The rock poster reinvented

Four decades ago, Bay Area artists filled their posters with raging flames, extravagant skeletons and bare, engorged breasts. This overstuffed style became the visual symbol not only for many late-'60s English and American bands but also a recognizable signature of the entire psychedelic era.

When graphic artist Jason Munn sat down in his studio just across the bay from the old Fillmore West to design a poster for Portland indie rockers the Decemberists, he did not conceive flames or naked women. He thought of the bold geometric design of a midcentury Czech matchbox, adding the fine lines of a bicycle wheel and pine tree that suggested the group’s Oregon roots.

When musing on the dreamy, expansive music of Built to Spill, Munn came up with a bucket of paint that brings clouds and blue sky to whatever it touches, evoking both Magritte’s visual puns and the band’s heavenly sound. For the willowy Canadian singer Feist, his poster offers just one brown feather, fallen gently.

Munn, a mellow 33-year-old in a scruffy beard and plain navy sweater, is a kind of poet of the rock poster -- and a minimalist poet at that. His design firm is called the Small Stakes, after a song by Spoon, and he shares that incisive band’s retro aesthetic and less-is-more philosophy.


“I guess my style,” the artist said from his studio in a startlingly clean 1920s house, “is very non-rock ‘n’ roll. The bands I gravitate toward have their own way of thinking about their music, and I try to get that across.”

Despite the disproportionate attention lavished on Shepard Fairey, a small, innovative handful of artists-designers is reimagining the possibilities of silk screen and a relatively small rectangular field. These artists show a fascination with the iconography of the past, including book jackets, vinyl records, nature icons and modernist design, in a field that has been radically remade by technology: Like today’s vinyl obsessives and neo-craft types, they are post-traditionalists, reveling in, almost fetishizing, print culture after what we’re told is the end of print.

Unlike designers who extend the rock tradition of subversion and boundary pushing, Munn’s work exudes a Zen-like serenity, a love of negative space and an almost religious reverence for typeface. “I try to pick up on little random bits of a band,” said Munn, “and go from there.”

His work sits between the ultra-clean look of bicoastal duo Heads of State and Cole Gerst, the L.A. designer behind option-g, whose posters for Spaceland and the Echo are influenced by the folk and outsider art of his native Georgia. In a visually cluttered world -- from roadside billboards to the overheated Internet -- Munn’s work is cool, detached, almost soothing in its gentle melancholy.


Work by artists like these isn’t mass-produced and pasted on a lamppost: The images are printed in small runs of a few hundred and often shown in art world settings -- Munn’s English dealer, Richard Goodall Gallery, deals almost exclusively with rock posters, and Munn’s work is in several museum collections. The images circulate at poster conventions like Flatstock and increasingly in art books: Munn has just signed with Chronicle for a 2010 book of his Small Stakes work.

Darrin Alfred acquired several Small Stakes posters for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Denver Art Museum, where he is now a graphic arts curator. “With the waning of album art because of the disappearance of CDs,” he said, “these posters are taking on a bigger role than they had before the digital revolution.” In a virtual world, “People like me are looking for something tangible.”

Munn grew up in small-town Wisconsin and started making photocopied fliers for local bands, among them the emo trio Rainer Maria, while a graphics art major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There he became aware of the design collective Aesthetic Apparatus and Seattle artist Jeff Kleinsmith, who’s designed band posters since the early ‘90s.

“I love rock,” said Kleinsmith, 41, now art director for Sub Pop Records, “but I was never really big on rock iconography. I wanted to do something closer to midcentury graphic design and bring it to the rock poster. It was almost punk rock to have a giant 18-by-24 poster with almost nothing on it.”


Munn moved to Oakland in 2002, largely because a friend was there, and lived in a two-bedroom apartment with four other guys. While toiling at a T-shirt shop, he became connected with a short-lived Berkeley club called the Ramp, in which 200 fans would cram into a church basement to see Deerhoof or Animal Collective.

Munn began printing 50 silk screens for every show there, then launched the Small Stakes after the Spoon song came on the car radio while he was buying inks and screens. “Not to get too deep about it,” he recalls, “but I was taking a chance -- whether I was going to eat or print posters.”

Like his fellow travelers, Munn draws from outside the rock canon. He loves Saul Bass, who designed film posters for “Anatomy of a Murder” and “Vertigo,” and Alex Steinweiss, who invented the album cover in the late ‘30s with jackets for boogie-woogie sets and Grieg concertos.

As for the swinging ‘60s style -- like the macho punk style, the gross-out underground comics style or the violent/outrageous Robert Williams style -- they’re just not his thing.


“It’s not like I’m doing posters for heavy rock bands,” he says. “I’m more into indie bands that have this art quality to them. I don’t think you can just throw a girl on a hot rod onto one of those posters.”

Midcentury book design may be Munn’s main inspiration: His posters resemble avant-garde novels from presses like New Directions or Dial. “I like the way they try to sum up a lot of stuff, a whole novel, in a small space,” Munn said. The stark, almost constructivist design was not just an aesthetic choice: For economic and technological reasons, ‘40s and ‘50s publishers typically used a limited number of colors and shapes. He’s also got a taste for the elegance of pre-anime Japanese modernism.

One of the few rock figures he mentions is Peter Saville, whose Factory Records covers, especially for Joy Division and New Order, are revered for their bold, iconic styles.

Overall, he’s interested in designers with a storytelling ability. “I love stuff that feels timeless,” Munn says. “I want to look at the work in 10 years and not feel, ‘Oh, man, that’s so 2005.’ ”