When Aubrey “Po” Powell was just 16, he fell in with a crowd that was to shape the rest of his life. He noticed some interesting people coming and going across the street from his home in Cambridge and decided to introduce himself. Those assembled were to become the founders of Pink Floyd and also his future creative and business partner, Storm Thorgerson. Their friendship and creative vision was the genesis of the design collective known as Hipgnosis.
During the late 60s and throughout the 70s, a great rock album needed a great cover. Hipgnosis was at the forefront of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary with cover designs for some of the biggest names in music. The Dark Side of the Moon is easily their best-known work and is considered by many to be the greatest album cover of all time.
Storm’s association with Pink Floyd began in school. He was in the grade between Syd Barrett and Roger Waters and even played on a rugby team with the latter. Waters’ and Thorgerson’s mothers were even close friends. David Gilmour has recalled that Storm’s mother Vanji was “very liberal” and let them do pretty much whatever they wanted. That meant sitting around listening to music and smoking weed. Storm was the “leader of the pack,” whom Gilmour characterized as ”a non-stop loudmouth [who] stayed that way for his whole life. He was the sort of guiding force behind most of our artwork throughout the years – he was brilliant.” Powell was brilliant as well and the perfect foil for Thorgerson’s big personality.
In the early sixties, the gang splintered as many went off to London to study (Gilmour stayed behind in Cambridge playing music and studying languages). Storm went to the Royal College of Art and encouraged Po to join him, suggesting he might try his hand at photography. Thus the seed was planted that germinated into a decades-long creative partnership.
In 1968, the professional relationship with Pink Floyd began. After Syd Barrett’s departure, the group needed an album cover to match both the new music, and the group’s new identity, for its second album. A unique aspect of the group going forward, compared to their contemporaries, was the submersion of their individual personalities to instead focus on the music. Album covers became their visual personality instead.
Storm approached David Gilmour with a request to design the cover for Saucerful of Secrets. To create an image for Floyd based on the “space rock” direction of the band at the time, Storm’s idea was to craft a swirling, kaleidoscopic image of the cosmos, gathering images from a variety of sources. Po photographed them in black and white and created a montage, which he then hand-tinted. Bowing to pressure from the record company to include the band on the cover, Po snapped a photo and placed it into a sphere in the montage. Everyone got what they wanted, and it launched Storm and Po’s career.
They took their name from graffiti that had been written on the door of their flat, Edgerton Court. There are different versions about who was responsible for it, with Po thinking it was Syd to others adamantly giving credit to Adrian Haggard. Storm loved it: hip is cool and gnosis means knowledge. It was perfect.
For a storied collective, Hipgnosis had humble beginnings. Roman Polanski had shot Repulsion in Edgerton Court, and the film crew had abandoned lighting and camera equipment. Storm and Po quickly appropriated it. They set up shop at 6 Denmore Street, “a shithole,” Po remembered. The studio lacked a bathroom, and they used a sink to relieve themselves. They continued to craft posters and album covers for Pink Floyd, utilizing collages and other techniques, and became known for their groundbreaking approach to cover design.
For Ummagumma, Hipgnosis employed the Droste effect for Ummagumma with four photographs of the band occupying a different position in each, recursively appearing as a succession of smaller images contained in the main picture. The following year they made a splash with Atom Heart Mother, a cover with no meaning and foregoing any depiction of the band members and no name, no title, and no words whatsoever. The record company objected strenuously, but the cover made such an impact that the cow became synonymous with the group rather quickly.
Hipgnosis gained a foothold with progressive rock bands at the start of the new decade, with Quatermass, Genesis and The Nice commissioning work. As Storm listened to the music for The Nice’s upcoming Elegy, he envisioned a desert with red balls distributed throughout the landscape. Po thought the idea was insane, but Storm convinced Keith Emerson that it was the right choice. So Powell and Thorgerson made a trip to the Sahara to make it a reality. The cover proved to be a tipping point. Rolling Stone wrote a feature on the team, and the music world was talking about Hipgnosis.
Orders came rolling in. By 1973, they were working on albums that were to be among the pantheon of rock’s greatest recordings, including Paul McCartney & Wings (Band on the Run), Led Zeppelin (Houses of the Holy and later the “Icarus” logo design for the band’s Swan Song label), and of course, that one with the prism.
As the collective grew, Storm and Po brought in additional artists, including George Hardie. It was he who designed the iconic prism graphic for The Dark Side of the Moon. The band were shown several images, but they immediately agreed upon the prism, to Thorgerson’s dismay. He had other ideas he wanted them to consider, but the band had made up its mind. Of course, the album art went on to be one of the most recognizable graphics of all time, let alone album covers, and The Dark Side of the Moon has sold over 45 million copies and is considered one of the greatest ever albums ever recorded.
From then on, Hipgnosis was in the enviable position to work with the top artists in the business, creating covers for Genesis, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Peter Gabriel, Def Leppard and countless others. In their final years together, Thorgerson and Powell ventured into the realm of music videos.
The original collective dissolved in the 80s when Storm and Po went their separate ways. Powell started a production company that made music videos, commercials and documentaries whileThorgerson continued to work with Pink Floyd and other bands.
After suffering a stroke in 2003, Storm Thorgerson was partially paralyzed. Ten years later , he was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 69. On his passing, David Gilmour said Storm was, “a constant force in my life, both at work and in private, a shoulder to cry on, and a great friend."
Check out the documentary Squaring the Circle on Netflix for more about the fascinating characters in Hipgnosis.