Build / Michael C Place interview by Sebastian Chan


Interview by Sebastian Chan

Pop Will Eat Itself was never a “cool’ band to be into. Derided in the UK as being a band liked by “students’, a Brit-music-press codeword for a kind of anti-working class “false consciousness’, PWEI had a big following in Australia. They toured regularly in the very early 1990s, and even had an Australian-only best of compilation made for them. Of course, looking back, the most memorable thing about PWEI was their sleeve designs and merchandise. Sheffield’ The Designers Republic (tDR) was behind all of PWEI’ design and visual identity. Buying a PWEI product was about buying into their fictional “corporation’, complete with its own corporate identity. Detourned logos, self-referencing slogans, fake subsidiary companies, bold brash colours, vectors and cartoon figures all featured prominently, along with an emphasis on the presentation of useless technical data like CD player speeds, data bit-rates and the like. All of this was essential to the whole package, and complimented the sampledelic music well.

Michael Place joined tDR in 1992 and for the next ten years was instrumental in creating the overriding aesthetic of techno and electronica, creating the visual identities for seminal labels like Belgian stalwarts R&S and working on sleeves for Warp and others, as well as the Wipeout game for Sony. Whereas the design work for PWEI always seemed “ahead’ of the music, for labels like Warp and R&S, the highly technologically-oriented design work was a perfect fit for the highly technological music of the time. In 2000 Michael left tDR to travel and upon his return set up his own studio, Build with his wife Nicky and feline assistants Betty and Brockmann in 2001.

Michael begins, “when I saw the covers for 4AD by Vaughn Oliver, and the sleeves for Factory by Peter Saville, I was hooked. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a sleeve designer, my college tutors just didn’t accept that it was a profession that one could be successful in. The sleeves [by tDR]for Age of Chance and Pop Will Eat Itself also made a big impression on me. I remember some PWEI singles having about 9-10 different formats – people used to complain about the amount of formats, but personally as a consumer of music I used to love all that stuff. I failed my course, but got a job when I left college with Trevor Jackson at Bite It!, then at tDR, both designing predominantly for record sleeves”.

“When I was a kid I used to sit and draw the Iron Maiden (s/t, 1980) cover. Looking at those Iron Maiden covers now, they are a really strong set, “Eddie’ by [British artist] Derek Riggs is such a strong character. I also used to paint peoples’ leather jackets with various record cover art – mainly Heavy Metal acts/logos. I was fascinated by band logos, perhaps a precursor to my interest in typography. My all-time favourite is ‘AC/DC’ . . . I do think that people underestimate the role of the sleeve designer. It is different now, but ten years ago what sleeve designers were doing would generally filter down to the mainstream in about two years, they were seen as the pioneers in a lot of ways, stylistically I mean. The good thing now [in the UK anyway]is that people are a lot more design-savvy, people tend to appreciate good design more.”

With the shift to downloadable music across the board, it is hard to imagine sleeve design having such a broad social impact anymore. Michael explains, “It’s very hard now to just do sleeve design, the budgets just aren’t there anymore. The whole download thing is a little depressing, but people will always want to buy records/CDs. In terms of buying music there is no feeling like looking through the racks, looking at the covers, buying it, looking at it again while you are on the bus, the excitement of getting home, taking it out of the bag, putting it on, taking out the inner sleeves, the booklet and looking at all the detail, all the subtleties, there is nothing on this Earth that comes close to that in a downloadable format. Music isn’t just about the music, it’s about the complete package, music needs a visual voice. It’s all those things. [In my sleeve designs] I always tried to give the person who ultimately buys that piece of music something to get enjoyment out of, make them smile, make them cross . . . [That said], I think [good sleeve design]will just get harder to produce, and in the end become prohibitively expensive. It all comes down to money – marketing departments see more value in advertising rather than fancy sleeves, sleeves are nowadays designed to be readable from a thumbnail on a screen, covers are dictated by where HMV will place their price sticker . . .”

