“Neo-baggy: more soul than sold out”, The Australian, 5-6 Feb, 1994.

Living Extra Large

Ross Harley

Dancefloor style has provided the impetus for many an assault on culture. Preferring to make their moves from the vantage of a poster hoarding, the cut of a new item of streetwear, or the edge of the music they package, the design guerillas of the nineties battle the austerity and sameness of mainstream culture from the heart of their subcultural market niches.

It might have started with the colour photocopier aesthetic, or “scratch xerox” as it was called by i-D magazine readers. Perhaps it was the cut-up styles of Jamie Reid (who designed a lot of the Sex Pistol’s graphics) or the neo-cool-moderne approach of Neville Brody, who single-handedly transformed the look and meaning of contemporary graphic design through UK culture mags like The Face and Arena. Or maybe it was Laurie Rae Chamberlain’s xerox work of the 1980s, an English brand of Warholian montage based on found media images. But it is the vitality and sheer energy of the hundreds of subcultures connected to non-mainstream music scenes that provide the most striking alternatives to bland material culture.

For a while there it seemed as though we were never going to get beyond Brody or i-D, so strong was their influence. But we have. A lot of it still stems from the British scene, where different kinds of music, fashion, style and subculture collide. Liberated typefaces, bold graphics, constructivist allusions, frenetic rhythms, techno images and cut-up techniques still hold sway in these domains, but they’ve been given the once-over and juiced up more than a little.

The so-called Northern Soul “rare groove” scene in the UK spurned a whole generation of clubbers (including many who were thousands of miles away from Britain) eager to swing to obscure tracks from the depth of talent black music has to offer. In turn, they created a brand new “old style” to go with it. This is partly the origin of the current jazz-soul-funk revival that has hit the streets and clubs of many urban centres in Australia and the rest of the world. Mix it up a little with elements from hip-hop, dance, and skate cultures and hey presto: the guerilla design look. Just make it big, bad, bold and baggy. In these subcultures at least, everyone is living extra large.

UK designer Ian Swift evolved a parallel graphic style for this new generation of outwardly mobile hipsters around about the same time. Starting out with the jazz magazine Straight No Chaser and the Manchester mag Fresh, before doing the mandatory stint at The Face during the 1980s, Swift designed the Talkin Loud record label for seminal DJs Giles Peterson and Norman Jay (currently touring Australia for the series of “Vibes on a Summers Day” events). Like the music they produce and the culture assembled around labels like this, Talkin Loud is synonymous with the idea of living large. For many at least.

Illustrator Chris Long represents another strand in this tangle of new influences. Feeding on Americana in Blackpool, Long creates street-inspired graphics, icons and cartoon strips without so much as a whiff of nostalgia for san serif typefaces or clean minimal edges. The style of his skateboard designs for Slam City Skates or cassette covers and comics for the UK weekly New Music Express during the mid 1980s are now part of the everyday language of standard issue street equipment — from T-Shirts to skateboards.

In fact it’s the untamed aesthetic of the skate/surf/snowboard anarchists who have taken the “sport” from a full blown craze in the mid seventies to a serious culture zone for the creative underground. This group of people have continued the whole Do-It-Yourself, In-Yer-Face philosophy of punk and charged their designs with that same non-conformist energy. Anti-corporate maybe, but still implicated in a multimillion dollar business, companies like Stussy and Massivo have challenged the hold bigger companies have had on youth markets. Other very successful clothing labels like Mambo, Mook and Anarchic Adjustment have also been born of the same passion for joining loud music, graphics, and skate cultures together.

Trevor Jackson has done hundreds of labels and designs for independent record companies such as Bad Boy Records and Cooltempo, and new-style rap groups from the UK like PM Dawn and the Stereo MCs. He captures something of the change in attitudes to design over the past ten years in Cynthia Rose’s Design After Dark (Thames and Hudson, 1991; still one of the best documents on dancefloor design). “It’s hard for ordinary people to appreciate graphic design as such,” he says. “They don’t leaf through a record bin going, ‘Ooh, that’s a nice bit of Helvetica Light.’”

Maybe not. But youth and music subcultures certainly have their own lingo. And for the moment anyway, they’re not too concerned about whether everybody else in the mainstream can understand it.