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“I’ve never gone out to look for work in the music realm,” claims ubiquitous D.C. album-art designer Steve Raskin. “It just kind of keeps coming…knock on wood.”
It’s easy to believe him: Raskin’s artwork graces the latest CDs by local bands Jawbox, Velocity Girl, and Nation of Ulysses, as well as releases by out-of-towners like New York’s Surgery and Providence’s Scarce. He’s also designed 7-inch sleeves for Chisel, Walleye, and many others. A guitarist as well as a graphic artist, Raskin has built a career that combines his artistic skill and love of music; his first record sleeve was for punkishly arty quartet Edsel, a band he eventually joined.
A 25-year-old District native and Wilson High School alum, Raskin majored in illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design. After graduation, he returned to D.C. and free-lanced at local graphic art firms before co-founding Ion Design, a co-op studio, in 1991. Tucked above a storefront in Adams Morgan, the space is long and narrow, busy but uncluttered. Posters featuring recent album art serve as wallpaper, and six Macintosh terminals sit waiting. Yet Raskin conceives each design with paper and pencil before assembling it electronically. “It’s easy to do fancy tricks on the computer,” he observes, “but there’s no design to it, there’s no concept.”
The artist’s style is admittedly influenced by 4AD’s de facto designer, Vaughn Oliver of V23, longtime Blue Note designer Reid Miles, and Sub Pop’s Jeff Kleinsmith. He specializes in dense collages: Cut-up images and jumbled textures are often juxtaposed with crisp photos and bold, fractured text. “I like that because they stop being words specifically, and they start being more a texture, more of the design,” Raskin says. “If you’re going to have layers, I like you to be able to look at an album cover and see that there are elements to it, but also that it’s a unit, not just “the name,’ “the photograph,’ “some texture.’ ”
Unlike Oliver, whose album art varies little regardless of a band’s sound or image, Raskin’s style is apt to change radically from project to project. Acting as a sort of visual sessionman, he frequently uses a band’s music to inspire his visuals and solicits the group’s ideas. “When you design, you’re reinterpreting somebody else’s music,” Raskin stresses. “I like the band to be involved. Just tell me things that they like, a concept they have, or photographs they’d like to use. Then I’ll try to take them to the next step.” Drawing inspiration from a band’s music isn’t always an option—Raskin is often unfamiliar with the groups for whom he works. He takes on assignments from bands around the country and does 7-inch sleeves for New Jersey-based Jade Tree records. “The bands will pick out some photos….I’ll get this Fed Ex package and they’ll just say, “Do something with this.’ I don’t know the band. I don’t know the music,” he says. “In one sense, it offers a little more space—I can do whatever I want.”
Of course, doing whatever you want isn’t always a good idea. Last year, Raskin was involved in a brouhaha over his design for Velocity Girl’s Simpatico!. Three weeks after the disc was released, Sub Pop expressed concern about his appropriation of a motif from a Ben Shahn painting. (The mega-indie label had a scare four years ago, when an LP by the band Tad had to be recalled after a found photo was used for cover art without permission. The pictured couple saw the album, sued, and won.) “I had based part of my design for the album cover on a Ben Shahn painting,” Raskin recalls. Lawyers consulted by Sub Pop determined that no copyright infringement was involved, but the artist is still rankled.“I felt I had removed the design far enough from its original intent,” Raskin says. “There’s no way I would just swipe it.”
Though Raskin’s concentration is in graphics, he’s fascinated by the intricacies of packaging: “The way you open it, the way you see it, is really intriguing to me.” His 7-inch sleeves for Tsunami and Scrawl, impressive combinations of smart packaging and innovative artwork commissioned by Arlington’s Simple Machines, exemplify the sort of project he enjoys most. Tsunami’s “Matchbook” single is simply that—a giant matchbook—while Scrawl’s “Your Mother Wants to Know” single features an origami-inspired fold-out cover. “I was offered the luxury of being able to design my own packaging,” he says of these projects, “which is really rare because it’s super expensive.”
Cost isn’t the designer’s only constraint. While Raskin appreciates the space offered by LP jackets, he accepts the fact that CD formats are the norm these days—a recent project involved helping Dischord transfer some of its original vinyl album art to computer for re-release on CD. “I usually design for CD, even when there’s going to be an LP involved,” he admits. “It seems to me that everything blows up much better than it does shrinking down. If you can have a very striking composition small, then of course it can work large.”
Eye-catching work has an obvious commercial function, and the notion that his visuals are supposed to help sell records isn’t lost on Raskin. “It’s silly to think that your design is not going to be in a store,” he says matter-of-factly. “If you look at something and you’re like, “Wow, that looks cool,’ hopefully you’ll buy it.” Raskin pauses. “Personally, I pick up a lot of things just because of the way they look.”