“[Back in the mid 1990s] if I was designing a sleeve for a major label there tended to be some constraints, but generally for independents it was fine. 90 odd percent was all about trying to interpret/react to the music, the attitude of an artist. For instance on Sun Electric’ Via Nostra album all the type was 4.5pt Isonorm – not very readable from any distance! The label could get around that by stickering the front – not ideal, but I’d rather I could do what I want and then take the sticker off, and still have the cover as I wanted it. I tended to fight hammer & tongs for the integrity of the sleeve, and let them do what they wanted with the advertising. Nowadays though, I think the whole ‘Thumbnail view’ aesthetic is more scary than the download thing. We once worried that the 12″ sleeve would disappear in favour of the CD, but I always designed to the format. Whilst some [lazy]people just shrank down the album art to the CD size, I used to love designing the sleeve differently for the CD.”

One of Michael’ last works for tDR was the Warp 10th anniversary series, and the 2D>3D book. Both of these, along with his work for Satoshi Tomiie illustrate a move into an interzone between real world images and composited graphics and vectors. In these the familiar logo, trademark and pseudo-corporate aesthetics and typography from earlier work now meshes with saturated photography of real objects – buildings around Sheffield for Warp, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Slovenia for the 2D>3D book, and photocopiers and strange office equipment for Tomiie. These themes carry through to some more recent work including Build’ cover for the London Electrics compilation.

“One of the last things I did there was the ‘Warp 10’ campaign. I was really pleased how the whole set came out/looked. There were over 60 images, over all the formats, each with their own bit of ‘Warp Purple’ – I hated that colour by the end of that project. The shots were taken over a week of wandering around Sheffield and Leeds taking shots of the city, wandering around university campuses, around car parks, up towerblocks, then spending 3 days with no sleep designing and compositing
the images/sleeves.”

“As a kid I used to love taking things like car radios and stereos to bits and really getting into trouble when I couldn’t put them back together again! I used to then use the parts to make other things, which is where my fascination for deconstruction came from. What I love about technical manuals, apart from the diagrams of course is the wording, I love the language, the choice of words and its visual language – it’s really fascinating to me . . . I think I always saw the instruction manual as a stepping stone, building Lego®, Airfix® model planes, Tamiya® tanks were some of my favourite logos/packaging. But once you’ve followed the instructions, you’ve built the thing, you look at it, maybe hang it from the ceiling, put it on a shelf, then what? So, I started to make things from the leftover pieces, buying small kits and making other things out of them, taking the sequence out of step, thinking “what else can I do with this thing? This piece of paper is telling me to “do it this way, not that’s – the language of ticks and crosses, glue here, press here, if you want the landing gear down, go here.”

Perhaps surprisingly Michael is not a computer nerd – a reputation he says he shares with [London artist and seminal MoWax designer] Ben Drury, who also is not a “techno-kid’. “As long as my computer works, I’m happy, if it doesn’t, I’m knackered! The computer has always just been a tool to me, I’m not really interested in technology, I’m interested in what I can do with it. I couldn’t do what I do without one, but it is just one link in the process – The Processâ„¢ – Brain > Pen > Sketchbook > Brain > Computer > Print . . . Print, is my main love in design, it’s what I’ve been doing now for 16 years, it’s what I do best. It’s a craft. It needs care and attention, it fascinates me, much more than design for screen will ever do. It boils down to this – ‘Printing different coloured inks, in different orders, on paper’, I love it. Making people think ‘where the fuck did that come from?’, ‘How the fuck did he do that?’. There is a huge amount of technical knowledge to be learnt and needed to successfully design for print, to get the best out of it. I love the permanence of print, there is no ‘command+z’. It’s out there forever. Design is one part of the journey, it doesn’t end when you hit ‘print’, that’s when the return journey starts.”

