Who was Barney Bubbles? Anonymity and the Design Canon…

Who was Barney Bubbles? Before addressing that let’s consider once more the nature of the canon and how it is, almost inevitably, shaped by near random samplings and collations. I should preface this by noting that I speak mainly of the visual communications area, but aspects of the analysis do bear upon other disciplines. In the mid-1980s, and indeed long after, there was no coherent history extant of many designers and illustrators who had worked in what was in fact quite a recent time period. One might also point to the much more constrained level of communication of information in a world before the internet and true mass media. In part this was also because codified histories of design and visual communications still had yet to be written. Another factor was that there was no sense of ‘history’ in terms of design. The practise still outweighed the reflective. That is, of course, true today as well. But, there are histories that have been written and there is an ever greater interest in the area.

One of the more interesting aspects of the recent Helvetica documentary was that it allowed us to actually see the designers, the people and the personalities behind long familiar work. Again, until relatively recently there was a sense of detachment and distance from those who produced design, a sense that personality was secondary. The names were known, but the faces much less so. This is far from unproblematic. Work is not produced in a vacuum, and it is also important to recognise the centrality of personality – of authorship – to the process. Now, it is certainly true that for those working in design there was a greater familiarity with individual designers. And yet the constrained physical and communications horizons of a pre-digital era led to a certain distance, a certain detachment. That this was used, entirely deliberately, by some designers when generating work (one thinks of Peter Saville in particular who reveled in a sense of anonymity in both the nature of the work he produced and in respect to his own identity) is fascinating.

But what happens when the personality is obscured deliberately by the individual creating work?

Take the example of Barney Bubbles. His most visible design, and one which is still – somewhat amended – in use today, is the New Musical Express (NME) masthead logo. Those of a certain age will – perhaps – remember his work for space-rock group Hawkwind or for New Wave icons Ian Dury and the Blockheads. It was Bubbles who developed the angular logo for the latter, it was he who produced psychedelic tinged imagery for the former.

His approach incorporated a range of different styles. A smaller number again will know that he produced the cover artwork for many of Elvis Costello’s albums. There were elements of pastiche and retrospection. The imagery for Hawkwind leaned on Futurist and Constructivist illustration with a hint of Art Deco. He clearly was familiar with a wide range of historical references that he utilised to generate unique imagery.

He sat on the interface between different and in some respects mutually incompatible visual revolutions. The last ripples of psychedelia intersected with punk and then New Wave to generate – well, remarkably modern work as it happens. He was able to produce work which straddled both areas entirely successfully and with a curious retrospective gloss on the 1970s work which translated into a modernist, yet decorative, sheen on the 1980s pieces.

He had worked on various underground magazines during the 1960s including Oz. He moved for some time to the west coast of the United States. And somehow that influence is apparent not merely in the work for Hawkwind with its lush floral configurations based in large part of Art Nouveau, but also later designs that more than hint at Memphis influenced design, particularly those he did for Ian Dury. And still later ones for Elvis Costello which quite explicitly reference Blue Note style designs.

Indeed this ‘painterly’ quality to his illustration gave it a curiously organic feel that might well have suited this period where the digitisation of hand rendered imagery has brought more traditional illustrative techniques back into fashion.

Of course this raises a further issue. How significant was the work that Barney Bubbles produced? Well, on the evidence of the work we do know about, considerably so. This was material which managed to span a considerable period of time and remarkably different styles with assurance. To my mind he belongs to a group of designers who were the clear expression of a specific time and place, whose work epitomises that time. Once more one thinks of Saville. That he was able to bridge the gap between psychedelia and New Wave is indicative of an approach which incorporated considerable flexibility.

But one remarkable aspect of his work was that he refused to sign the pieces that he produced. Therefore there remains a considerable body of work which is unattributed to him. To add to this anonymity Bubbles also refused payment in a large number of instances.

That he also embraced the counter-culture and through the use of anonymity sought to project the idea that design had an autonomy beyond the commercial is fascinating. One might argue that his willful anonymity was in part to break down the artificial barriers between the author of a work and the consumer.

And, of course, there was no Barney Bubbles in the sense that he was born Colin Fulcher. Apparently he had a love of pseudonyms and finally fixed upon one alone. So even the Bubbles name was a further layer of anonymity.

The difficulties that his approach presents the canon are varied. The sampling that we have of his work that can be definitely attributed is limited, and deliberately so on the part of the person who generated that work. Tragically he committed suicide at the age of 41 in 1983, and seemingly the opportunity to discover more is now lost. Yet, he is referenced on wikipedia and there is at least one site which deals with him in some detail, that of designer John Coulthart (who also worked for Hawkwind), here.

Yet a curious paradox emerges, because despite this lack of information about him there have been a number of articles published on him and his work across the last quarter century. Rick Poyner writing on John Coulthart’s site notes:

Malcolm mentions the article about Bubbles in The Face — it’s in no. 19, November 1981. Not impossible to find in a vintage magazine shop, even now.

It’s by Dave Fudger, runs to four pages, includes a nice abstract self-portrait in colour (BB declined to be photographed), and, as well as the record sleeves, it shows some of the furniture — very postmodern, quite Memphis — that Bubbles designed for Editions Riviera in 1981.

There is more. He also noted that:

For anyone who cares to track it down, we published a well illustrated, 16-page article about Bubbles by Julia Thrift in Eye magazine (no. 6 vol. 2, 1992) — it remains one of the very few pieces published about him.

Will Birch [see the comments section for this post] noted that:

There is some Barney Bubbles biographical information in my book ‘No Sleep Till Canvey Island – The Great Pub Rock Revolution’.

And remarkably he also featured as the subject of an exhibition of his work held by Rebecca and Mike Heath in the early 2000’s in London.

So whatever his anonymity, the lack of information about him and his work was to a significant extent very much a function of different sources largely inaccessible due to them appearing prior to appearance of the internet, or during a time when the internet was still relatively new.

That situation has changed.

On the comments section on John Coulthart’s site we read Paul Gorman write:

I thought it may interest your subscribers/visitors to know that my book about Barney’s work will be published this autumn by British publisher Adelita. A US publisher will be announced soon.

Coulthart also has a post on this and notes…

My long and rambling post about the work of Barney Bubbles in January 2007 generated a considerable flurry of renewed interest in the great designer and ended by saying “We’re overdue a decent book-length examination of his work and his influence.” Just over a year later, here we are…. Paul Gorman was one of the contributors to the lengthy comments thread and I’m really pleased to see him take up the challenge to bring Barney’s work to a wider and, one hopes, new audience.

It is difficult not to propose that the layers of communication that have developed in this era, and the internet being foremost amongst them, have given a surprising impetus to the development of the canon. The retrieval of information about previously (largely) unsung designers continues apace (consider too how central Peter Saville has become to the history of Factory Records and the group Joy Division – particularly in the last decade with the profusion of films about their history). Their work becomes evident for the ‘new audience’ that Coulthart writes about. What would Bubbles make of this, having spent a fair portion of his life playing with the concept that his identity could become nearly entirely detached from his work? One wonders.

Who then was Barney Bubbles? Perhaps we’re about to find out. Again.

Ciarán Swan

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