When we asked Joshua Clancy, over email, about the "sort of work" produced by Oval-X, he described his design duo through binary parables. They are an, “Original Manet-to-a-graffiti-covered-advertising-agency-wall,” the "body sweat to your over compensated cologne bath," and "asynchronous pillagers to your top ten list of highest grossing celebrities OR your top ten list of reasons why you hate yourself."
He reps, "The Oval-X eternal," and, aside from that, claims, "that we pretty much just eat candy, pet cats, go swimming, listen to ska, make art, watch movies, and read calvin and hobbes, etc etc blah blah blah.” If there's one thing about alternative R&B artist How to Dress Well's What Is This Heart? album package designers, it's that they're confrontational in the face of the mainstream.
Clancy told me that he only decided to take up the challenge that was How to Dress Well 3D-designed physical album package, after he quit reading David Foster Wallace's sprawling 1,000+ page magnum opus, Infinite Jest. Only then did he have the free time to create what could best be described as a graphic designers' revolutionary manifesto.
“We had done the previous record design for HTDW's Total Loss album which was a phenomenal smash hit success,” said Clancy. “We won numerous awards and were inevitably crowned the queens of all things uncommon. Naturally, HTDW asked us to do this new record and hence the war waged onward.” Post-modern, self-realizing, and relentless, but entertaining; actually, a lot like Infinite Jest.
When asked why HTDW (real name: Tom Krell) might ask for a second round of designs, Clancy proclaimed that Oval-X is "not.boring" [sic].
He said that the recording artist was working with broader strokes on What Is This Heart? and thatthe album art needed to reflect this. Of course, initially, Oval-X wanted to put HTDW's face on the cover, "Looking into your soul," like Phil Collins, on Face Value.
Then, there was a change of plans:
We all agreed something ambiguous that could be interpreted a lot of different ways was the goal. We thought it would be beneficial to try to come up with some graphic covers aside from just HTDW's face, so that led us down the road to a lot, but mostly four major concepts: Anamorphic Reflection; Plastic Casings/Vacuum Form of Natural Objects; Symbols; and Fossil/Relics/Impressions/Bas-Relief.
An early conceptual prototype (above) replicated this effect within 3D space to allow for deeper surrealism: “We liked the view from a bird's eye and thought this could lend itself well to the records A/B-side labels and so forth," Clancy said. "We did more research and there had been similar things done, so we kept exploring.”
At the same time, Oval-X pursued the interplay between plastics and nature. They wondered what sorts of meanings could be created if they vacuum-formed natural objects:
“These experiments were an effort to somewhat commodify nature and humanness,” Clancy said. “The final treatment would have been to smash these objects so the package looked as if it had been used and abused. Technically, this was difficult to achieve because the 3D program had to calculate a lot of complex geometry to smash the objects. If any 3D gurus out there in cyberspace see this and think they can replicate it or get to that point, please contact us because we'd love to work with you.”
For the symbolic aspects of the design, Clancy said they put semiotics— the study of signs and symbols— to good use. They turned the What is the Heart? title into a logo, citing Prince as a huge inspiration:
Around the time they developed the HTDW symbol, Oval-X became obsessed with the buried objects, fossils, ruin theory, and studies that serendipitously crystallized around the sound of the new LP.
“There was this image, 'Together for Eternity,' that we started to pass around and it excited all of us, and it seemed to touch on the right set of ambiguity and meaning we were searching for,” Clancy said, with time, humanity, love, earth, and other concepts all wrapped up in one image. “So, we developed an impression of skeletons embracing, and combined it with the symbol and came up with this cover. It felt really Throbbing Gristle, but maybe not How to Dress Well's tone.”
Oval-X continued down the path of impressions left behind by objects. Ultimately, they asked themselves, “What would a really futuristic cave wall painting be like?” They guessed it would be precise, probably machine-rendered.
Clancy described it as, "Something technical and kind of alien." Following this design principle through to the back cover track-listing, this idea was ultimately turned down for being, “Too out there.”
“It felt cold and we needed to warm it up,” Clancy said. “At that point, we ran the gamut. We had explored other graphic representations for the album cover, and we kind of hit a wall literally and decided to take things for face value. Left but not left behind.”
Back to Phil Collins: Clancy said that Krell enlisted photographer friend Zackery Michael to shoot the cover. Oval-X then decided that there should be no typography on the cover because the lighting was dramatic, and felt like a painting. Worse, every typography they deployed seemed to cheapen the image.
“For the rest of the packaging, we used ideas from our explorations, such as the skeletons in the wall, to give everything a consistency and identity,” said Clancy. “The deluxe version of the album comes with a special transparent PVC sleeve that houses a bunch of album exclusives—the first being the deluxe gatefold sleeve.”
“We wanted the deluxe gatefold sleeve to feel like an object, like a slate, like less of a commercial product and more of an ancient artifact—graphic-less,” Clancy emphasized. “We liked the metaphor of the wall. We as humans have tons of invisible and physical walls all around us.”
“We put walls up and guard ourselves with them or sometimes they even guard us—sometimes in ways that are hurtful to us,” he added, “we found a way to turn hitting a creative wall into art and it felt substantial.”
The deluxe package also comes with a 28-page lyrical booklet and companion piece, with lyrics on one side, and a motif to represent the ideas on the other. The artwork for the album's tracks is also represented by these images:
The other part of the deluxe package comes with an exclusive 10-inch release, which contains a bonus HTDW track, and a remix of “oFF Love.” The 10-inch backside features the elegantly etched figure of a man, “etched in shame,” as Clancy put it.
“When we first did the booklet, we wanted to express the lyrics in a concrete poetry style,” he said. “We were quite bored with centered text and had been looking at a lot of Japanese works that utilized a grid more abstractly. It felt refreshing to put lyrics in this form.”
“3D is clearly the future, as our world outside crumbles and disintegrates the world inside gets more expansive,” Clancy continued. “I predict we are about to enter a new surrealism with 3D, especially with things like the Oculus Rift, where you're engaging with 3D environments in a fully immersive sense.”
While Oval-X are excited about the surrealist possibilities of 3D environments, they see it as the only future for a boring, commercialized design world. Simply put, he won't have it:
“Everything right now feels very boxed in and homogenous, and everything is template-driven and out of the box,” he said. “In the design world, there's this modernist snobbery that exists and permeates our culture. [Many] websites perpetuate an elitism in the design community that is suffocating. It's either this really strict modernist academic thing or this really fake over sentimentalized 'scrumptious' aesthetic, and it's suffocating.”
Clancy said that Oval-X looks to studios like Metahaven.net, who challenge institutions with their radical approaches to design. “They are more politically loaded,” he said. “I hate politics, but at the bottom of everything, what isn't political?”
“Oval-X is our attempt to push away,” he continued. “If it's all one big feedback loop, how do we disrupt it for that brief second until it engulfs what we love and spits it back at us?” Judging by the looks of How To Dress Well's What Is This Heart? design package, the "brief second" soldiers on.
How to Dress Well's 'What Is This Heart' is now streaming, and is out June 24th on Domino and Weird World.