Cover Star: Roger Dean Interview
A forward-thinking architect and product designer, and the man behind countless spectacular album sleeves, Roger Dean is a genre in himself. Rik Flynn met with this master of unearthly landscapes at his studio in Lewes…
If Pink Floyd and Yes are the poster boys of prog rock, then Roger Dean is the artist in residence. Those who haven’t heard the name need only to be shown any one of his expansive artworks to realise that they are, in fact, very much aware of him.
His stunning catalogue of paintings and logos has been spread out across numerous record sleeves, posters, art cards and computer games.
He’s designed revolutionary furniture rooted both in ergonomic and aesthetic principles that he himself developed.
On top of that, he’s played an integral part in fantastical projects ranging from visionary set design through to initiating the living spaces of the future. Many noted (including Dean, who took the film’s makers to task) that the 2009 Hollywood blockbuster Avatar looked like it borrowed significantly from his body of work. His art has even inspired a NASA drone…
First and foremost, though, Roger Dean is best known as a purveyor of sublime landscape paintings, many borne out of the college sketch books stacked on the shelves in his studio.
His creative hub is far from the haphazard smattering of canvases, jars, paints and brushes; instead, we find an ordered space lined with the odd piece of Dean-designed furniture, rows of vinyl LPs, a few of his paintings on the wall, the infamous Yes ‘bubble’ logo drawn out on a canvas that rests in the corner and – on the opposite side of the room – large prints of the stamp set he has just designed that sit on a table.
Poisonous and Exotic
Up the stairs to a stunning view that extends unobstructed across the East Sussex Downs, while behind us, a towering library of source material faces the window. There’s a large doll’s house, some giant barnacles, family pictures and plenty of curios and odd-looking artefacts that indulge the eyes. Two beautiful large-scale landscapes are underway simultaneously.
They need to be finished in the next week or so. “Usually, there’d be a lot more paintings here and some of my design works and several architectural models, but they are at the exhibition,” smiles Roger, who is currently exhibiting on the Isle Of Man. There’s clearly a fair bit more to Roger Dean’s fantasy vistas than meets the eye.
In a few hours spent chatting in Roger Dean’s vaulted barn, we cover plenty more ground than we’d bargained for. Conversation veers from his fascination with designing the future to how he sketched that infamous Yes logo.
He speaks assuredly, swims in experience and is careful to avoid cliché – he’s a little hoarse, no doubt due to an evening spent at the Prog Rock Awards the night before.
For a man who conjures up such playful landscapes, we wonder if his childhood played a part? “I was in Hong Kong from 12 to 15, but the influences that were personal was not the landscape – that was just crumbly, sandstone with very few forests, just big shrubs,” he explains.
“But before I went there I was a huge natural-history enthusiast and so, coming from a country where I’d seen every major animal in the wild to Hong Kong, where you start from scratch and half of them are poisonous and all of them are exotic.
You could hike for days without coming across any signs of civilisation.” 1950s Hong Kong was a very different place to the sprawling metropolis that it soon grew into and strangely, it was interpretations of landscapes and manufactured landscapes rather than the natural scenery itself that caught Dean’s attention.
“What did influence me was Chinese landscape art. One of the aspects of Feng Shui that fascinated me no end was that the Chinese took landscape gardening to such ridiculous lengths. They’d have mountains in the background, then hills and rivers, but somehow the hills didn’t match the mountains, so they reshaped them and diverted the river.
All of it thinking in terms of an ideal poetic landscape. There’s something contrived about that, but nevertheless, if you’re going to screw up the landscape, why not do something amazing?”
Delusions of Rationality
It’s immediately obvious that Dean is a deep and considered thinker; an artist who questions everything around him and one whose answers are often contrary to the accepted line.
Dean’s creativity most certainly stems from his ability to think way outside of the lines but – most importantly – he maintains a tangible focus on the real world at the core of most of what he does.
His ideals took shape at the Royal College Of Art, where he wrote his thesis on ‘the psychology of the built environment’ – and where the future became his obsession. “I was very interested in designing the future.
I was very uninterested in designing boxes for people to live in. So the challenge was interesting to me. They couldn’t explain why everything had to be a box. They always came back with clichés like ‘form follows function’ and ‘strip it down to the bare essentials’. Nothing about how humans interacted with the space. I say design, particularly architecture and graphic design, is taught as a theology, it’s a belief system with delusions of rationality.”
