by Keziah VikranthSep 27, 2023
"Design is about donning different hats and you have to live and breathe it and really get into the skin. If you were writing a specific book, you would put yourself through the pain to understand what it's about, wouldn’t you?” These words from the designer, artist and photographer Andy Vella encapsulates the essence of a career that has spanned over three decades and left an indelible mark on the worlds of music, publishing and visual art. Vella’s creative journey is one of relentless passion, unwavering commitment to perfectionism and an insatiable thirst for inspiration.
A consultant Art Director at Foruli publications, Vella’s portfolio boasts an array of iconic visuals that have not only graced album covers but also defined the visual identities of renowned artists like St Vincent, Primal Scream, Pavement, Jeff Buckley and literary giants like Margaret Atwood and John Berger.
Vella’s artistic evolution traces its roots to a chance encounter on a train during his teenage years, with Porl Thompson, the then guitarist from The Cure. Together, they founded the Parched Design company. It was during this time that Vella’s photographs captured the attention of The Cure’s frontman, Robert Smith, who entrusted him with designing the covers of the album Faith and its single, Primary. This collaboration marked the start of an enduring creative partnership that continues to flourish to date.
What sets this graphic designer apart is his ability to infuse an attitude of free-wheeling creative energy into his work while maintaining a relentless pursuit of perfection. His openness to inspiration from diverse sources and the willingness to embrace experimentation and 'happy accidents' have been constants in his creative process. For years, Vella has been on a mission to broaden the perspectives of readers and music aficionados, drawing inspiration from the most unexpected of sources. His guiding principle is simple and profound. By immersing oneself in the world, one may unexpectedly encounter the convergence of two weathered metal fragments along a quayside, where their rusted surfaces subtly transform into an unexpected canvas for typographic expression. This perspective reflects Vella’s belief that inspiration is not confined; it resides in the very fabric of our surroundings, waiting to be discovered.
Vella’s creative beginnings draw from an eclectic palette of influences. He finds inspiration in the vibrant colours, textures and compositions of artists like Picasso, Miro and Saul Steinberg. The Beautiful Anger of George Gosz and the innovative designs of Saul Bass and Storm Thorgeson also ignited his artistic vision. Vella emphasises that while he draws from these influences, he doesn’t believe in copying or mimicking, instead, he uses them as a springboard for his own work, focusing on the composition of ideas, colour combinations and the element of risk-taking.
A multifaceted visual artist, Vella’s openness to inspiration has led him to wear various hats over the years. While his journey began in the realm of music, it soon expanded beyond album covers, encompassing fashion shoots, branding for radio stations like Xfm and Planet Rock, and even photography and eventually, book design. He has worked extensively as a photographer, often on his own design commissions.
In the mid-1990s, a commission to create six covers for Bloomsbury Publishing marked a turning point in Vella’s career, launching him as a leading book designer. His creations for literary luminaries like John Berger, Stieg Larsson and Margaret Atwood, have graced the shelves of major publishers such as Harvill Books, Penguin and Abacus, leaving a lasting imprint on the literary landscape.
Vella’s latest endeavour involves crafting the book jacket for the standard hardback edition and curating the entire visual presentation of Curepedia: The A to Z of the Cure. This biography, penned by esteemed journalist Simon Price is slated for publication on November 9 by White Rabbit. The deluxe edition is limited to 1000 copies and promises to be a collector’s dream, featuring alternative original cover artwork, a bespoke slipcase and meticulously designed chapter headings. With interior pages printed in striking red and black ink, custom-made lettered endpapers, and exclusive prints, this project is a testament to Vella’s commitment to delivering visual experiences that transcend the ordinary. STIR engages in a conversation with this creative powerhouse on his new book project, approach to design and the enduring influence of his work on the visual landscape.
Aarthi Mohan: The album covers you have designed for The Cure are iconic and often evoke strong emotional responses. Can you talk about the process of capturing the essence of the music in visual form?
Andy Vella: Above all, it’s crucial to consistently tune in to the music, delve into the lyrics and completely immerse oneself. It’s at this juncture that the creative process truly kicks off, initiating experimentation with whatever there is in the studio, not really knowing what will be the outcome. That's when the magic unfolds.
Aarthi: The cover for the 1988 compilation In the Key of E is a favourite of yours and even caught the attention of Roger Dean. Could you delve into the inspiration and process behind this particular piece?
Andy: The manager of the Desire record company briefed me on listening to this Chicago-based Acid house, then gave me a 20-quid note and a ticket to the Café de Paris in London (Wednesday nights had an acid house night). He encouraged me to fully immerse myself in the experience and then channel that energy into crafting a brilliant cover.
Aarthi: Can you share with us the inspiration behind the visual design for Curepedia: The A to Z of the Cure? How did you approach capturing the essence of The Cure’s legacy through your design work?
Andy: The images/letters of the alphabet are inspired by the written historical reflections, which recollect as a visual sensibility and aesthetic. For the visual landscapes, I immerse myself in a reflective journey, traversing the A-Z. During this exploration I embraced various printmaking techniques drawing inspiration from ancient alchemical processes such as letterpress, mono printing, linocut, mezzotint, acid-etch and the burning of the sun's ultraviolet radiation. These processes project ethereal, bleeding-light and tonal qualities onto photo-chromatic images, seamlessly blending them into cyanotype paper substrates.
Aarthi: The deluxe edition of Curepedia sounds incredibly intricate and thoughtfully designed, with multiple elements like bespoke slipcases and original artwork. Could you walk us through your creative process of crafting such a comprehensive visual experience?
Andy: I wanted the viewer to lose themselves within the packaging and artwork, almost as if they are on a path to self-discovery. Although there is a small amount of repetition imagery-wise, this was a conscious decision. Rhythm in my art uses repetition to create a mood and flow. I always loved looking through lavish 70s gatefold record sleeves and losing myself in the artwork. Like old and new books, covers have a distinctive smell.
Aarthi: One might say that your designs are like visual poems, allowing viewers to experience a moment’s emotion. Can you tell us about a project where you successfully transformed a complex emotion into a simple yet powerful visual?
Andy: I guess the Boys Don't Cry image of Robert Smith, yes it is a photo but it just has it all, a 125th of a second @ f16 captured an image for a generation, the sheer fact of that alchemic process, a photo, a camera, meant that a silhouette was simplified into such an easy-to-read representation.
Aarthi: What’s the most unexpected source of inspiration that has fueled your creativity?
Andy: Allowing a mistake, then taking the risk to say “This is it, this is the one.” Then having to sell it to the client.
Aarthi: What is next for you?
Andy: I am currently a lecturer in graphic design at AUB in Bournemouth, balancing teaching with freelancing and engaging in more art-centric projects, including limited edition works. At the moment, I am exploring sculpture, working with wood and plaster, and I aspire to venture into bronze casting in the future.