It is rare for graphic designers to become mythologised. Unless, that is, you happen to have made waves in the world of music packaging – think Barney Bubbles, Storm Thorgerson, Malcolm Garrett, Peter Saville and Vaughan Oliver. Their work is regularly discussed, dissected, collected and consumed by a passionate fan base of music lovers and designers alike.
Another distinguished figure in this area is Mark Farrow, who this week becomes a Royal Designer for Industry, a title bestowed by the Royal Society of Arts. Farrow is the first to admit that he was no great shakes at school, but, as a 12-year-old boy, he knew the Latin names of every species in The Observer’s Book of Tropical Fish. This aquatic obsession was later replaced by an equal passion for music, and it was this that was to shape his future.
After only a few weeks at art college he quit to work as a junior in a Manchester design studio, initiating his fingers, as one did in those days, to the silent slashes of the scalpel. Bored with the monotony of paste-up, Farrow indulged his musical interests by taking a Saturday job at a record shop in Manchester’s Underground Market. When Punk exploded, that little outlet – The Discount Record Shop – became the only independent record store worth being seen in, frequented by the bands and designers who made up Manchester’s influential music scene. Among the cutting-edge clientele were Garrett, Ben Kelly and Saville, who, collectively, were changing the face of design with their work for Tony Wilson’s Factory Records and the Hacienda club.
In awe of such celebrity, Farrow tuned in to what was going on. He befriended groups and generally put himself about and, in 1982, was given the opportunity to design a Factory album cover, for Fairy Tales by The Stockholm Monsters. He has been creating covers ever since, and while other designers lamented the passing of the 12-inch vinyl sleeve, Farrow positively rose to the occasion by challenging the very notion of what CD packaging could be. He did this with covers like the much-lauded, 3D, vacuum-formed face on Let it Come Down, and with Ladies and Gentlemen we are Floating in Space, which used an authentic tablet blister-pack containing CDs and accompanying text which aped the language of the pharmaceutical world – both for the band Spiritualized.
His 25-year relationship with the Pet Shop Boys has produced a crop of award-winning covers. Farrow explains that working with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe is always collaborative. ‘We throw ideas around until the right one surfaces. We go back such a long way, so there’s no room for egos to complicate things,’ says Farrow. The latest incarnation, Yes, uses a simple tick made from a series of multicoloured diamonds. This marque forms the basis of a myriad of design components which embrace merchandising, packaging, posters and stage presentation for the band’s current world tour.
Farrow also designs outside the music business – for designers, photographers, publishers and furniture manufacturers. But he has not worked for the more conservative corporate world. Not because he doesn’t want to – he’s just never been asked. It is clear that the relationships he forges with clients is ‘up close and personal’, and often collaborative. Not the kind of relationship one could imagine with the marketing manager or head buyer of a bank, insurance or supermarket conglomerate.
Farrow’s strengths are his passion and his determination to keep things simple. A notable recent project is his packaging for the cafe Peyton and Byrne, which uses the latter name set in Gill Sans caps, centred on flat, matt coloured boxes. It is this kind of minimalist approach that has netted him nine D&AD Silvers during his career.
All work by Mark Farrow