Celebrating the design genius of Barney Bubbles

To honour what would have been the designer’s 80th birthday, a new edition of Paul Gorman’s definitive monograph is being released, and includes a number of special additions, including Bubbles’ Galactic Tarot Set

Barney Bubbles is a designer who manages to straddle two camps: he’s truly a ‘designers’ designer’, but also one whose work is celebrated by those outside of that, well, bubble.

Best known for his work with record label Stiff, his distinctive imagery demonstrates both a rigorous understanding of design’s technicalities in its lines, layouts, grids and colour selections, and a natural desire to reach for wildly original imaginative leaps.

His predilection for the offbeat made him a natural choice to work with bands like Hawkwind. As the designer’s biographer, Paul Gorman puts it, “Barney Bubbles was very, very adept, but he was also an acid-gobbling freak like Hawkwind, and so he was completely turned on to their world and the counterculture. They hit it off pretty quickly.”

To coincide with what would have been Bubbles’ 80th birthday on July 30, Gorman has repackaged his definitive monograph of the designer’s work into a collector’s edition called A Box of Bubbles.

Galactic Tarot Set from A Box of Bubbles by Paul Gorman. All artwork © Barney Bubbles Estate

One of the most exciting new additions for this rerelease is the inclusion of the Galactic Tarot Set. Created as part of the promotion for Hawkwind’s 1971 album In Search of Space (also known as X In Search of Space), Bubbles designed a set of 21 Tarot cards that were printed across the centre spread of underground magazine International Times (IT). The concept encapsulated a lot of things that were central to the creative processes of band and designer alike: references and symbols from Eastern mysticism, psychedelia, ideas around space, lysergic-leaning conflations of the past and the future and a certain wry playfulness.

Other additions for this special rerelease, limited to 500 copies signed by Gorman, include a ‘Dome Sweet Dome’ geodesic dome – a make-your-own pyramid printed on reflective foil stock; a ‘Hankie Pantie’ screen-printed cotton handkerchief (referencing the promotional materials for Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ 1978 Christmas Tour of the same name); and a high-gloss ‘Do It Yourself’ three-colour sticker.

The sticker references one of Bubbles’ many masterstrokes of design for Ian Dury. The sleeve design for the 1979 album Do It Yourself was released by Stiff Records with at least 34  alternative sleeves, each one featuring a different Crown Wallpaper design with its corresponding catalogue number in the bottom left hand corner of the sleeve. In one of the label’s biggest promo drives, Bubbles also ensured that the album tour sets were wallpapered; and merchandise included badges, combs, watches, paint brushes, paints pots, bags, clocks and of course, wallpaper.

It’s Bubbles’ work for Ian Dury and The Blockheads that graces the Box of Bubbles packaging, too: the edition is presented in a clothbound pink solander box, featuring a screen-printed design taken from the band’s best known single, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. The interior reflects the design for the outer box, with the book itself bound in white cloth.  

Barney Bubbles’ style is inextricable from the aesthetics and attitude of new wave, drawing a through-line from the acid-laden psychedelia of the 1960s to the snarls of punk, creating a visual language that united their very different approaches to railing against ‘the man’.

But his work went far beyond records for the likes of Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello, Depeche Mode, Ian Dury, Hawkwind, The Damned, and Nick Lowe. Bubbles also worked on designs for homewares pioneer Terence Conran; psychedelic liquid light shows at venues like the Arts Lab, Roundhouse, Electric Cinema and Middle Earth in London; art direction for counter cultural magazines Oz and Friends; paintings; furniture; set designs and collaborations with artists including Derek Boshier and photographers such as Brian Griffin, who shot bands like The Jam, Depeche Mode, and Elvis Costello and the Attractions.

A Box of Bubbles by Paul Gorman

Barney Bubbles also directed the haunting music video for The Specials’ 1981 single Ghost Town, shot in the deserted streets of London over the course of a Saturday night with the band jammed into a vintage 1961 Vauxhall Cresta. 

Nods to these less-seen moments from Bubbles’ short but illustrious career are shown throughout the book in hundreds of rare and previously unpublished photographs, working sketches, notebooks and original artwork. For the 2022 box edition, Gorman has added 16 new pages of rare material.

As this volume proves, Bubbles achieved a vast amount during his life, which was cut short when he died at just 41 years old in 1983. His output for Stiff records alone is a standout contribution to record sleeve design, and graphic design more broadly: his crisp lines, offbeat geometric compositions and bold splashes of neon colour were unlike any approach before, and has inspired countless since.

Barney Bubbles: A Box of Bubbles is available for pre-order from Volume; vol.co