The Fantastic Mr Foxx

John Foxx has been championing the new for 40 years in his experiments in music, art and graphic design. At 57, he’s still working to combine all three

Whether it’s been as godfather of post-punk, electronica pioneer, illustrator, graphic designer, filmmaker or design lecturer, John Foxx has for the past 40 years been dragging creativity out of the old and into the new.

The process began in the late 1960s, when as a freelance illustrator Foxx contributed drawings to the famed underground magazine, Oz. Then, as a Royal College of Art postgraduate in early 1970s London, he formed a band called Tiger Lilly that provided a soundtrack to the Pop Art culture of the day. The band morphed into Ultravox (the pre-Midge Ure incarnation), and went on to kick-start the post-punk movement.

Chorley-born Foxx next helped spark the UK electronic music revolution, with his landmark 1980s album Metamatic, a sparse, synthesised ode to urban life. Throughout this time, Foxx was also experimenting with a new form of illustration – photo composites – a full decade before Photoshop 1.0 enabled the wider design world to popularise this art form.

Now aged 57, Foxx is still playing the pioneer, being at the forefront of what he sees as a “creative renaissance” – “where graphic design is becoming the interface for collaborations between artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians”. This interface was there for all to see on July 5 this year, at the Short Circuit festival at London’s Roundhouse, for which the noted designer Jonathan Barnbrook, the filmmaker Iain Sinclair and Foxx himself created a confection of electronic music and projected movie montages, laden with beguiling typography.

While his creative guises may change, one constant continues to inform all Foxx’s endeavours. “My first principle is to ask what the new form of anything can do that previous forms couldn’t,” he explains. “Once you can answer that, then you can get involved with it.”

This guiding principle formed the central plank of Foxx’s teaching career, during which he was a lecturer (using his given name, Dennis Leigh) in Leeds and London, teaching a Masters degree in computer arts, as well as undergraduate courses on digital arts and audio technology.

“Young people have a tendency to believe the world will not change, when actually they’re living in a series of snapshots,” he says. “This means that if what they’re doing now is rigid, then it’ll be useless in even a year’s time. They’ll be the equivalent of Zeppelin builders.”

Foxx urged his design students to “truly understand the nature of mediums”, and to develop a set of principles and understandings that they can apply to all their endeavours. “Getting the most out of the tools at your disposal is one thing, but having a vision of what you want to do, and how you want to affect people, must always be the starting point,” he says.

Foxx’s visions have invariably been informed by his formal training as an illustrator and designer, and his love of classical art. At the RCA, his music was designed to make statements, not money. “There was a notion at that time of design being for the real world,” he recalls.

One of his influences was visiting lecturer Peter Blake, the Pop artist. “He was determined to take art away from being rarefied and distant to something that was an intelligent use of everyday material and attitudes.”

Foxx decided to apply this to music. “The band was meant to be something that was made from trashy stuff,” he says. He took this idea further, borrowing from Marcel Duchamp’s idea of changing the context of everyday objects.

“His notion of displaying a urinal as a work of art because it had a signature on it is one of the fundamental tenets of modern art,” Foxx says, “influencing everyone from Warhol to Emin.”‘Low art’ is what Foxx had in mind: “I wanted it to be plasticky, and concerned with edgy, uncomfortable things about modern life, such as urban living.”

He also believes that for music to matter it has to enshrine the concept of ‘gestalt’ – the idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Foxx cites the CND logotype as an example of gestalt at work in a design context.
“In isolation, the circle and strokes mean nothing, but put together they have a very powerful meaning.” It’s the same with bands, he says: “Taken apart, solo parts are usually pretty dull, but if you 2 3 put them together they make this magical entity, more powerful than any single band member.”

Foxx goes on to say that the emergence of synthesisers in the mid-1970s is redolent of any paradigm shift in creativity from down the ages. “New tools have always changed the nature of the art being created,” he says. “Oils changed art completely. Leonardo was one of the first to begin using this new technology, and he created a totally different language of art. Before, artists painted frescos on plaster, and the work of masters like Botticelli had a clarity of form demanded by that technique. But oils meant that artists could now smudge. Similarly, synthesisers were capable of things that guitars weren’t, and it was this that I wanted to explore.”

The contemporary renaissance in creativity that Foxx has identified is, he says, a result of digital technology allowing different creative disciplines to coalesce. “They’re coming together in the same way that band members do,” he says, “and creating something bigger than the sum of their parts.”

Foxx believes that graphic design is the “interface” for this renaissance. “Digital provides a platform where filmmaking, sound, graphic design, television and all the major media can meet and merge.” He says it “takes a slightly detached, appraisive intelligence to put all these together into a new form”, which means designers are well-placed as facilitators. “Graphic design is at the centre of it all. I used to think it would be video makers who’d be at the core of things, but I think it’s actually designers.” Designers like Jonathan Barnbrook, who has collaborated with Foxx on a number of projects.

“Jonathan is beginning to make sense of all these possibilities,” says Foxx. “Although it’s clear that something notable is happening, no one is quite sure yet what form this is going to take, but I think Jonathan is beginning to grapple with this, and come up with some solutions.”

These solutions include Barnbrook’s mesmerising deployment of typography and graphics in film montages, with footage being drawn from sources as varied as Super 8 home movies and CCTV. Foxx himself has long experimented with movie montage as a medium in its own right. His album Tiny Colour Movies (tinycolourmovies.com) was accompanied by a series of movie montages that he has never been able to make publicly available.
“For legal reasons it’s unreleasable,” he admits. “I used fragments of movies mixed with CCTV footage.” Foxx feels film companies need to “understand what’s possible and what will happen in the future,” adding that, “it’s exactly the same process that dance music employed, using loops of other people’s material.”

Foxx’s mainstream design work has involved book and album covers, the artwork for which is drawn largely from the mass of photomontages he created in the 1970s and 80s, by superimposing transparencies to form richly textured composites. His subject matter is largely classical statues, urban landscapes and foliage. “I got interested in classical statues when touring with Ultravox,” he says. “The faces have a shell-like emptiness that’s really beautiful.”

It was Foxx’s eye for the classical that also helped to inspire Peter Saville’s acclaimed designs for Factory Records. In a Q&A with neworderonline.com, Saville acknowledged the influence of both Foxx’s sleeve for the 1978 Ultravox album, Systems of Romance, but also a book of architect Philip Johnson’s proposals for the AT&T building in New York, as affirming his faith in a neo-classical direction for his work at Factory.

“The Joy Division covers came after me, and came from me,” claims Foxx. “Peter Saville told me he was very much influenced by my design for Systems of Romance, which was a step towards classical design at a time when everything else was ripped-and-torn punk. I used a classical serif typeface in Baskerville and very dissonant, classical imagery. It gave [Saville] something of a template for Factory Records.”

It could be said Foxx’s creative rigour has furnished him with a personal template, shaping his prodigious and varied output down the decades.

Sean Ashcroft is a freelance design writer. John Foxx’s website is metamatic.com and art prints of his work are also available from duck-artshop.com/acatalog/John_Foxx.html

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