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Folkways & Ronald Clyne



I can remember seeing the odd Folkways LP in my Dads record collection.  The covers always stood out.   As I got older and started digging around old record shops l came across more of these LP's.  Usually really obscure recordings, with amazing cover art.  The label was always a bit of a mystery until I picked up a book by Adrian Shaugnessy from his Unit: Design/Research series:



'The influence of the record label Folkways on popular music is far reaching. The label was founded by Moses ‘Moe’ Asch (1905—1986) in New York in 1948, with the aim of documenting poetry, field recordings, natural sounds and all kinds of indigenous music. Yet perhaps Folkways’ greatest claim to immortality is that under Asch’s direction it was responsible for recording the artists – many for the first time – who provided the catalyst for the American folk music explosion of the 1950s and 60s.'  

Many bands were inspired by the recordings Asch made.  Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and The Byrds amongst many others, have all cited Folkways' recordings as an influence.  But for me, the covers were (in most cases) more influential than the music.  The man responsible for most of them was graphic designer and illustrator Ronald Clyne.  Between the 50's and the 80's, he designed over 500 covers for the label. 



'Clyne valued the creative freedom Asch gave him. In a book about Folkways, the writer describes the briefing process: ‘Sometimes Asch provided Clyne with a photograph that he wished to have incorporated into the cover art, but otherwise he rarely interfered or suggested changes.’

This was the autonomy that Clyne craved and why he remained loyal to Asch for over three decades: ‘He never mentioned price,’ said Clyne. ‘He never mentioned how fast I should do them, or what I should do. Nothing like that. Of all the work I’ve done commercially, that’s the one I enjoyed the most because I had freedom.’

Clyne was largely ignored by the graphic design community at the time and his work has only appeared in two exhibitions: one in Australia and one in Tokyo. 

The Unit Editions book was the only one I've been able to find (now unfortunately out of print).  You can view many of his designs on the Smithsonian Folkways website.

Also have a look at the Unit Editions blog for a shortened version of the essay that appears in the book.  Check out their shop too, for some of the best independently published graphic design books...its ace! 




August 18, 2014 by Danny Willis



Isabel said:

I like how Unit calls Clyne a “folk modernist” on their weapbge. This is a good phrase for the kind of aesthetic I like. It often gets used in reference to Charley Harper.

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