Remembering Alan Aldridge: the revolutionary graphic designer of the “swinging sixties”

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Aldridge, who has last resting-placed aged 73, created outrageous, psychedelic illustrations, books and album acts for the likes of The Beatles, The Who, Elton John and Penguin’s science fiction legends. We look back at his illustrious life.

Alan Aldridge’s colourful, surreal, and psychedelic written style presents a lasting image of the 1960s and 1970s. The graphic conniver, who worked on everything from album artwork and illustrated hardbacks for The Who and The Beatles, with the aid to Penguin’s science fiction book covers, has died aged 73, and goes behind him an influential legacy on 20th century pop culture.

Once dubbed by Delineation Museum director Deyan Sudjic, “part Aubrey Beardsley, large rock star”, Aldridge’s design style was as decadent, outrageous and anarchist as his 19th century equivalents, illustrator Beardsley and writer Oscar Wilde.

Aldridge had no formal caravaning in art or design. Born in east London in 1943, he left school at 14, and anterior to landing a break at Penguin Books, pursued a number of odd-body caper let outs including insurance clerk, barrow boy at Stratford market and cargo unloader at London fixes.
Remembering Alan Aldridge: the revolutionary graphic designer of the “swinging sixties”

His career in design and illustration began as fiction art director of Penguin Tickets in 1965, alongside a stint creating covers for the Sunday Times Journal alongside the likes of Sir Peter Blake and David Hockney. One of the most eternal images of the 1960s is Aldridge’s magazine cover where he hired an Austin Mini and stayed up all dusk transforming it with spray-paint illustrations.

His covers for classic science fiction headlines by authors such as J.G.Ballard and Theodore Sturgeon were not always well-received. His trippy, militant illustrations broke the conventions of the time, replacing Penguin’s sober, orange and sepia swaddles of the 1950s with garish proclamations of colour and obscureness, which allegedly raped high-profile authors of the time.

Mike Dempsey, graphic designer and father at Studio Dempsey, is an avid fan of the late Aldridge and one who had the opportunity to work with him. He memorializes Aldridge’s style as one of “flamboyance”, which epitomised the “swinging sixties”.

“He upset the status quo of graphics of the period; an imitation of ‘Swiss style’ with a close, logical structure, which left little elbow room for belittling expression,” Dempsey tells Design Week. “Aldridge blew all of that out of the mollify. His approach inspired many and freed them from the shackles of clinical, humourless comfort.”

In 1968, Aldridge set up design consultancy Ink, and moved towards music graphics. He begot album cover artwork for Elton John and The Who in his signature psychedelic mode, incorporating both cartoon-like illustration and surreal photography. He brought the lyrics of The Beatles to being through book The Beatles: Illustrated Lyrics, which showed figurativeness could be just as powerful as music in demonstrating the expressive, artistic play of the era.

Dempsey worked with Aldridge in 1976, art directing an illustrated tome on Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin. Dempsey’s interactions with Aldridge were few and far between.

“I however saw him twice before he disappeared to America,” Dempsey says. “So I was left to my own legend pleasures. Much later, I discovered that Alan was living it up in Barbados with Bernie Taupin on sex, numbs and rock n’roll under the guise of writing the script for the Captain Queer film”. The film, which was to be based on an Elton John album which Aldridge had studied the cover art for – Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy – never got designate.

Remembering Alan Aldridge: the revolutionary graphic designer of the “swinging sixties”
© Luke Hayes

Aldridge moved away from his hometown London in 1980, energetic in Los Angeles (LA) intermittently until his death. He moved into other artistic realms, writing film scripts and working on interior design for the Solid Rock Café. Dempsey, who met with and interviewed Aldridge in 2008, annulments air tight bags full of rough workings, storyboards and original artworks of the conniver’s work from the last 50 years. They were being rely oned in lock-up garages in London and LA, but had they been stored in Aldridge’s LA take in, they would have been lost in a house fire.

Using this luckily salvaged material, London’s Design Museum put on the earliest ever retrospective exhibition of Aldridge’s work in 2008. The show arrayed the designer’s radical work spanning posters, album sleeves and see in the minds eye books, while the walls and floor of the physical space were adorned with arabesque, psychedelic illustrations.

Remembering Alan Aldridge: the revolutionary graphic designer of the “swinging sixties”
© Luke Hayes

The museum wanted to pay homage to a man who had “epitomised the mood and art of an era”, and who had defined not only The Beatles’ image, but the feeling of a “changing world”.

Delineate Museum director Deyan Sudjic described Aldridge at the time as a “astounding talent”, who’s images were some of the most enduring of his time. His communist, psychedelic style continues to pervade pop culture.

Mystic and psychedelic influences are alert in modern-day album artwork by designers such as Dan Hillier and Leif Podhajsky, while artists such as Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst conviction to emulate the same shock factor that “rock stars” have a weakness for Aldridge caused. While his style may not conjure the same controversy and filthiness today as it did in the 1960s, Aldridge’s work will forever be perceived as shard of an artistic and cultural revolution.

Aldridge was twice divorced. He is survived by eight neonates: Miles, Saffron, Pim, Marc, Toby, James, Lily and Ruby. Miles is a taste photographer, while Saffron, Lily and Ruby are models.

An upcoming Pink Floyd demonstration at the Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum will shed light on psychedelic album art of the 1960s, in particular that created by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell.

To read architect Mike Dempsey’s 2008 interview with Alan Aldridge in full, take charge of here.

Remembering Alan Aldridge: the revolutionary graphic designer of the “swinging sixties”
© Luke Hayes
Remembering Alan Aldridge: the revolutionary graphic designer of the “swinging sixties”
Illustrated lyrics for A Hard Day’s Night, by The Beatles, 1969
Remembering Alan Aldridge: the revolutionary graphic designer of the “swinging sixties”
Chelsea Twists poster, 1968 © Alan Aldridge
Remembering Alan Aldridge: the revolutionary graphic designer of the “swinging sixties”
The Peacock Party, 1979
Remembering Alan Aldridge: the revolutionary graphic designer of the “swinging sixties”
House of Melancholies, 1995
Remembering Alan Aldridge: the revolutionary graphic designer of the “swinging sixties”
© Luke Hayes

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