Psychedelic-infused art and design is taking on the mainstream. We catch up with those at the forefront of this re-energised movement and explore the legacy of the original psychedelic artists and designers.
The heyday of psychedelic art and design spanned but a few years from the rump end of the 1960s, and yet its influence continues to resonate strongly, with a new breed of artists and designers drawing on the classic works of the genre in fresh and exciting ways. Unlike psychedelic music - which was rolled into the mainstream - psychedelic art remained very much a part of the counter culture, never gaining true acceptance by the established art community of the day. As 1960s psychedelic artist John Hurford recalls, "It was frowned upon by the art establishment, in much the same way as freestyle graffiti was in the 1980s."
Artists such as Hurford, Gerald Scarfe, Alan Aldridge and Barney Bubbles came to encapsulate 1960s psychedelia. Hurford was one of the main illustrators working on famed counter-culture magazine Oz, and the Victoria & Albert Museum has recently added a selection of his work from this time to its collection, while a book showcasing his work (Johnny: The Work of Psychedelic Artist John Hurford, Sunrise Press) was published in 2006.
"In London around 1967 there were psychedelic posters on walls and for sale from street vendors in Oxford Street," recalls Hurford. "They advertised clubs, groups and shops. I'd never seen anything like it, and I went back to Devon to make some myself. I sold them outside clubs, in the street and at my halls of residence."
From the outset, a main outlet for psychedelic art was the music scene, and UK design group Hipgnosis was at the forefront of this, designing cover art for outfits such as Pink Floyd, Wishbone Ash, Led Zeppelin and Genesis. In the US, meanwhile, famed designer Milton Glaser won recognition for his psychedelic Bob Dylan poster designs.
While never scaling the same heights as it did during the late 1960s, psychedelic art has maintained a strong relationship with music, but it is in the realm of visual communications that it is currently currying unexpected favour. As businesses and organisations begin to appreciate the genre's ability to communicate rich and varied visual messages, a new generation of illustrators and designers is putting a fresh spin on the genre.
The new breed
Illustrator Gary Fernández works for leading ad agencies on campaigns for brands including Zune Originals, Nokia and Coca-Cola. His illustration echoes that of 1960s psychedelia. "Everyone from big soft drink companies to wine festivals are interested in the flow, movement, freedom of mind and ornate lettering of psychedelic design," says FernÃ¡ndez. But, he notes, the context and aims of psychedelic design are different now than they were in the 1960s, and the sources of inspiration have also changed:
"[Illustrators like me] are trying to walk the same path [as the 1960s psychedelic artists] but we're trying to improve it a bit more, according to the possibilities that the present era brings us."
Fernández cites US design giant Milton Glaser and Japanese counter-culture artist Aquirax Uno as his main influences from past generations. And, while technology has moved on since those days, FernÃ¡ndez's output has kept its analogue origins.
"It usually takes various sketches to have a clear idea of the overall work," says the illustrator, "then I start working on the final artwork in Illustrator and Photoshop."
Fernández believes that people are still seduced by the graphics of psychedelic era, "which brings us a bunch of possibilities". He adds: "They can be oriented to [appeal to] children, as well as be very sophisticated, but they always bring us a kind of mystic and dreamlike feeling."
Art and The Man
Fernández's fellow illustrator and designer Steven Harrington is another psych-tinged creative whose retro style is currently finding much favour. Harrington believes this growing appetite for psychedelic visuals has its roots in companies' desire to be louder and more forthright in the way they want to represent their brands.
"There's been a resurgence in creative work and abstract work that's able to co-exist with more corporate work," says Harrington. "The abstract nature of psychedelic art lends itself to this, and it's the exact opposite of where a lot of brands were three or four years ago."
Harrington says his style is not a conscious thing, but is "very intuitive, with the aesthetic naturally following my way of thinking." Indeed, he consciously tries to steer away from stylistic terms or references. "I'm much more interested in flow and evolution," he says. "What I do is a balance between traditional graphic design, illustration and artwork.
"Just recently I worked on a collaboration with InCase and created some visual iPhone and laptop cases. Because the graphics had to wrap around the product and were meant to represent beauty, I was allowed to create something more psychedelic and abstract."
In this sense, Harrington is certainly influenced by Milton Glaser, about whom he says, "I've always admired his ability to walk that line between graphic commercial work and personal exploration and artwork. His work is very much a reflection of the generation he grew up with."
A new twist
While Fernández and Harrington's design-led illustration has found favour with big-name clients, animators are also soaking up the psychedelic influences of Glaser, Aldridge and Barney Bubbles, and adding new twists to the genre.
Steve Scott is an animator and illustrator based in London whose playful, experimental work for the likes of Volvo and Nokia, and stage graphics for Led Zeppelin, mix psychedelic characters and shapes with cutting-edge transitions and effects.
"I'm aware of [a psychedelic influence] but it's not something I'm consciously aiming for," he explains. "I'm usually trying to amuse myself and this is what comes out. With 'The Wizard's Lair', I wanted to create a villain that would appear in a Kamen Rider story."
Scott lists broad influences that span an eclectic mix from Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin to 2000AD, though he reveals that watching Yellow Submarine at a tender age shaped his ideas of narrative and animation, while Terry Gilliam's slapstick pop surrealism and Edward Gorey's sinister Victorian gentlemen get a mention, too.
"I'm not a fan of everything," Scott admits, "but I remember first seeing Martin Sharp's work and being blown away. He was the art director of Oz magazine as well as designing album covers and a series of fantastic prints on foil - just a fantastic artist. And yes, I love Milton Glaser, Tadanori Yokoo and, obviously, Heinz Edelmann. Psych art should feel like tumbling down the rabbit hole whilst riding an elephant that is playing a 20-minute Moog solo through its trunk."
Like Scott, Jan Feindt is a commercial illustrator whose natural style veers towards psychedelic art. His commissions for the likes of Rolling Stone magazine merge music and '60s styling with a contemporary aesthetic, and have proved a popular calling card for new clients.
"Every time I get an open brief, I naturally gravitate towards a psychedelic style," Feindt reveals. "It's the style I feel comes most naturally to me because it invokes more interesting colour schemes, form and character, and because you can experiment so greatly - a portrait in this style doesn't have to be identical to your subject, but at the same time a psychedelic treatment doesn't make it a caricature."
It is exactly this freedom of expression within psychedelic-styled art which, twinned with more open briefs from clients, has caused this resurgence in the style. You don't have to look far to see contemporary marketing campaigns from some of the world's most famous brands drawing on the likes of Hurford, Scarfe and Aldridge who, more than 40 years later, may have finally come mainstream.