Dream In Colour: The Art of Stylorouge

To mark its 30th birthday, design studio Stylorouge is putting on an exhibition in London’s Aubin Gallery, opening this week. Founder Rob O’Connor picks out some personal highlights from the studio’s portfolio, as well as some of the Stylorouge artworks that will be exhibited at the new show…

Perhaps best known for its posters and promotional campaign for Danny Boyle’s 1996 film Trainspotting, and the cover of Blur’s Parklife album cover (crop shown above), design studio Stylorouge celebrated its 30th birthday last summer. To mark the occasion, the studio has been working on a host of self-initiated artworks which are about to go on show at London’s Aubin Gallery

Stylorouge was formed in 1981 when Rob O’Connor, left his job in the art department at Polydor Records to go solo. Early clients include Siouxsie & The Banshees, Level 42 and Kirsty MacColl, The Passions (signed to The Cure’s label, Fiction) and the then teenage duo known as Wham, to whose name Stylorouge added an exclamation mark.

“Yes, I spent three years at Polydor before starting up on my own, at the arse end of punk,” says Rob O’Connor. “The thing is – it was never my intention to do something longlasting, it was about making good work. Really, lasting 30 years is no more impressive than lasting two years,” he says of the studio’s longevity. “I’ve never really wanted to do something else or had the ambition to build the company into some major thing,” he continues. It’s not about being a business man for me, but about having some job satisfaction.”


To read about Stylorouge’s work on the Trainspotting film posters, click here

Regarding the exhibition, entitled Dream In Colour – which opens tomorrow, January 11 at the Aubin Gallery on Redchurch street in London), O’Connor explains that it’s not simply a retrospective. “We were actually looking back in Spring last year for a space where we could do a pop-up exhibition for about a week,” he tells us. We trawled East London and some of the best exhibition spaces seemed to be quite unaffordable, we just wanted to have a bit of a show-off. Then when we saw the Aubin Gallery space and once they realised what we wanted to do – a retrospective but with something a bit more personal – they came back to us and suggested that we prioritise the personal stuff.

“Actually, we got lucky because the guy that curates the gallery, Stuart Semple is a known artist in his own right and it turns out I met him a few years ago through a mutual friend,” says O’Connor. “When I bumped into him in the gallery, he loved the idea of what we were doing and really encouraged us to be more leftfield in our approach to the new work we’re creating specially for the show.

“Of course it would be crazy for us not to have some retrospective stuff too so we will represent a selection of reinventions of some of the work we’ve done over the years for mainly our music clients and there’ll be some limited prints and some sculptural pieces too.”

We asked O’Connor to look through 30 years of commercial work, primarily for the music industry, and pick out some of his personal highlights to share here on the CR blog. He kindly obliged, picking also a few of the works that will show at the Dream In Colour exhibition:


Broken Records – Until The Earth Begins To Part (2009). Label: 4AD

Rob O’Connor: Real-deal, organic, highly musical 4AD band suited a hand-crafted look. A debt should be paid for the inspiration offered by the work of Antonio Frasconi, the maestro of the wood-cut. Credits: Design and illustrations by Sarah Foley


Andy Sheppard – Nocturnal Tourist (2001) Label: Provocateur

RO’C: Most of our output at Stylorouge is the result of collaborations. This photo-illustration sleeve (which utilised musician Andy Sheppard’s note books and well used passport) was art-directed by myself, but the illustration was by Mark Caylor, who I had taught as a visiting lecturer at Chelsea Art College and who became one of the longest serving designers at our company.


Blamcmange – I Can See It album (1986). Label: London

RO’C: This is a very early Stylorouge sleeve for one of Britain’s most credible pop/dance bands of the early ’80’s. And it was a perfect opportunity to commission the illustration genius of Mick Brownfield


Blur – Modern Life is Rubbish (1993) Label: Food

RO’C: Probably my favourite of all the Blur sleeves we designed. After intending to create an image based on the Spitfire (aeroplane) this came up through serendipity – I found an old greetings card gathering dust in in my local village newsagents, and sought out the illustrator. The sleeve also made rare use of Festival Titling, a font created for the Festival Of Britain in 1951.


Eric by Viv Dykes, created for the Dream In Colour exhibition

RO’C: This six feet high canvas of the british entertainment legend is the first of what I believe is a new series of paintings by Viv, who balances her accounting duties for Stylorouge with her passion for painting.


Hipkiss – Bluebird (1997). Label: Sony

RO’C: This cover sports the fruit of a psycho-erotic photoshoot in a now mercifully renovated seedy Kensington hotel involving a topless actress, a fish and a pair of chicken feet. The band created a gumbo of a sound that blended film noir soundtrack, trip-hop and David Lynch. This evocative portfolio of apparently subversive nocturnal activity was actually shot (by Michele Turriani) on a boiling hot summer’s day with blinds drawn and punishingly hot tungsten lighting.


James – Seven (1993). Label: Fontana

RO’C: Several creative routes were developed around the theme of identity. Despite Tim Booth’s prominence as the band’s frontman, James was the perfect model of democracy: seven band members, apparently of equal importance. Eventually, with the deadline looming, the theme of birth was discussed as Tim’s partner was heavily pregnant and this presented us with an unexpected sleeve image.


