Winter 2001

Stephen Byram: art & design

John L. Walters
CD packaging

A New Yorker opts for content, tactility and the sound of surprise

When you spot a credit for NY-based designer Stephen Byram, it usually reads something like Art&design:stephenbyram. (Sometimes it says, ‘design&otherstuff’, or ‘character assassination’.) He is a graphic designer, sure, but the work seems to come at you in a frenzied rush, more like a painting or a piece of sculpture in a gallery. And Byram’s exhibition space is the small record store specialising in the avant-garde: contemporary jazz and ‘new music’. His CD packages always produce a shock of pleasure or surprise. They have an oddness, an awkward individuality that expresses perfectly the equivalent idiosyncrasies of the musicians on the record.

His illustrations are messy, sprawling, some-times tentative and at other times explosively confident. His typography is obsessive but rarely conventionally neat. There is a small team of collaborators that he likes to commission: illustrator Jonathon Rosen; photographer Robert Lewis; fine artist Betsy Berne. Sometimes, as in his stunning covers for Uri Caine’s Blue Wail and Klucevsek and Bern’s Accordance, he does everything himself, immersing himself in the music for a while before working quickly to produce an affordable final design.

You can spot a Byram cover in a few seconds, not least because he hardly ever works with the limitations of the CD jewel case packaging standard to the mainstream music industry. The uncoated board of the defiantly low-budget Screwgun catalogue and the more luxurious corrugated card packages for the Winter & Winter label are a particularly striking reaction to the plastic norm. Music fans tend to love them (though the W&W format has provoked some angry debate on a jazz internet discussion forum), and they help strengthen the visibility of the music in a difficult marketplace that is dominated by stylish and long-established (if more predictable) labels such as ECM and Hat Hut. There are newcomers such as Rune Grammofon, with its sumptuously minimalist covers by Kim Hiorthøy, and November, with its heavy card covers, but most labels in the difficult listening market are small, and owned by musicians or enthusiasts with little time or money for ‘extras’ such as packaging, and no experience in commissioning graphic design.

The online music magazine Motion, reviewing Marc Ducret’s L’ombra di Verdi (Screwgun), said: ‘Designer Stephen Byram is quite simply producing the finest music artwork around at the moment.’ Django Bates, the British jazz musician, composer and bandleader, is a fan of Byram’s work, and an occasional client, with several releases on JMT and Screwgun. ‘The thing that gets me is that he has this very recognisable style, but every time you see something by him, he’s come up with something completely new,’ says Bates. ‘That’s what people aspire to in music and art and everything.’

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First published in Eye no. 42 vol. 11, 2001

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