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  • Across the Graphic Universe: An Interview with John Berg

    John Berg truly had “the best possible job at the best possible time.” As art director (and later creative director and vice president) of Columbia/CBS Records from 1961 until 1985, Berg oversaw a golden age of record cover design. From his office in New York's Midtown he created covers for Dylan, Springsteen and Monk, to name just a few. He commissioned photography from Avedon and illustrations from Glaser and Chwast. He won four Grammys and countless other music and design industry awards. If you've ever purchased any popular music from that era, there's a good chance that it was released by Columbia, and that its visual presentation was in some way conceived by the creative mind of John Berg.

    Photograph of John Berg for Vogue Italia (by Giuseppe Pino, 1982).

    Yet decades later, in the age of digital downloads and compact discs, very few in the design industries seem to remember or appreciate Berg's significant graphic legacy, even though it's part of the cultural fabric. Reduced images, such as the ones included here, do his work little justice. Only by pulling back the gatefold sleeves of Dylan's Blonde on Blonde or Springsteen's Born to Run can Berg's masterful exploitation of the grand-scale format be appreciated. In our practically package-less age, his work stands as a testament to a more heroic and relevant time for music.

    With such thoughts in mind, I went looking for John Berg and found him through his wife, Durell Godfrey, a well-known illustrator and current contributing photographer for The East Hampton Star, the Long Island newspaper where the couple resides. She was kind enough to act as an email liaison, bringing my questions to him, then transcribing his answers and sending them back to me. It's fitting for AIGA to publish this interview, since an exhibit of Berg's CBS Records work was mounted in its New York gallery in the late '70s and traveled to Paris and Ferrara, Italy (Berg also served on the AIGA board of directors around that time). Hopefully, Berg's legacy will continue to influence a new generation of designers who might benefit from his vast contributions.

    Nini: Early on, you held various jobs in advertising and editorial design. How important were these experiences to you when you started working at Columbia? Were there skills or approaches you learned in those other areas that directly applied to the design of record covers? 

    Escapade magazine covers, 1959.

    Berg: I worked in the promotion art department at the Atlanta Paper Company for a year, and during that time I was mentioned twice in the Graphis annual. And I had some success in designing bottle carrier packaging for Pepsi. I later worked on accounts at Grey Advertising and Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) agencies in New York. Realizing that advertising was not for me, I moved over to magazines and was a promotion designer and later a promotion art director at Esquire. I was there for three years before moving over to editorial, at a girlie magazine called Escapade, around 1959. My work there won a lot of awards from the New York Art Directors Club. There was a lot of freedom with the layouts—and the pictures were fun! The combination of these experiences molded my outlook toward graphic design, which was telling stories conceptually and stylishly.

    Nini: In Gary Marmorstein's book The Label: The Story of Columbia Records, you mention being hired “on the spot” by Bob Cato. Is there more to the story? 

    Berg: By 1960 I was out of work and my wife was pregnant with our first child. We were living in Manhattan, and I dropped off my portfolio all over the place looking for a job. I had no expectations, but one day I just took my portfolio up to Columbia Records. Bob Cato saw me talking to his secretary and pulled me into his office for an interview. I had never seen him before, but he seemed to know who I was. He offered me a job on the spot. I stalled him because I had also interviewed at Life magazine, and I wanted to hear back from them before making a decision. After two weeks I took the job at Columbia. I never asked Bob how he knew who I was.

    Nini: You joined Columbia Records as an art director in 1961, following in the footsteps of Alex Steinweiss (from late '30s to early '60s) and Neil Fujita, Roy Kuhlman and Bob Cato (during the '50s and '60s). Did you feel a certain responsibility to further what had been produced before your time, or more of a desire to take things in new directions? 

    Berg: I never worked with Alex Steinweiss, Neil Fujita or Roy Kuhlman, but was certainly aware of their work. My approach was very personal. I did what I thought was interesting, appropriate, informative, intriguing and, most important, graphically compelling. I think if you can achieve even one of these, you are doing good work. The more, of course, the better the work. I think I may have taken things in directions they never dreamed of.

    Bob Dylan “Blonde on Blonde” cover (1966).

    Nini: Some of your early work at Columbia included covers for Bob Dylan, with whom you continued to work for several years. Did you realize at the time the kind of cultural impact he would have in the '60s and '70s? What were your experiences working with him on his record covers—any particular stories worth noting? 

