N1 — Nirvana
When is a band logo not a band logo? And does the T-shirt friendly Nirvana smiley face qualify?
With its wonky mouth, drooling tongue and cross eyes, the Nirvana smiley face has become synonymous with Seattle’s premier grunge merchants and spawned a million ripped T-shirts. However, the stoned, proto-emoticon never actually made it on to any of the band’s three studio albums, or any official EPs or singles.
Exactly the same is true of The Ramones’ ubiquitous gabba-gabba-take on the US Presidential seal — a merchandiser’s wet dream, but somehow not suitable visual fodder for bone-fide sleeve artwork.
So how did the blissed-out, spaced-out smiley face come about? The story goes that it was drawn by Kurt Cobain himself, and first appeared on a low-key invite for a launch party announcing Nirvana’s second album, ‘Nevermind’. This was the record that would send them stratospheric, selling 30 million-plus copies worldwide.
Predictably, there are all kinds of preposterous theories as to what inspired Cobain’s x-eyed smiley — from Guns ’n’ Roses frontman Axl Rose’s face, to the hippy-trippy yellow icons of Acid House. However, the most likely explanation is that it was pinched from The Lusty Lady, a notorious Seattle strip Club, whose signage sported a similar cartoonish visage.
But Nirvana’s official logo (or more accurately logotype) was down to Lisa Orth*, the first art director of Sub Pop Records and designer of Seattle’s infamous music magazine ‘The Rocket’.
In an act of anti-design, or perhaps because she couldn’t be bothered to invest time in an unknown band, she paid a typesetter called Grant Alden $15 to use whatever happened to be on his machine at the time. Alden duly knocked out the band’s name in a typeface called Onyx, a proprietary font installed on his Compugraphic typesetter. Would Orth have stuck to her guns if Alden had come back with Comic Sans? Probably not. But there’s something suitably random and slacker generation in the way the Nirvana logotype was born.
Onyx was created by New York designer Gerry Powell in 1937. It’s a loose homage to Bodoni, with thick and thin strokes, and the odd quirky detail, like the curly serif on the R. Post-rationalising, it would be easy to say that this mirrors the soft/loud verse/chorus of Nirvana songs like Come As You Are and Lithium. It feels slightly gothic and stately, but the curious leg of the R gives it a certain goofy quality.
But one thing’s for sure … it was a smart move not to fashion a predictably ‘grungy’ logotype. As Nirvana outgrew their sweaty, shambolic Washington roots, they grew into their logotype.
* Lisa Orth was a prime mover and shaker on the 1990s Seattle grunge scene, playing in bands including 66 Saints, Barbie’s Dream Car, Parini, Models Own and Telepathic Liberation Army. These days, she plies her trade as a much-in-demand tattoo artist in LA. See lisaorth.com.