Manuel Sepulveda, a designer for Planet Mu, Ninja Tune, Unsound and Hyperdub, explains how a collision between nostalgia and futurism defines his work.
As it happens, I used to drive past the same IBM logo when I was a teenager. Only, a couple of decades on, it had lost its futuristic shine. Apple laptops are the humdrum norm these days, and Space programmes struggle to maintain funding. The future—the bright, exciting one imagined in the decades after the war—is seen as a kitsch indulgence, if we think of it at all.
Sepulveda's design work, under the name Optigram, reflects the state of things. Sometimes his designs are nostalgic, sometimes pointedly avant-garde, but mostly they're some combination of the two. He's best known as Hyperdub's in-house designer, which makes sense given the label's own combination of futurism and mourning for the past. They didn't release an album called Memories Of The Future for nothing.
"I think the selling point for Steve was that I used to work at Maharishi," Sepulveda says of Kode9, who wears the clothing brand's distinctive camo gear in most of his press shots. "Also, a lot of people who do pattern-based work focus on making something that's beautiful. And I'm not so concerned with that. I don't mind if something is ugly and a bit depressing-looking, or dark. Me and Steve had a good laugh with the artwork for the fifth birthday compilation. We'd found this forum where there was a thread of people saying, 'This is the ugliest artwork we've ever seen.' Which I thought was great."
The Hyperdub 5 sleeve was one of Sepulveda's first commissions from the label. Its drab, blocky pattern, suggesting camouflage and digital compression artefacts, tips a nod to Sepulveda's time at Maharishi. But there's much more to his design work than ugliness, as a browse through the Hyperdub catalogue shows. He made the heat-baked, weirdly inviting dystopia on the cover of Kode9 & The Spaceape's Black Sun, and the eye-popping grid of dots for Morgan Zarate's Hookid. The skull on the front of Scratcha DVA's Pretty Ugly is also one of his—it's cracking open to reveal sheets of rainbow-coloured light, a reference both to the music's vivid colour and Scratcha's synaesthesia.
Sepulveda's sleeves suggest a deep understanding of the music they contain. Few images, for instance, would suit Terror Danjah's music better than the cryptic metal structures found in Bruzin VIP and Undeniable. In the past he's attributed this to the "rhythm" of his often rigorously patterned designs. It might also have to do with his own small role in dance music history.
Sepulveda is from Chile, but moved to the UK when he was young. After spells in a couple of places—including Winchester, home of IBM's research lab—he ended up in Cornwall. He arrived at a good time. "There were three or four schools in Truro, and when everyone piled out after school they all mixed in the town centre," he recalls. Through his friend Tom Middleton, with whom he worked Saturdays at Marks & Spencer, he got to know a kid from another school called Grant Wilson-Claridge. They bonded over a mutual love of Prince and a curiosity about the dance music trickling into Cornwall from the rest of the world.
"Meeting Grant coincided with starting to go to clubs in the area. We started going to this place called the Bowgie, which is just outside Newquay. Aphex Twin had a night there with a friend of his. He started playing his own tracks, and Grant had come into some money and offered to release them. That's how that Rephlex thing started."
Sepulveda found himself in the middle of an unlikely Cornwall scene. He DJ'd and ran his own "very sweaty, very smoky" rave night with Middleton and another friend at the Bowgie. He was into comics and films, but design hadn't yet occurred to him as a career path. After school, he dropped out of a photography course and set up the dance music section in a Truro record shop. Much of the Cornwall scene, including Wilson-Claridge, relocated to London. Sensing that he'd end up in the capital eventually, Sepulveda moved to Bristol to study film.
He got his start in sleeve design when R&S contacted Wilson-Claridge looking for help. "I'd always sort of helped out Grant when he was doing Rephlex stuff. If I was staying around his house in London, he'd probably be working on something and I'd give him a hand. R&S asked Grant, 'Who does your design?' Grant explained that he did most of it and that he would sometimes get me to help." Sepulveda ended up doing several designs for the label, including Ken Ishii's Tangled Notes and Model 500's Sonic Sunset. He didn't own a computer so he'd knock them together on the Rephlex PC, learning as he went. "Looking back on them, I think, 'God, that's terrible,'" he says.
Sepulveda's design career didn't always revolve around music—he worked for Swatch in Milan for a while, for instance. When it did, during his stint at London's Blue Source agency, he felt he was mostly toeing the company line. In the meantime, he took on the occasional project through old Cornwall friends, including doing the layout for Drukqs. The Optigram name arrived at the end of the 2000s, when Sepulveda was working with Mark Pritchard, a West Country contact then recording as Harmonic 313. "I wasn't really sure about using my name as a designer—people can't google it because they can't remember how to spell it," he explains. "And we were talking about op art, because Mark's really big on that."
The name is a portmanteau of op art—the post-war movement that played with optical illusions—and Archigram, an avant-garde architecture group founded in the '60s, whose imagined mega-cities brimmed with optimism for the future. The Harmonic 313 sleeves leaned towards op art: on 2009's Battlestar, for instance, zig-zag lines sizzle on the eye. Dense geometric patterns have been a constant in Optigram's work. They often mark out his best sleeves, from Ikonika's lurid Sahara Michael to the rich greyscale textures on F.C. Judd's Electronics Without Tears and Interpretations.
Having worked freelance as Optigram for the past half decade, Sepulveda now counts Planet Mu, Ninja Tune, Unsound Festival, Bleep and Adidas among his clients. His latest project is a zine, After Us, whose first issue appeared last year under the tagline, "Exploring the nexus between art, science and politics." "In the last few years, pretty much everything that I read about online is some kind of cross-disciplinary thing between artists and engineers," Sepulveda explains. "Everybody wants to be seen to be working with a combination of art and technology, whether it's companies or institutions. This is the sort of thing I used to love reading about in the '80s."
He's referring to his childhood love of Omni, a magazine in which sci-fi, hard science and the paranormal collided in a celebration of all things futuristic. The first issue of After Us attempts a similar, if more sober, collision. It includes a piece on neoliberalism by Nick Srnicek, a Q&A about the sound in George Lucas' THX 118 (by Dave Tompkins), and short fiction from Juan Mateos of the 20 Jazz Funk Greats blog. Artwork comes from the likes of Kode9 collaborator Lawrence Lek and Golden Pudel's Alex Solman.
Sepulveda ties it all together with his introduction, which asks artists to help "[demystify] the future," by imagining friendly relationships with technology rather than fraught ones. In his view, "art needs to recapture some of the political ambition of previous generations." In his own design, it's teasingly unclear which direction he's headed: forwards, into the future he's talking about, or backwards, towards the historical styles and movements that depicted it so well. Sometimes he flits between the 20th century's revolutionary art movements—aping Russian suprematism on Origin by Villa Nah, or, on Drive Me Home's Fast Life, giving in to a need for speed reminiscent of the Italian futurists.
One striking piece, which featured in an Optigram exhibition at Unsound festival 2011, depicts a space-age city, with the usual flying cars and sleek skyscrapers, only the whole thing is wreathed in soft fog, as if we're glimpsing a half-forgotten memory. It's an ambiguity that suits our times, in which the future seems more obscure than ever. "It's always going to have an element of commentary on the current," Sepulveda says of his design. "Even if you're talking about the future, your spring board is the present."