Jesus Jones – Already (1997). Label: Food

RO’C: Probably the least commercially successful of Jesus Jones’ albums, but my favourite sleeve of the bunch. We had been experiencing a lot of ‘input’ from what can only be described as non-creative areas of our client companies, and this sleeve was the result of an imaginary (but believable) situation where a fictitious record company MD had decided that his five year old child could design a better sleeve than the one proposed for the band’s new release. (Apologies to illustrator Blaise Thompson here, but his style was well suited to this artifice, and he was knowlngly party to the bizarre and irreverent premise behind the sleeve). As always, a brave and understanding artiste and management were needed to make the exercise work – genuine patrons… so hard to come by!


Kula Shaker – Hey Dude (1997). Label: Columbia

RO’C: Record sleeve homage to Alphonse Mucha, involving a photoshoot by David Scheinmann, of singer Crispian Mills’ wife Joe, and several midnight-oil hours of photo-illustration by Julian Quayle and myself back at Stylorouge. The attention (and fee) paid for this one single sleeve back in 199? was probably more than the budget of two average album sleeves by today’s standards.


Mama Mama 5am, Lightbox by Rob O’Connor for the exhibition Dream In Colour

RO’C: I guess I’d describe this as a ‘light calligraphy painting’ of a stream-of-consciousness piece of writing following a period of illness (I hesitate to call it a poem). I spent a few months recovering from a minor stroke caused by an undetected hole-in-the-heart (not recommended by the way). The words were taken from the notes I made during the recovery process. Writing and typing took a while to get back to normal – some of the words my befuddled brain threw into my stuttered conversations were pretty hilarious at the time – they added a little humour to the recovery process. Six years on, I now have a clean bill of health and incidentally haven’t had a migraine since the hole was plugged.
I photographed the words being written with incense sticks in mid-air in a dark room, using long exposures on my Canon 5D and the shots were then comped together (into an unfathomable mess) in Photoshop.


Mick Karn – Bestial Cluster (2001) Label: Cmp

RO’C: Sadly, Mick died last year – a true artist; composer, bass player, sculptor and a genuine gentleman. This photo-shoot with Kevin Westenberg was art directed to reflect the tactility and structural quality of Mick’s own sculpture – visceral, oily and masculine on the one hand and fragile on the other. A real favourite campaign of mine. Stuart Mackenzie was the typographer for Stylorouge.


Rolling Stones – No Security (1998) Label: Virgin

RO’C: This was a difficult but exciting brief; to create an untypical image to package a live album. I spent several weeks travelling out to meetings with the Stones on their European tour before they agreed this concept – photographing real punters at the gigs wearing the band’s merch (to avoid using type on the front), and selecting the best photo from those taken. The couple eventually used were at the Munich gig. Zed Nelson took the shots. The legend SECURITY on the T shirt of the steward behind the couple gave rise to the album’s title: No Security.


Shack – Comedy (1999). Label: London

RO’C: Legendary scouse indie mischief-makers and respected song-writers, Shack gave a fairly free hand on the sleeves for this campaign, and the package for single Comedy was my favourite of those designed by our Andy Huckle.


Skin – Fleshwounds (2003). Label: EMI

RO’C: This was a re-package of Skin’s second (I think) solo album, and having seen her live a couple of times I felt strongly that her physicality wasn’t being exploited enough. The songs were the open-hearted confessional insights of a woman ‘wrung-out’ by love and the sleeve demanded emotion, and blood and sweat (if not tears). Following a quick test shoot after a gig Skin and EMI commissioned me to do another shoot a few days later in Italy – I took the final sleeve shot minutes before she took to the stage, using the back of a recently emptied PA truck as an impromptu studio, on what must have been the hottest day of the year.


Squeeze – King George Street (1986). Label: A&M

RO’C: By a long way, one of my favourite bands to work with. Stylorouge have worked on various Squeeze-related projects since the late ’80’s and we remain good friends with Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook. This image was commissioned of artist Andrew Ekins for the album Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti (note the marriage of opera/rock ‘n’ roll in a kind of sarf London idiom), but it suited the lyric and atmosphere of this single too, so it was given a free transfer and was thereby saved from obscurity on the sub’s bench.


A Strategy Of Tension by Mark Higenbottam, created for the Dream In Colour exhibition

RO’C: Truly mixed media – a triptych created mainly from builders’ material and items found in Mark’s back garden, along with collaged cuttings and painting. He wears his heart on his sleeve here as he creates his own unique icons of personal passions – Boxers, historic literature and all-time musical heroes New Order. There is much historic accuracy in the material used – Mark has fastidiously kept tickets and associated ephemera from every gig he has ever attended, particularly those of New Order and The Fall. The centrepiece of this triptych celebrates a specific gig set up as a fundraiser for the miners during the strikes of the 1980’s.

Welcome to Paulton’s by Jojo Ma, created for the Dream In Colour exhibition

RO’C: A series of three highly styled photographs taken by Jojo as an obtuse revisiting of her own childhood, growing up in suburban England with fashion-obsessed sisters and friends. The title is taken from a sign in the background of a family holiday snap.

Dream In Colour: The Art of Stylorouge runs from January 11 – February 3 at The Aubin Gallery, 64-66 Redchurch Street, Longon E2 7DP.

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