Thursday, August 8, 2013

Art on his sleeve

You may not recognise Leif Podhajsky's name, but chances are you've seen his work. The Australian artist's surreal creations have graced the album covers of bands including Lykke Li, Foals, Tame Impala and The Vines - some fans even have his designs tattooed on their skin.

The go-to guy for influential lefty record labels, Podhajsky has helped revive the dying medium of album art, decimated by digital downloading. This year alone he's also exhibited in London, made video clips for English electronic music duo Mount Kimbie, and teamed up with Australian supermodel Abbey Lee Kershaw to launch a range of trippy silk scarves. And with projects for Cloud Control, Santigold and Nike in the pipeline, Podhajsky is in high demand.

There has been a huge resurgence in vinyl and creating projects with depth. 

Success has its drawbacks. His work has been so all-consuming that getting a grip on everyday life in his adopted home of London has taken longer than anticipated since he moved there early in 2012.

Leif Podhajsky

Translating song: Leif Podhajsky. Photo: Supplied

''It took me a year to get a bank account,'' Podhajsky says. ''My work takes precedence, and that's what I'm excited about, so sometimes the rest of my life is put on hold. I haven't even got a record player yet.''


Podhajsky left his design studio in Melbourne two years ago to pursue a career in Europe, landing first in Berlin. During his time in Australia he worked mostly with advertising agencies while developing his distinctive style in his spare time.

''I started exploring some of the themes that really interested me like connectedness, synchronicity, the balance and harmony of nature,'' he says. ''I started forming compositions using symmetry, recursion, collage and geometric pattern to give life to these concepts.''

This led to a commission with Aussie lo-fi band Tame Impala, his first music client and the break that launched his artistic profile.

''I was a big fan of Tame Impala and had seen them play a few times. Once I pretended I knew them to get into a show in Melbourne,'' says Podhajsky, who grew up in Byron Bay where he studied graphic design. ''I put on my game face and walked straight past the security into a sound check.''

He designed the band's Innerspeaker and Lonerism album covers, depicting kaleidoscopic universes where colours melt and explode with a distinctly psychedelic feel. But Podhajsky is wary of such labels. ''I want my work to focus on surreal and otherworldly elements rather than those old-school hippie ideas,'' he says.

He's more interested in the inner workings of the subconscious, at times using dreams to fuel the creation of these pixelated worlds.

To him, good album design is ''a direct translation of the music itself, something that can capture the entire essence of the album in one image''.

He prefers to work with artists who are already on high rotation on his playlist at home, and submerges himself in the music for inspiration. When listening to sounds, he sees colour and form. Sometimes he has free rein over the final concept; at others he collaborates with the band.

''It can take anything from a few days to a few months,'' he says.

Constantly evolving digital technology allows Podhajsky to keep pushing his artistic boundaries. ''Lately I've been toying with glitch art and databending,'' he says - concepts inspired by computer crashes and virtual errors. The results of these experiments helped create the Mount Kimbie music video he directed in April.

Podhajsky's work has been championed by enthusiastic bloggers over the years, but he finds internet exposure can be a double-edged sword.

''There's so much room for people seeing your work in the wrong light, taking your work off your website and changing it to smaller sizes, distorting it or making it blurry,'' he says. Many people may only ever see his artwork as online iTunes thumbnails, rather than as a hard-copy record cover.

Still, he believes there's a future for stand-out album artwork, given the rebirth of the turntable among nostalgic listeners. His favourite of all the projects he's worked on is Bonobo's The North Borders, a custom box-set with etched vinyl records and posters.

''There has been a huge resurgence in vinyl and creating projects with depth and integrity,'' Podhajsky says. ''People still really connect with seeing something in the flesh, and I think as humans we're always going to have that.''
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