January 21, 2016


David Bowie's 'Blackstar' Designer Says Cover Art is a "Comment on Mortality"

Columbia Records
Columbia Records

Writing about David Bowie's final record, Jan. 8's Blackstar, you're supposed to just throw down the sign. The cover art for the singer's first-ever No. 1 album, above, tells the same story—no name, no title, just a big, basic black star on a white background, with fragments of the star arranged below. Jonathan Barnbrook, the 49-year-old graphic artist who did five designs with Bowie over the last 15 years, spoke to Dezeen about their latest collaboration and how the cover, like the album, lyrics and videos for "Lazarus" and "Blackstar," all dealt directly with the prospect of death.

"This was a man who was facing his own mortality. The Blackstar symbol [], rather than writing Blackstar, has as a sort of finality, a darkness, a simplicity, which is a representation of the music," said Barnbrook, who previously created the artwork for the 2013 comeback album The Next Day, which was simply the cover of Bowie's 1977 hit "Heroes" with a white box and plain black text. Before, he did 2002's Heathen, '03's Reality and the 2014 compilation Nothing Has Changed.

"He was always really respectful about the people who bought his music, so he wanted them to understand the ideas. There was no point in doing something when it was so obscure that people wouldn't get the reference; it had to relate absolutely to the music," Barnbrook said, adding that Bowie's ideas would often annoy his record company, and that critics misunderstood simplistic design for lack of attention to detail. "But I think there is a misunderstanding about the simplicity, about how it actually takes a long time to get there and that simplicity can be a little more eternal in it's meaning."

Going a little deeper on Blackstar's meaning in light of Bowie's death at the age of 69, the 49-year-old Barnbrook said:

"The idea of mortality is in there, and of course the idea of a black hole sucking in everything, the Big Bang, the start of the universe, if there is an end of the universe. These are things that relate to mortality. For the vinyl edition, the star is cut out from the black sleeve so the record inside is visible. The fact that you can see the record as a physical thing that degrades, it gets scratched as soon as it comes into being, that is a comment on mortality too."

So, yeah, we're getting that vinyl as soon as Amazon isn't still sold out of it (and basically every single Bowie album). Meanwhile, we can also peruse producer Tony Visconti's thoughts about how Blackstar was Bowie's "parting gift."

Head to Dezeen to read the entire in-depth interview, and to see the gorgeous booklet art and inside art that came with the five albums Bowie and Barnbrook collaborated on, too. The beauty and mystery goes much further than just the covers.