Ronald Clyne



29 September – 27 October 2007

Curated by John Nixon, Stephen Bram, Warren Taylor

A record cover should be seen at a glance. You shouldn’t have to study different sections of it. You should see the total instantly. I tried to avoid going to an office. I had freedom; I didn’t have to deal with an art director. I wanted to pursue what I was interested in.” (Ronald Clyne, interview 2005)

Ronald Clyne (1925 –2006) was a freelance graphic artist who worked with various New York publishing houses producing book jacket designs. Between 1951 and 1981, alongside this ongoing work, he designed over 500 LP covers for Folkways Records, from some 2000 records released during the three-decade lifetime of this successful though highly independent company from 1948 –1986. Whilst other graphic artists including Irwin Rosenhouse, David Stone Martin and Craig Mierop also designed covers, it was the covers by Clyne that came to represent the dominant Folkways style or look.

Folkways Records was founded and directed by Moses Asch with a personal vision to document and be a depository for the sounds and music of the world, making up the culture of man from the USA to New Guinea. Beginning with folk, the label also included traditional and contemporary music from many countries as well as spoken word and ethnic field recordings. Visually the cover designs for Folkways Records differ considerably from those of other commercial record labels. They distinctively use only two-colour printing on matt paper glued over a thick matt black cardboard sleeve always leaving a thin black line around the cover’s edge.

Asch’s idea was that the cover designs should marry with the recorded sound. Within this framework, he gave his designers freedom to design as they saw fit, without interference from him. With a huge output of on average one LP per week throughout its thirty-eight year history, Asch’s label is a testament to what can be achieved by one man. His was a personal, not corporate vision developed with no more than a handful of staff working with independent, singular artists, not corporate advertising agencies.

Clyne’s use of carefully considered typography, layout and image is outstanding in its simplicity and beauty. “To do work that you like and can do, quickly, effectively…perfect!”, Clyne says, summing up his streamlined approach. His body of record cover designs encompasses a wide diversity from the ethnic to the experimental, reflecting the inclusive spirit of the Folkways label. Covers displayed in this exhibition include for example Indeterminacy, a spoken word recording by John Cage with music by David Tudor; Indian Music of Mexico, played in traditional communities and recorded by Henrietta Urchenko; The Real Boogie Woogie by Memphis Slim and Folk Songs for Young People by Pete Seeger. Apart from the individual portrait photos given to him by Asch, Clyne would regularly source images for his cover designs during regular visits to the New York Public Library and National Archive.

Clyne uses a diversity of typefaces as appropriate to each case. We can see in his covers a range of typical approaches. There are those using a single image as part of an overall monotone field with either black or white text. In others more geometric in style, text and image have separate, complementary panels; usually the text is set against a block of colour juxtaposed by a black and white photograph. In some covers with no photograph, the typography itself becomes an image. The most obvious example is the series featuring the word JAZZ, its tall elongated lettering against a range of coloured fields conveying a sense of the modern. Another variation is the bold and stylish cover design for The Songs of Mark Spoelstra on the poster for this exhibition: here a coloured, geometric meander separates the black and white image from the text. Given the feel for abstract composition evident in such designs, it is no surprise to learn that Clyne was a collector of New Guinea art – another art that combines simplicity of design, colour and form.

The purpose of this exhibition of around fifty record covers is to open eyes to the significance of Ronald Clyne’s distinctive contribution through his work with Folkways Records to American Modernist graphic design and cultural history.

- John Nixon
  January 2007

The records in this exhibition are from the collections of Stephen Bram,
John Nixon, Warren Taylor, and Andrew Wright Hurley.

First shown at The Narrows, Melbourne, Australia

List of works (PDF 100KB)

The Narrows                        Smithsonian Folkways