The head, heart and hips of London's Big Active

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When he was an art student, Gerard Saint wanted to form a band. He founded a design studio instead. Designer, rock star, same diff, you might say-at least these days. But not in the pre-Mac '80s, when Saint was doing pasteup at the U.K.'s Berkshire College of Art and Design. Back then, Saint says, "Graphic design was seen as pipe-smoking typographers who did this thing that not many people really understood." When Saint saw Peter Saville's and Malcolm Garrett's album cover art, he was sold.

Saint, creative director, founded Big Active in 1990 with then-partners Mark Watkins and Paul Hetherington, who later parted to explore other projects. "It was more fun to see work produced than sweating it out in a rehearsal studio," he says. From a converted London warehouse, Big Active carved its niche in music packaging-for Basement Jaxx, Aqualung, the Sugababes, Goldfrapp, Simian, Bleachin', among many more-and book and editorial design for magazines like Scene, Nova, and Viewpoint.

Saint's album art is intended to be "pop" in the best possible sense of the term. "In music, you can find examples of overindulgence, like prog rock in the '70s, where you had people noodling on a guitar for 20 minutes, which is quite boring. But pop makes you feel good. It touches your soul, it motivates." Walking down the street, you'll never have to stop and write a dissertation about a Big Active poster. "Design either communicates or it doesn't. A record sleeve is a record sleeve. A poster is a poster." But the studio's design has a way of transcending this it-is-what-it-is theory. Basement Jaxx's Rooty, for instance, features an albino gorilla whose iconic status has outlived its inspiration, Snowflake of the Barcelona Zoo (died November, 2003, beloved father of 22).

In a different sort of pop flourisn, an early-'80s beauty, based on airbrushed Athena posters, graces Basement Jaxx's Get Me Off packaging. But it seems as if a young sibling has broken into his older brother's room, black marker in hand, and defaced her phony flawlessness. Similarly, art director Mat Maitland used a child's pair of blunt scissors to create collages for Goldfrapp's packaging that are as raw and sexually charged as their Grimm Brothers' fairy tale inspiration.

In 1998, Big Active launched a creative management arm, overseen by Greg Burne and Bianca Redgrave, which represents such illustrators and photographers as Jasper Goodall, Patrick Ibanez and Pete Fowler, to name a few. The studio's forthcoming book, Head, Heart and Hips: The Seductive World of Big Active (Die Gestalten Verlag; 2005), presents a snapshot of Big Active via 17 of its artists' original work. At a time when commercial design often demands a sterility that rivals that of the paranoid, sheath-yourself-in-Saran-wrap safe sex movement, the book explodes with sexuality. To a lesser degree, so does the Big Active website, which opens with an oddly arresting silhouette of a couple dirty dancing. "We believe that great design should appeal to the head, the heart and the hips," says Saint. Especially the hips.

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