    Berg: Bob Dylan was a personal hero to most of us on the creative end of the record business. The salespeople actively hated his work and what it stood for. Musically, I thought he was incredible and years ahead of everyone. We had an in-house photographer named Don Hunstein. He often photographed Dylan for me, and Bobby (as we called him) frequently chose the picture he wanted to use on his album covers. Hunstein shot the first album cover (Bob Dylan, 1962) on a windowsill at the Columbia offices. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), shot on a snowy street, was also Hunstein's photo, and Bobby chose that image. Sometimes he would organize his own photo shoots and just arrive with his favorite picture. The Jerry Schatzberg cover for Blonde on Blonde is an example of a photo he showed up with. We worked with that picture rather than coming up with a total concept, so the type styles and the cropping became our contributions. I designed the Blonde on Blonde cover for Dylan so that it folded down. That allowed for an interesting rectangular/vertical photo instead of the standard square format. I think it was the first time that had been done with an album. Of course, the record threatened to fall out, but the graphics were great.

    Milton Glaser's “Dylan” poster (1967).

    Nini: You commissioned Milton Glaser to do the now famous “psychedelic” Dylan poster that became a cultural icon. What is the story behind that particular project? 

    Berg: The Milton Glaser poster was assigned by me to go into Dylan's first Greatest Hits package (1967). The cover used Rowland Scherman's photo of Dylan's back-lit hair. That was the first time, to my knowledge, that a poster was shipped within a record package. The Greatest Hits album was cooked up because at that time Dylan was recovering from a motorcycle accident and couldn't produce a new album. An early sketch from Milton included a harmonica, by the way. That sketch is long gone. Of course the poster is on the cover of Milton's book.

    Count Basie “Super Chief” cover (1972).

    Nini: You had the opportunity to work with a variety of well-known photographers and illustrators, including Richard Avedon, Milton Glaser, Paul Davis and Seymour Chwast, to name a few. How did you decide when it was time to bring in a collaborator, and what kind of direction did you usually provide? 

    Berg: I was intent on winning prestigious AIGA and Art Directors Club awards, so that I could prevail on artists and photographers to work within the somewhat limited budgets available at Columbia Records. I chose photographers and illustrators who I thought would bring interesting takes on my concepts. Sometimes I made a sketch (the Count Basie Super Chief cover—airbrushed by David Willardson—comes to mind). I also liked to encourage illustrators to try new things with their art—a watercolor artist to try oils, a drawer to try paint, a type designer to try rendering in tooled leather. So I did meddle, but I did not force things. I wanted the work to be intriguing, to tell a story, to be a fresh take on the subject.

    “Cheap Thrills” cover (1967).

    Nini: Cartoonist R. Crumb's illustration for Big Brother and the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills (1967) appears to have been his only “commercial job,” and a somewhat controversial one at that. How did this project come about? 

    Berg: [Janis] Joplin commissioned it, and she delivered Cheap Thrills to me personally in the office. There were no changes with R. Crumb. He refused to be paid, saying, “I don't want Columbia's filthy lucre.”

    Nini: The series you did over the life of the band Chicago is a real landmark in record cover design. What kind of ideas and approaches were you applying through these covers? 

    Berg: Chicago was a unique situation. Jim Guercio, the musical mind behind the band as well as the band's manager, and I never wanted to show the band on the album covers (with the exception of the greatest hits cover). The Chicago logo—I think the first band logo, per se—was fashioned for me by Nick Fasciano from my sketch. If you look carefully, the logo, whether rendered in leather or chocolate, in the form of a map or a bank note, is always the same size and in the same position on the cover. It was great fun to try to figure out yet another way to imagine that logo when a new record cover needed to be done. I think there were a total of 14 before I left the job. The next designers didn't notice the graphic game I had been playing, the consistent size and position. The Chicago logo was inspired by the Coca-Cola logo, by the way.

    Covers for the group Chicago (from left): Chicago V (1972), Chicago X (1976), Chicago XI (1977) and Chicago XIV (1980).

    Nini: Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run is another landmark cover, especially as it takes advantage of the possibilities with the gatefold album sleeve format. How was it conceived? 

    Berg: The cover for Born to Run walked in the door courtesy of photographer Eric Meola, who had done a photo shoot on spec for Springsteen. Bruce originally wanted a serious, author-like head shot for the cover. I thought that was a boring and without an “idea.” I went through the whole photo shoot. I'm a good photo editor, and I found the beautifully charming shot of Bruce and Clarence. I sold the idea to management on the basis of humor and charm. Because of the fold it was an expensive cover to produce. It was an easy sell to Springsteen—the photo is wonderful. Now that cover is an icon. The image has even been copied using Sesame Street characters. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

    Bruce Springsteen's “Born to Run” cover (1975) and the Sesame Street homage, “Born to Add” (1995).

