The design of Mute Records

By Terry Burrows

As a product of the British art school system, it’s hardly surprising that Daniel Miller would place a certain emphasis on the way the Mute label output was presented, writes Terry Burrows. Yet although there is clear common musical ground among the first generation of Mute artists, from the beginning Miller took a very conscious decision that there shouldn’t be a specific Mute look.

“Quite a lot of the labels of that time, especially Factory and 4AD, had their own look,” Miller says. “With 4AD it was Vaughan Oliver, with Factory it was Peter Saville, and they basically designed everything. It was a good concept, creating a label aesthetic – and it’s an idea you can relate back to Blue Note or Motown. I think because I was a recording artist, I couldn’t conceive of putting out a record and being told who was going to do the artwork. I just didn’t want the label to be predominant – I wanted that to be the musicians. I just felt that any design consistency we used should be specific to the artist rather than the label.”

T.V.O.D. by Warm Leatherette, 1978. All images courtesy Mute Artists Ltd
Mute Records
Back to Nature by Fad Gadget, 1978

Adrian Shaughnessy, founder of the design group Intro, who has worked extensively with Mute, offers his own thoughts: “The Mute design approach is flexible, non-dogmatic and, usually, artist-led. By this I mean that although they take a keen interest in the visual presentation, it’s the artists that ultimately decide. This explains the diversity of Mute cover art. As a designer, it can sometimes lead to frustration – especially if an artist has a view about visual matters that is too personal and subjective – but usually it results in good sleeve art – and covers that accurately reflect the music.”

Designer Simone Grant was a significant figure in the look of the early Mute sleeve designs. A close friend of Miller, Grant worked on most of the label’s early releases, including singles and albums by The Normal, Silicon Teens, Fad Gadget and early Depeche Mode: “I’ve known Daniel nearly 50 years. I was trained as a photographer and was just starting to do design work, and he asked me if I’d do the sleeve design for his first single.”

To keep the costs to a minimum, the sleeve had to be black and white, and also needed to reflect the stark musical content of the record. “I did all of it using Letraset, even the tiny writing,” she explains. “Daniel liked German typefaces, so I used a sheet of DIN. I also did the record labels and some posters … they were very silly posters, actually … all very kitsch!”

Mute Records
Poster for Judy in Disguise by Silicon Teens, 1980

A dry-transfer system used by graphic designers, a Letraset sheet comprised multiple letters and numbers of a specific font that could be applied permanently to a surface by rubbing down on the sheet. In the days that predated computer desktop publishing, Letraset was the only alternative to expensive typesetting for creating professional-looking typography. It would become a staple for every independent record label of the day. Letraset not only provided the typography but also the famed ‘walking man’ Mute logo that Miller had selected from a sheet of architectural symbols.

Reinforcing the aesthetic of the first single, Grant also produced promotional pictures: “I photographed Daniel at Brent Cross, which had only just been built and was very stark and industrial-looking. He didn’t want close-ups, just him in the distance, so they were very graphic.”

Mute Records
Ricky’s Hand by Fad Gadget, 1980
Mute Records
Incontinent by Fad Gadget, 1981

Like others involved with the Mute label, Grant fondly remembers working with Frank Tovey. “He was such a creative and interesting man … Daniel asked me to do the first Fad Gadget single. The thing I’m most proud of is designing his logo, which was all handmade – there wasn’t any lettering like that around at all back then. In the early days it was nearly all spot colour to keep the costs down. As Mute got more successful we started doing full-colour sleeves.”

The artwork for fake teenage band Silicon Teens – in reality, Miller on his own in the studio – was deliberately designed to reflect the DIY aesthetic of a tiny independent record label. “It was meant to look as if it was them doing all their own artwork,” Grant reveals. “A bit like The Desperate Bicycles, who lived around the corner and had just done their own DIY thing. We used graph paper and I made a handwritten font so that it looked like one of the members of the band had done it in their bedroom.”

Mute Records
Kebabträume by DAF, 1980
Mute Records
See You by Depeche Mode, 1982

Some artists had more specific ideas about what they wanted. “A lot of the musicians we’ve worked with over the years have had art backgrounds or wanted to take control of their own visuals to some extent,” remarks Miller. “DAF were a lot more definite about what they wanted,” Grant recalls. “For one of their singles, the band sent in a drawing, and rolls of gift-wrap tape with hearts on, which I had to cut up.”

A wide variety of visual approaches have been used on subsequent Mute sleeve designs, yet they remain unified by a sense of playfulness. “If there’s one thing common to almost all of the Mute artists right since the beginning,” Miller concurs, “it is that they seem to share a certain sense of humour.”

Mute: A Visual Document by Terry Burrows is published by Thames & Hudson, priced £28; thamesandhudson.com

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