Designing The Rolling Stones

A peak behind the curtain for the design of two different Rolling Stones album covers, separated by decades. The first, for Sticky Fingers, from a 1969 letter to Andy Warhol by Mick Jagger:

“Dear Andy,

I’m really pleased you can do the art-work for our new hits album. Here are 2 boxes of material which you can use, and the record.

In my short sweet experience, the more complicated the format of the album, e.g. more complex than just pages or fold-out, the more fucked-up the reproduction and agonising the delays. But, having said that, I leave it in your capable hands to do what ever you want………..and please write back saying how much money you would like.

Doubtless a Mr. Al Steckler will contact you in New York, with any further information. He will probably look nervous and say “Hurry up” but take little notice.



The second, for Bridges to Babylon, as told by Peter Hall from his book “Made You Look” on the work of Sagmeister Inc:

“The playwright Tom Stoppard, known for a few surrealist moments, is said to have suggested to Mick Jagger the title Bridges to Babylon. No one seemed to know quite what it meant, but it became the title of the Rolling Stones’ 1997 CD and world tour, and for the Sagmeister studio, the theme for a strange dream, set in a land where nothing quite made sense, but everything came together miraculously on the other side.

When it came to designing for an act otherwise known as the world’s greatest rock and roll band, it wasn’t easy for a small, two-man studio to dictate the terms. Two of Sagmeister’s golden rules were to avoid CD projects with no title and never do presentations without a fee. Then he encountered the Rolling Stones’ management. ‘They asked us to do early concepts on spec,’ says Sagmeister, ‘and I told them we don’t do that. They told me that the Rolling Stones have always done that, and I told them that, come to think of it, we do do that.’

Meeting with Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts in a hotel in Los Angeles, Sagmeister discovered that there was no title, either. It was hardly the time to take a stand on indecisive rock stars. He returned to New York elated and full of ideas for a design to match the Baroque stage set design that Jagger had shown him. He and Karlsson designed four variations, all Baroque in style, and sent them to London. They got the job, but by the time Sagmeister arrived in London for a second meeting with Jagger and Watts, all of the Baroque prototypes had been rendered useless by the new title, Bridges to Babylon.

The project took a stranger turn when Trudy Green, Jagger’s manager, declared that Sagmeister could not leave London until a cover image had been agreed upon with the Stones. Sagmeister found himself living at the Stones’ expense in a lavish, fusty old London hotel full of paper doilies and pot pourri, designing cover concepts with a blade, spray mount and curls of thermal paper faxes of background patterns sent by Karlsson in New York. Babylonian imagery was, thankfully, forth-coming in London. At Jagger’s suggestion, Sagmeister had taken a trip to the British Museum, a treasure house of spectacular antiquities plundered from around the world, and encountered a 3,000 year old statue of a giant Assyrian lion with a square-shaped, bearded human head. It seemed like a divine revelation.

The idea was well received. Jagger was a Leo, and, equally important, the lion image could be easily attached to hats, caps and T-shirts for the Stones merchandising machine. (Sagmeister later received from a friend in Austria a Bridges to Babylon pencil sharpener and eraser bearing the lion image.) Several meetings followed in which Jagger approved a design concept showing the lion in a heraldic pose, and discussed with Sagmeister the idea of adding a silver element to the cover to match the silver curtain in the stage set designed by Mark Fisher.

Back in New York, however, the picture suddenly changed when Jagger called to request an alternative design based on a futuristic sculpture in the stage set. Sagmeister was confounded. He had already found an illustrator, Kevin Murphy, who had agreed to paint the lion on spec. The futuristic sculpture, which might have looked great on stage, seemed like a terrible idea for a 5-inch CD cover.

The stress level in the studio began to reach mythological proportions. Dozens of cover variations, including ones featuring the dreaded sculpture, were designed and sent by email to Jagger’s castle in France. Karlsson had developed carpal tunnel syndrome from using the computer for extended periods, and had switched to his left hand. He began having vivid dreams. ‘Two figures are walking on bright green grass. The sky is completely blue. I see them from behind-they are holding hands. They aren’t really walking – it’s like they are floating above the grass. After few seconds I realize it is Hjalti and Stefan. Scary monsters!’

For light relief, he and Sagmeister labeled the version of the ugly statue with the filename “the worst.” When Jagger called from France to tell them which of the various designs he liked best, Sagmeister and Karlsson watched as the chosen file opened up on the computer screen: It was “the worst.” Sagmeister tried to hint that the statue didn’t work too well, but Jagger was convinced. The statue was the one.

Sagmeister and Karlsson sat in the studio, aghast. Should they quit? They drew up a list of pros and cons. The pros – to have designed a Stones cover, to get paid, to have proven to themselves that they could do a very difficult job – won by a quarter point. (The cons were horrible design, loss of design integrity, three more weeks of pain and the possibility of a flop.) The project resumed with a desperate looking Sagmeister and Karlsson standing outside Tower Records on Broadway with mockups of two covers: the lion and the worst, asking passers-by for their opinion on which was better. After two hours 65 percent said they prefer the lion, but it wasn’t quite the sweeping majority they’d hoped for.

A veritable miracle occurred, one stormy night at the studio. It had been raining for days, there were leaks in the studio ceiling, and Tony King, Jagger’s assistant of 20 years, was sitting, surrounded by buckets of water, shouting to be heard over the noise of dripping water. He said that he too preferred the lion, and after hearing Sagmeister assure him the design could be resurrected and be ready to go in two days, put in phone calls to Jagger, Watts and Keith Richards. Within 15 minutes, the lion was alive and the original design was back on track. They had crossed the Bridge to Babylon and come out on the other side. The studio’s sanity was intact.

The rest of the project was a relative breeze. The original lion design had incorporated a silk-screened filigree pattern (a representation of the silver curtain on stage) on the jewel case exterior, but to meet the pressing print deadline, a custom-made transparent slip case was developed that could be printed separately. Finally, Sagmeister had all copyright problems and possible offensive overtones researched and checked by the Rolling Stones’ lawyers. The lion survived the entire process unscathed.

Well, almost. In Dubai, the CD was refused entry: It is not legal to say ‘Babylon’ in Dubai.”