    Nini: For many years you operated as a true art director, orchestrating projects with a variety of collaborators. This approach differs somewhat from what many well-known designers do today, where they often establish a “signature style.” What do you think about that trend, and do you prefer one approach over another? 

    Berg: I never directly thought about a “style” to my work. I was just trying to come up with a graphic solution, a concept for each project. If a style evolved over the years, it might be inventive typography concepts, one where the letterforms seem to illustrate what the words are saying—Dave Brubeck's Bossa Nova USA for example. Sometimes an illustration would solve the problem, sometimes a photograph. Those projects were great fun to do. On Thelonius Monk's Underground, a project with photographers Steve Horn and Norman Griner, the title of the album came from a current jazz movement, which I twisted into a version of the French anti-Nazi underground of World War II. An entire set was built and the scene was full of costumed extras. There was no problem with budgets in those days. I won a Grammy for that cover, by the way. Again with Horn/Griner, I devised the cover of Switched-on Bach with [a stand-in for] Bach and a Moog synthesizer.

    And there were the times when I was just plain lucky, as with Richard Avedon's photo of a leaping and pointing Sly Stone. I chose the picture from the shoot and cropped it slightly to have the pointing finger touch the edge of the cover. Avedon said my design was the best album ever done from one of his pictures.

    The Dave Brubeck Quartet “Bossa Nova USA” cover (1962); Thelonius Monk “Underground” cover (1967); Wendy Carlos “Switched-on Bach” cover (1968); Sly and the Family Stone “Fresh” cover (1973).

    Nini: In your work I see interplay between word and image, sometimes humorous, and attention to typographic detail. Would you agree that these issues were important to you? Also, while your work naturally reflects the time it was made, much of it appears to have a directness and simplicity that holds up well over the years. Was this a concern of yours, too? 

    Berg: I think it's a result of classic principals of graphics with applications of good old storytelling, humor and great ideas. I enjoy the interplay between image and word—and humor plays a part where it can. The work should be fun, either to look at or fun for the imagination. I think the work is direct, and I am glad to think it holds up over the years. Is that not the definition of classic?

    Nini: Were there any designers from the past or contemporaries whose work you found particularly influential? 

    “Monk” cover (1965), Eugene Smith, photographer.

    Berg: A.M. Cassandre, the great French poster artist who combined graphic design, illustration and high style. Henry Wolf, art director of Esquire and Harper's Bazaar in the '50s, used wonderful typography in those magazines. Paul Rand, whose work was similar to Cassandre in terms of style. Reid Miles, photographer and designer of jazz albums for Blue Note, whose great sense of typography was a constant source of inspiration. Gene Federico, a brilliant advertising art director who created the IBM campaign. Lou Dorfsman, who wore many hats at CBS as chief designer, was a mentor and played a pivotal role in the world of graphic design at CBS corporate. Milton Glaser, a designer's designer. Alvin Lustig, who we lost too young—he was just about the classiest designer there ever was. I noticed his work while I was still working in Atlanta, and I bought album covers he designed—before I had a record player! Alex Steinweiss was the godfather of album design at Columbia Records and, by extension, the whole business of graphics in music.

    Nini: New York in the '60s seems to have been a very special place, with culture and commerce coming together in ways they hadn't before. You were able to have an active role in shaping the popular culture of the era. Do you have any particular thoughts reflecting back on that time? 

    Berg: I had the best possible job at the best possible time to have that job, at the center of the graphic universe. These days the dream jobs are in magazines, but at that time the job every design student wanted was doing record covers. Working at Columbia/CBS was like going to Harvard—hard to get into, but gave a wonderful education. The record companies in those days launched graphic superstars. It was a very heady time, and I know you can't capture in the tiny CD format what we accomplished graphically in the 12-inch square that was the record album. Columbia Records produced hundreds of records every year. I made sure that they had graphic integrity. That was my job.


    CORRECTION: In the introduction, the author originally referred to John Berg's office on New York's Seventh Avenue. The reference is not false, but perhaps not the most accurate. Columbia Records was located there when Berg started in the early 1960s, but moved later that decade to West 52nd Street and Sixth Avenue. 

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