elements from Art Nouveau and Alphonse Mucha; and Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music, which has intonations of Italian Futurism. The abstract, Wassily Kandinsky-inspired album cover for Music for Pleasure by The Damned is a classic, as is the Bauhaus-inspired logo for Ian Dury’s backing band, The Blockheads.

More than just pastiche, Bubbles took elements of disparate art and design trends and presented them in playful and unexpected ways. He was a master of subverting expectations and making clever visual puns, and his album covers were like miniature canvases on which he could experiment with color, type, illustration, and photography. It’s not surprising that Bubbles dabbled in other mediums as well, including furniture (like this incredible Tree of Drawers), video, and painting, although what he remains best known for is his album cover designs.

Even back then, Bubbles’ preference for anonymity was a repeated topic of conversation. In an interview with The Face in November 1981, he explained, “I feel strongly about what I do, that it is for other people, that’s why I don’t really like crediting myself on people’s albums—like you’ve got a Nick Lowe album, it’s NICK LOWE’s album, not Barney Bubbles’ album!” 

The irony, of course, is that despite Bubbles’ humble nature and aversion to the spotlight, many of the albums he designed are unmistakably his. By the early 1980s, copycats began to materialize, confirming his influence within the music industry. There’s a well-known story of Bubbles going around to different record labels during that era with his portfolio, only to learn that other designers had been passing off his work as their own. 

Nearly 40 years after his death, Barney Bubbles will finally receive the recognition he deserves. While he remains an enigmatic figure, thanks to the dedicated efforts of Paul Gorman, we can gain a little more insight into this complex and talented designer who gave us some of the most iconic and memorable album cover designs of the late 20th century. 

You can preorder A Box of Bubbles here.

For several decades, Ryan Mungia has pursued a multi-disciplined career that has included designing books, publishing, and writing about the visual arts for various websites, including AIGA/Eye on Design and Literary Hub. He serves as an archivist and manages the Jim Heimann Collection, a 50-year repository of 20th-century imagery, narrative art, popular culture, and photography. Mungia’s editorial and design work for Cologne-based publishing house TASCHEN continues into its 15th year. His imprint has produced various titles, including Pot Shots, Protect Yourself, The Will To Draw, Shore Leave, and his most recent book, Do You Compute?