Talk of rationality may seem rich coming from a ‘fantasy’ (he doesn’t like the term) artist such as Dean, but it isn’t quite so far-fetched.
The distinctive architecture in his paintings is almost exclusively designed to be built and despite the imaginary, often impossible, scenes he depicts in his work, his huge library implies that earthly source material is of great importance.
“These two paintings with trees here,” he says, pointing to two paintings on the wall, “I could take you to both trees.
I don’t go anywhere without a sketch book.” So perhaps it wasn’t such a big jump to move between industrial design, architecture and furniture to album sleeves? “It never seemed a big jump to me,” he agrees. “I don’t see a significant difference in terms of the aesthetic challenge of designing a logo to designing a hotel. But there’s obviously a great deal more you need to know in one case than the other.”
The Next Millennium
At the end of the 70s, Dean had the idea to create a TV show about the future called Living In The Third Millennium, but due to budget constraints, the project was put on hold. Now the tech has evolved to depict the future without the need for colossal sums, it’s back on track…“I met up Mark Stevenson, who wrote a book called An Optimist’s Tour Of The Future. He’s looking at all technologies that would make life better…
Going from the really high end, such as super computers, to farming methods that produce a higher yield by rotating where the cattle feed. It was interesting how many of these technologies exist now, that could create an amazing future.
The point about them is they’re all invisible… To us, the three things about an amazing future that wouldn’t be invisible would be transport, architecture and how we deal with our environment. How we make it a paradise on Earth – we’re working on that now…”
Is Uriah Heep’s 1972 LP Demons And Wizards hiding erotic imagery in the depths of the painting? Is Dean prone to camouflaging secret images in his works? “Not in a self-conscious way,” he chuckles. “It’s just like cracking a joke when you talk.
You don’t plan it, you don’t rehearse it. It does happen a lot, though. There are some things people have never mentioned, but there also things people see I never put there. I once had a fabulous conversation with someone telling me about all of the symbolism in my work and I said, ‘You know that’s just not there!’ And he replied, ‘How would you know? You’re the artist.’ While I was outraged, I knew what he meant!”
Dean vs Avatar
In 2013, Dean filed a $50 million lawsuit against Hollywood director James Cameron, accusing him of “wilful and deliberate copying, dissemination and exploitation” of his art works on Avatar, a film that still remains the highest grossing film of all time.
“Part of my reaction when I saw the film was, ‘Bloody hell. This is outrageous!’” Dean told us. “The other reaction was, ‘Jesus Christ, my work looks fantastic on the big screen.’” Sadly for Dean, the judge felt there was no similarity. “We had about three million people saying it was very similar, a lot of them were famous people. The BBC, Korean television… they’d all made the comparison.
The ‘Sea Urchin Chair’
First produced in the mid-60s – and one of Dean’s first successes to be acknowledged – the Sea Urchin Chair was designed while he was at the Royal College Of Arts and goes way beyond simple seating.
Russian furniture guru Salaman Hille picked up on Roger Dean’s talent early. Hille’s granddaughter, Cherril Sheer, told midcenturymagazine.com: “I set up a scholarship in which we took on students to make their products in our factory, where our people would help develop them.
In the early 1960s, I went round all the degree shows and ended up choosing four students from the RCA, one of which was Roger Dean, who designed the Sea Urchin chair. This remains one of my favourite pieces of furniture.
It was just a round ball – the segments were glued together and then upholstered, so that when you sat on it, it compressed to your shape. Then it slowly went back to its position.”
Not only is Dean’s creation a thing of beauty, it’s ergonomic in the extreme and a precursor to the beanbag. The chair was exhibited at the Design Centre in London and is now part of the permanent collection at the Victoria And Albert Museum.
Having been enlisted to design a contemporary seating area at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club while at college, Dean was commissioned for his first sleeve – rock trio The Gun, who were affiliated with the club.
“I was showing them what the seating design might look like in my sketch book and they asked if they could use it for an album cover. The consequence of that was that I ended up doing half-a-dozen jazz albums, when I wanted to do more rock’n’roll.
So I went back to David Howells – who was A&R when I did the Gun cover – and he gave me the Osibisa cover job. That was a big breakthrough for me, because I took that to Big ‘O’ posters and they made a poster of it that sold enormous numbers. I say we sold 60 million units of my work, but it’s probably more like 100 million.”
