Experimental Problem Solving: Whities Art Director Alex McCullough Strips Away Excess
“My intent isn’t to necessarily make work on the apex of design,” asserts London-based art director Alex McCullough. This statement may seem a little surprising coming from the guy responsible for crafting the visuals for the super cool, leftfield electronic music label Whities. However, a desire to cut to music’s emotional core informs all of his output for the imprint, resulting in refreshing, bespoke record covers and event posters.
McCullough says he views himself as a critical designer in terms of how he thinks about his work and the way it functions in the world. “But,” he adds, “when it comes to the process in which I produce or select images – I would definitely call myself an optimistic designer.”
Whities was founded in 2014 by Nic Tasker, a former Boiler Room programmer and host partially responsible for the platform’s rise to success. The label has put out releases by genre-bending artists including Terron, Kowton, Reckonwrong and Quirke. McCullough’s artwork for their records often has a colourful, exuberant visual language, yet each one is intentionally unique. “I think it’s important to stretch the format and not stand still for too long,’ he explains, noting that this unpredictability can ultimately coalesce into consistency. “That’s the prevailing upside of working on a catalogue like this,” he says. “You have elbow room to develop the rolling project over time. To pick up and return to themes. To self reference.”
On the cover of Arizona-born producer Avalon Emerson’s pumping, psychedelic techno EP Whities 006, for example, illustrated 8-bit blue and red cacti stretch their thick, prickly arms in a pixelated desert. In contrast, Coby Sey’s experimental ode to London’s grittiness, Whities 010, features a photograph taken from an angled vantage on the top level of a double decker bus as a gaggle of teenagers wile away the afternoon on the street. It’s tipped-in to a dark green background populated by light blue flecks that awaken sense memories of similar buses’ speckled floors.
For each Whities project McCullough receives tracks in advance, preferring to meet with the artist initially, if possible, to discuss their intentions. “Once the artist feels as though you understand their music”, he explains, “they become open to allow you to interpret it.” He begins with an initial concept phase, and he encourages a musician to stipulate a specific fact or requirement that sparks his own research, illuminating a path to the crux of their sound. After that, he says, comes the fun part: “It’s now a bit of a game where you control how much detail you disclose to the audience. You can knowingly remove one or two ‘pillars’ of information – be that through aesthetic decision, format, subversion, et cetera – in the final article.” McCullough describes this sort of stripping back as an exercise in refining, which takes up more time than any other part of his creative process. Here, he’s able to problem solve in an experimental manner, chipping away at anything that feels superfluous so only the fundamental intent remains.
McCullough feels responsible for producing album art that appropriately enhances the music at hand, and he views the artists he works with more like collaborators than clients. A recent design for the label, Lanark Artefax’s Whities 011, features a comic; he commissioned contemporary illustrator Joseph P Kelly to draw the bottom panel. Ethereal, ultra-digital soundscapes somehow go hand-in-hand with the black line renderings of a wizard-like figure directing an epic storm, causing seismic shifts in the earth and wreaking havoc. However, there’s an esoteric quality to the link between the visual and aural. “Sometimes there should be that element of mythology built in,” McCullough says. “I think that great record covers need to strike that balance between ambiguity and complete directness.”
A recurring aspect of McCullough’s practice involves what he refers to as ‘scanning’ – scouring the Internet and various printed matter for found imagery which he then combines with other visuals in unexpected ways. Whities 012 by Minor Science, for instance, depicts an accurate scale section of Still Life with a Gilt Cup, a 1635 oil painting by Dutch old master Willem Claeszoon Heda that is currently hanging in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. By uprooting a well-known work of art from its intended semiological origins, he’s able to repurpose and examine it in a new framework, including only a minimal amount of text (and thus, context) relating to the track itself. “I’m searching to provide an appropriate face which can deliver the music in the most original or unexpected or purest way possible,” he says.
McCullough’s own website, designed with Joseph Pleass, employs this technique, too. Different Whities releases sit atop a variety of found photos, from mould growing on lychees to a shot of drunken Mancunian New Year’s Eve revellers that made headlines a couple years back for its grim realness. Clicking on ‘Information’ in the corner, the visuals get smaller and large type in all caps cleverly describes the juxtaposition in detail – in one case, an image of a brown butterfly on dead leaves with a poster for a music event in the foreground. McCullough considers these pairings as single works, finding a pleasing balance by employing a nuanced, personal curatorial method.
Sometimes, McCullough re-appropriates well-known corporate identities in an effort to mash disparate elements of visual culture together, hunting for surprising results. He views this approach as postmodern, citing a parallel between his own interests and the work of Peter Saville. An illustration he created for Nic Tasker’s NTS radio show, for example, features his take on Matisse’s dancers frolicking in a circle, their cartoonish bodies covered with large red iterations of the DHL logo. A poster for a recent party in East London bears a blue band with the Lycamobile logo running across the top, with McDonald’s familiar golden arches at the bottom – though, instead of ‘i’m lovin’ it’, the adjacent text reads ‘i’m pranging out in maccy d’s’ (a reference to lyrics from forthcoming Reckonwrong material).
While this is certainly cheeky, McCullough argues that he avoids postmodernism’s penchant for irony, taking care to come across as sincere and considered rather than mocking or novel. When he uses brand identities or re-appropriates logos, it’s intended more as a way to apply texture or layers than making a statement about capitalism.
By acknowledging that these practical instances of graphic design exist, he can break down their component parts and use them as blocks to build wholly new images. This system is similar when he applies it to popular artworks or a photo of, say, blue sky.
“If we can agree that the primary intent of the record is to deliver an emotion and connect with the audience,” McCullough says, “I [can begin] thinking that surely packaging it in the familiar is the best way to draw people in. And next, direct them to perceive the change in context and the significance of that choice. Invite people to question why we might have used it. Or just enjoy the fact that, when combined with music, something very simple has the ability to appear suddenly rich and profoundly relevant.”
Design: Alex McCullough & Jack Wells