art on your sleeve: the definitive history of the 12" record sleeve

Art Record Covers is a new book charting the story of the sleeve from its generic cardboard beginnings to the fertile exchange between sounds and shapes it became.

by Matthew Whitehouse
17 February 2017, 12:49am

Online streaming may have given the record sleeve a knock in recent years, but time was when a 12" piece of cardboard was both the cheapest and easiest way to own a piece of art. Row after row of Andy Warhols, Peter Blakes, Peter Savilles, Jenny Savilles… all available to buy from the comfort of a high street record store. For this writer, it was Ray Lowry's iconic design for the Clash's London Calling that did it. The image of Paul Simonon smashing his Fender Precision into a million pieces, enough to make us hand over our cash without ever hearing a note of their music. You just knew it'd be good.

And how could it not be? You see, the greatest record sleeves have always been as much a part of it all as the music itself. Try imagining the psychedelic sounds of The Beatles' Sgt Pepper's without Peter Blake's vivid artwork. De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising without its Daisy Age fluorescent flowers. You can't. You don't want to. Because, in the days before endlessly rolling Instagram feeds and Snapchat stories, these small but perfectly formed pieces of work were a window into the artist you were listening to. An entire world you could stick in your bag or carry under your arm like a 12" mark of allegiance.

Little wonder so many artists jumped at the chance to make them. Andy Warhol's "Peel slowly and see" banana print for 1967's The Velvet Underground & Nico record is probably the best known example of an high artist at work within the medium, but did you know that in 1949 the young Warhol was employed as an illustrator at Columbia Records, knocking out his first ever sleeve for a 10-inch titled A Program of Mexican Music by Carlos Chávez? Or that it was Robert Mapplethorpe's stark portrait of soulmate Patti Smith for her 1975 debut Horses that would open the door for whole host of artist-photographers' work to grace an album cover, everyone from Nobuyoshi Araki to Martin Parr, Ryan McGinley to Wolfgang Tilmans?

It's a history documented in Art Record Covers. Compiled by writer and historian of contemporary art Francesco Spampinato, the book tells the story of the sleeve from its generic cardboard beginnings to the fertile exchange between sounds and shapes it became. Showcasing over 500 designs, from over 270 artists, Art Record Covers takes in everything from modernism to Pop Art; Conceptual Art to postmodernism - and still finds room for the occasional teddy bear fired out of a cannon for good measure. 

Art Record Covers, published by TASCHEN, is out now.


Text Matthew Whitehouse

record sleeves
art record covers