Central Station Design (The Face, December 1990)


This feature was originally published in ‘The Face’ (issue dated December 1990)

Central Station Design’s record sleeves and graphics helped shape the image of this year’s Madchester boom. Soon they’re launching their own clothing range; first, their portraits of British entertainers are to be shown in London, as Dave Haslam reports…

Central Station Design’s unshackled, colourful art, which first hit the public on record sleeves from Manchester, can currently be found on the walls of the Decorative Arts Group in London, in an exhibition of 234 portraits of British entertainers, including the likes of Arthur Askey, Ken Dodd and Bernard Manning.

“The people were chosen because of their character you can see in their faces, not because we like them all,” explains Matt Carroll, one third of the Central Station team (his brother Pat, and Karen Jackson complete the line-up), “And because everyone remembers them, everyone remembers the Carry On films, Tommy Cooper, The Golden Shot. They’ve never been replaced in comedy”.

Latest in a decade-long tradition of innovative designers based in Manchester, but unlike most of their predecessors, the Caroll brothers trained not at Manchester Poly but at Salford Technical College. They met Jackson in the club, and the three work together as a collective.

“In strict art and design terms their work doesn’t say a great deal, but within pop culture – which is where so much good work is done by young British musicians and artists – it makes a big impact,” says Tim Chambers, who had made a study of the Manchester pop designers since the days of punk. Chambers praises Central Station’s work of Peter Saville. Saville’s austere, classical, black and white designs on Joy Division album sleeves were a close summation of the early Factory years just as Central Station’s bold, ragged, vivid art matches the mood of contemporary Factory bands like Happy Mondays and Northside. Says Chambers, “Saville is clinical, whereas with Central Station there are no boundaries, no straight lines. The painting of Shaun Ryder on the Bummed LP sleeve is still the great image”.

It was while working on the Bummed sleeve that Central Station began applying the same kind of technique – which involves colour photocopying, painting and overlaying – to portraits of entertainers from the Sixties and Seventies. Manchester is a city where successive summers of love and winters of work have made every entertainer an entrepreneur, where everyone participates in some form of creation and enjoys some kind of colourful life, both day and night. The way these icons of the artists firmly attached to Manchester in 1990 is great; funny even.

Jeff Horsley, the prime-mover behind the exhibition when it was first mounted at the City Art Gallery in Manchester earlier this year, is pleased that although they apply similar techniques to each of the portraits, they can get quite different effects. “The Kenneth Williams portrait is stark. Norman Wisdom is much more visually disorientating.”

In the late Seventies, the Liverpool artist David Knopov produced a wonderful series of portraits in a kind of homage to Warhol’s Marilyn Series, including an ultra-vivid Hilda Ogden. Horsley reports that gallery visitors to Central Station Manchester exhibition made connections with Warhol, especially in reference to the Barbara Windsor portrait, but he himself compares them with Gilbert and George: “In the way Central Station fracture the images, and in some of the garishness of the colours.”

To Matt Carroll, though, the colours are realistic, without the artificially of pop. “If you see the nose or the cheeks of some old bloke who’s a bit the worse for drink, or you see a woman who’s got her make-up on then the colours are very vivid.” What’s more, the icons being presented in the exhibitions are reconstituted from old photographs mediated through the distortions of memory and recalled from the era of the early colour TV According to Matt, “The early colour televisions were pretty weird.”

Central Station Design’s work isn’t distinctive, or even tongue-in-cheek. There’s a sense of reminiscence, and of appropriation. It’s not meant to be an exercise of nostalgia; it’s meant, says Matt, to give you pleasure.