It turned out to be a breakthrough in more ways than one. Dean’s first Osibisa sleeve, which depicted elephant/insect hybrids in a vivid outback scene, was a major step towards his characteristic style.
“Osibisa was interesting because I had to invent credible African fairytale imagery,” he remembers. “That was my own brief. It was weird, because there wasn’t really any African lettering, so I kind of invented it for the logo. The irony is that it appeared in all kinds of soul-food restaurants for years afterwards and it was just invented.”
Beginning with that catalytic LP and stretching into all of his later work, Dean dispensed with regular fonts and chose to design his own.
“It was a challenge to invent a culture and then create the cultural artefacts – including the fonts – that came from that place.
I felt that if the band were making an effort to reinvent music, that there was an obligation to make the effort to have this product look like it came from the place where the music allegedly came from. You’re communicating beyond the word, an idea that’s come from somewhere else and what that somewhere else might be.”
So do you see your logos as front doors to these newly invented cultures? “Yes they are, although I have to say they don’t always go down well,” laughs Roger Dean. “When the label first saw the Asia logo, they were very dismissive.
They didn’t like the painting, either. Much later John Wetton (from Asia) said to me that when they delivered the album, the CEO of Geffen put his arm around him and said, ‘John, you have a logo nobody can read, you have an album cover that’s too dark and we just don’t hear a hit single… As you know, it went and sold 14 million.”
Dean’s feel for “putting things together that shouldn’t be together” soon expanded into a biomechanical theme for hard rockers Budgie’s second album, Squawk. “I wasn’t really into science fiction, but I liked the idea of biomechanical.
As a student, I climbed all over the mountains in Scotland and Wales and I picked up the seagull skull on one of those walks. I was looking at this plastic Blackbird ’plane model and thought, ‘This skull on the front would work much better than what should be there’.
So I sawed if off and fitted the skull on and it really worked.” The image was a powerful one. Not only was it the porthole to an entirely new genre of science-fiction art, but it resonated even further afield… “Years later, I was at the World Science Fiction Convention and was invited to dinner by some NASA engineers,” recalls Dean. “There were some guys from Lockheed’s Skunk Works there and they told me that the senior engineer had painted that plane from the Budgie cover 600ft long down the side of this giant hangar.
He said that because he liked my work, he’d profiled the front end of the Patriot drone with that same silhouette.”
However, perhaps Roger Dean’s most recognisable sleeve art was created for Yes soon after. Does he remember when they first approached him? “They didn’t. After Osibisa, I still had this hankering to do rock.
I went around the record companies with a portfolio and I saw Phil Carson at Atlantic who was very supportive of my work. He said, ‘I only have two bands, Yes and Led Zeppelin. When one of them needs a cover, I’ll call you.’ So he called me when Yes wanted a cover.”
It was a perfect fit. Roger Dean’s first project was the band’s breakthrough LP Fragile and the ‘fragile world’ of bonsai trees and wooden spaceships he conjured up married perfectly with their newfangled sound, with new recruit Rick Wakeman’s futuristic Moog at the fore. Was he inspired by their sound?
“The music rarely existed when I had to do the cover. I’d heard their previous albums, particularly The Yes Album, but I hadn’t heard Fragile… they’d barely started it. So it wasn’t my direct source of inspiration – it was interesting cultural colouring.
When I pitched them an idea for Fragile, I actually pitched a story, not an image. I had this story about a child who dreamt they were living on a planet that was breaking up, so they had to build a space ark to find another planet to live on. And they towed all the little bits of the planet with them. It was a creation myth that was behind the story.”
That story continued into their next (live) album Yessongs, a perfect reflection of Jon Anderson’s metaphysical lyrical subject matter. “Exactly, yes. We visited that story on maybe a dozen Yes albums,” he adds. “I repainted Fragile to match the colours of the ‘Escape’ painting in Yessongs.” Was this thematic journey planned out in advance? “No, it wasn’t,” he explains.
“In a way, I enticed them back to me by doing the logo. After Fragile, I needed to do something that had a permanent identity. And it’s sort of apocryphal, but it’s true… I was living in London and I literally came down on the Brighton Belle, had a kipper, and sketched out the Yes logo on that journey. Those original sketches and the first colour versions are in the V&A in their permanent collection of prints, drawings and paintings.”