One of Build’ most recent projects was a series of t-shirts for Blanka. “The Time’code” shirts are an extension of perception of music in the iTunes era. How I listen to music is very different even from 6 years ago. I wanted to express this, and thought of the idea of time stamps/run-times, the idea that those 4m27s of ‘Voodoo Ray’ [for instance]are so magical, so euphoric, marking that first time you heard that track, all the memories, I wanted to try and capture that. I am a self confessed music obsessive. I play music all day long, I couldn’t live without my music. Mainly electronic, hip hop and dub. I buy so much music and according to iTunes, I like – Scenes Of Someone Else by I’m Not A Gun the most, followed closely by Broken Home by Burial, followed by Lightning Storm by Rhythm & Sound… It changes all the time. London’ Type Records and US label Kranky are putting out some lovely stuff at the moment. I think Type is run by designers, isn’t it? Factory/Saville. 4AD/Vaughn Oliver. Warp/tDR. It’s no coincidence that these labels had such a consistently good look, and musical output seems to go hand in hand”.

Build started in 2001 after a year-long break travelling and recharging. “I started thinking about Build whilst still at tDR, I always knew I wanted to set up my own studio at some point. It came to a head at tDR, I felt that the time was right, I didn’t enjoy being in the studio as much as I used to, it was an amicable split, and I still talk to Ian & Nick sometimes. I was getting fed up with the amount of hours I was doing, [and]felt I needed to get out before I burned out. I needed a break from design. [My wife] Nicky and I then took a year off travelling around the world. I left the world of design behind. I didn’t think about it for nearly a year. I really need to get away from it – think about different things, experience different things, learn to smile again. [The period] from leaving college in 1990 to quitting tDR in 2000 I spent in a design studio working weekends/nights, generally living/breathing design. So I really needed to get away from it. I still live/breathe design, but I’m more rounded a character, I have a social life now.”

“We came back a year later, and set up Build, Nicky got a job again at Sony, I ran the ‘office’ [a laptop]from a table in the living room, and it took a while for me to get back into the whole world again, it was hard. Now, I love it. It’s so rewarding. We’ve built it up from nothing, we didn’t show any of my previous work to get work, I didn’t want to be showing my old tDR work. It’s been tough, but worth every second. Nicky has now left Sony and works full-time with me, we have just taken on a studio space which is very exciting, we have some great projects coming up, so we’re very happy with ourselves”.

“Each Build job has a special place in our hearts. We were really pleased with the exhibition we did in New York last year with Maxalot [Curators] & Commonwealth [Product Architects] called On/Off (and everything in-between). The show consisted of ten pieces of design, each one contained in its own custom made CNC milled Corian frame. Essentially the design ‘bled’ out/continued into the frame, it was very special, and very new. Another favourite was the sleeve design for The London Electrics collective LE:01 compilation. I designed the sleeve so that there were no vector elements, essentially everything was photographic including credits/track-listing. And an A1 screen printed poster, Symbolism for Blanka.”

“I believe wholeheartedly in ‘personal expression’ in graphic design, I believe in putting a part of “me’ in my work. Conveying emotion is as important as problem solving for me, more important really. There are enough people out there ‘problem solving’, it [graphic design]doesn’t need another one. Don’t get me wrong, I love problem solving in terms of design, but I also love design that is very self indulgent. Some of the best design is very self indulgent. I have a certain way of thinking, some people like that and commission [Build] on that basis, some like a certain ‘look’. Some just want the ‘problem solved’. Design for music is a completely different kettle of fish though. I think that’s the one area in graphic design that it is wholly about personal expression, it’s about throwing up questions rather than answering them, music is the most creative thing a person can do, I would love to be able to make music. The range of emotions that music can make you feel is a very powerful thing, design can come close sometimes, it’s our job to try and visualise that music. I love doing that. Creating worlds. Giving it a voice . . . Machine made music. Machine made design. Design made using machines? I love information, I love consuming information, I love arranging information. I love the process of design. Like music, I think the best design is all about conveying emotion. I want to make people think when they look at my work, I want them to have some kind of an emotional response.”

Visit Build for portfolio images.


About Author

Seb Chan founded Cyclic Defrost Magazine in 1998 with Dale Harrison. He handed over the reins at the end of 2010 but still contributes the occasional article and review.