With the perennial ‘bubble’ logo complete, the band took Dean into the fold from Fragile follow up Close To The Edge right through to 1981’s Classic Yes – and he would return for 1991’s Union right up to the present day. ‘When we discussed doing the sleeve they came up with the title Close To The Edge and I came up with a painting which went down very well (a vast overflowing lake on a mountaintop),” he remembers. “But they said they wanted just the logo on the cover. The painting went inside with no text on it, which was very nice.”
Perhaps one of Dean’s finest creations came shorty after, in 1973, for Yes’ infamous concept (double) album, the psychedelic behemoth, Tales Of Topographic Oceans.
The source of the idea may differ depending on who you listen to, but Dean’s version involves a book, an empty ’plane over Siberia and some slightly suspect cake…
“I’d done a book cover for an author called John Michell. He wrote a book called View Over Atlantis about leylines and patterns in the landscape and I was very interested, but not 100-per-cent convinced.
I finished that cover just before Yes went to Japan and although Yes didn’t really do drugs in any major way, the ruling from the management and the label was, ‘no drugs in Japan’.
So the families made this big going-away cake and everyone was given a chunk on the ’plane. It was one of the first polar flights and it was almost empty – a giant aircraft with hardly anyone on it who wasn’t part of the Yes entourage.
That cake had me so stunned that I couldn’t speak all the way to Anchorage,” laughs Dean. “We were flying over Siberia for hour after hour and Jon and I were talking about patterns in the landscape – so, to me, that’s where it came from. And the title really reflects that. Anyway, that’s my version of it and Jon has his, too, which is equally true because it’s his project in a very major way.”
The pomposity of Tales… had scared off the band’s keyboard prodigy Rick Wakeman, but replacement Patrick Moraz added a freed-up jazz influence for the equally bombastic follow up, Relayer.
Dean, on the other hand settled on the concept of ‘the ultimate fortified city’ with very little colour indeed… “Pretty much all my designs could be built and ideally would be built, but Relayer’s one piece of architecture which was not intended to be built,” he says.
“The theme for that went back to when I first read The Lord Of The Rings. I was looking for something that would fit into that world, but not into the story. I painted it not so much with watercolour but with the dirty water that was in the jar.”
Roger Dean’s first Asia LP followed almost a decade later and was a major departure from his previous work. Was it a purposeful move on behalf of the band – particularly Steve Howe and Geoff Downes – to distance themselves from Yes?
“The actual agreement we had was that I wouldn’t do it so as to make a very obvious departure. And then I met up with them in the studio and they had all the design proposals on the table and they didn’t like any of it.
And Alpha was a very different concept from the first Asia LP – were you left to your own devices?
“Mostly, I was given an entirely free reign,” he adds. “Although I talked to the band and they all had totally different ideas, which I mischievously incorporated into the painting.”
Your relationship with both bands has stood the test of time. How do you feel you’ve evolved as an artist over the years?
“My painting and drawing has become much better and actually, I think my imagination works much better. There’s a difference, though. Back in 1972, ’73, ’74, there was a sort of visual desert that my work had a huge impact in, because there was nothing like it. I’m lucky in that in the early days, I had very little competition when I had very, very modest talent. \
I think my work stands out as there’s a lot more creativity in it than craftsmanship. There’s a lot of craftsmanship, too, but if I had to stand alone against the best artists alive today, I wouldn’t be at the top of the pile.
“I guess if I have a motivation, it’s pulling people into the idea of addressing landscape as a wonderland to live in, because we’re building over so much of our planet and it’s the only one we have, so we have to do it in a way that’s sensitive. We could have a future that our children could thrive in, even with an increasing population.”
As Roger Dean shares his views on the world we occupy – a world that we have to interact with and enjoy existing in – we’re led into thinking that perhaps, Dean’s fantastical visions aren’t quite so unachievable after all.
We are reminded of Antoni Gaudí’s unique architecture dotted across Cataluña – two kindred spirits from two entirely different times.
Roger Dean cuts an impressive figure out there on his own. Here’s hoping that his visions – and ideals – for the future are one day brought to fruition, but whether real or imagined, they’ve brought joy to a vast number of people and will surely continue to do so.
Focus’ Focus X album, released in 2012 with its distinctive Roger Dean cover, has just been released on vinyl