Designing for Laurie Anderson: Yolanda Cuomo interview (2009)

R.J. Preece (ADP)
artdesigncafé - design | 2 November 2009

Yolanda Cuomo is an art director and designer who has collaborated for over 20 twenty years with both visual and performing artists including Richard Avedon, Paul Simon, Twyla Tharp, Gilles Perress, Sylvia Plachy, and one of my personal favorites, artist-musician Laurie Anderson.

In fact, my Post-Punk Banquet article “Art historian destroys evidence” was directly inspired by a Laurie Anderson song that I remembered from over 20 years ago. Yolanda also has been inspired by Anderson, but up close and personal—in Laurie’s loft even, via collaborations for creating two album/CD covers and a poster for the Songs and Stories from Moby Dick series of performances.

What’s it like to work on graphics projects with Laurie Anderson, an influential artist-musician? What was the artistic process for the designs? Via a telephone interview, Yolanda Cuomo recalls her experiences. The following pages feature excerpts from our conversation:

R.J. Preece: How did you start working with Laurie Anderson? Did you know her?

Yolanda Cuomo: I had done a project with Paul Simon, whom I met through Richard Avedon. I did a lot of work with Richard Avedon over the years, and they were friends. Paul Simon called him and said that he needed someone who knew about photographs because he was looking for a photograph for his album cover. So I met Paul Simon and worked with him on The Rhythm of the Saints.

We worked great together and I met the art directors from Warner Brothers. Laurie Anderson had been looking for a designer in New York, because she really wanted to collaborate with someone in the city. So the Warner Brothers people in California recommended me and a couple of other designers.

So, I got a call from Laurie’s office— and they asked, “Can you meet Laurie.” I said, “Sure.” And they asked me to be there for an 8.30AM appointment at her loft.

I arrived, got buzzed up, Laurie meets me at the door, she’s very nice. I see a stack of my books there. And she says, “I’m just going to go upstairs for a minute, but my friend Lou is going to make tea."

And I go into the kitchen, and it’s Lou Reed!

It’s 8.30 in the morning, I’ve got a cold and feeling not so good, and here I am meeting Lou Reed.

R.J. Preece: Were you starstruck?

Yolanda Cuomo: No, I wasn’t. I love his work so much. Just from working with Avedon and meeting others through the years, I wasn’t, because you realize that their just people.

R.J. Preece: Exactly.

Yolanda Cuomo: So we talked about Andy Warhol. I had done a book and Lou told me about when he first met Andy, and Andy projected images on Velvet Underground while they played.

R.J. Preece: That’s great. So with Bright Red, what are the key things readers should know about your design?

Yolanda Cuomo: Thinking back... this design was done at a time when I didn’t have a computer—and Laurie didn’t have a computer yet. But during this time, Laurie did get a computer and I remember her calling me and saying, “You’ve got to get this thing—it’s like an incredible mixing machine."

I went down there—and it was really cool. It was like a foreign object, but it made so much sense for her to be working on a computer, because of how incredible her mind works.

I’m pretty great at editing, and Laurie has masses of beautiful imagery. She collects things—like close-up pictures of dust—to the Bright Red image on the cover, which was from one of her performance pieces. The back cover was another performance photograph. That’s how the magic comes together—if you think of her performances—the words, the imagery… So I went through tons of images to find the right image that felt like her music.

It’s really fun: listening to the music—and have that be the catalyst to a design.

R.J. Preece: Does the design relate to one song or the general…

Yolanda Cuomo: No, it’s trying to set a mood.

R.J. Preece: Do you set the mood for the first song or the whole album/CD?

Yolanda Cuomo: For the whole CD. I don’t listen to a CD song-by-song. Especially for Laurie, and for Paul Simon, they think of it as a whole symphony.

So, I think of it as how do you get that mood for the whole piece.

R.J. Preece: How is the mood expressed…visually, it’s everything, isn’t it?

Yolanda Cuomo: Images, color, typography…

R.J. Preece: Typography… interesting. So you think about the typography and its connection to the music.

Yolanda Cuomo: Sometimes more than others. For this one, it was "images", because she is so visual—also with The Ugly One with the Jewels. It’s images.

The type is important, but not key.

R.J. Preece: How does the process work? Do you come up with one design—or five?

Yolanda Cuomo: Oh no, tons. You can’t just work on one design, maybe 20, and I work really fast.

R.J. Preece: So you come up with ideas, then you get feedback from the musician and then you come up with a final design?

Yolanda Cuomo: Yes I get feedback from 10 or 15—it’s totally a process.

R.J. Preece: What’s the creative process like?

Yolanda Cuomo: How it usually works is, when you working with musicians that are working on a CD, or album at the time, they are right in the middle of writing the songs. It’s really beautiful as you’re right in the middle of the process.

So I remember with The Ugly One with the Jewels, she sat me down in front of her big synthesizer and she was in the next room. She was trying out—it looked sort of like a pool cue, but as you moved it, it made sounds… it was really beautiful…

So she said to me, “I want you to listen to the music.” She put me in front of these big windows overlooking the Hudson River, and she said, “I want you to think about clouds.”

I listened to the music. It inspired me, and I started going into her archives. By this time I had a computer, but I didn’t know how to use it then. So I had a technical guy there and was orchestrating him. We built a kind of dream-landscape. It started out blue, but while working, he hit a button and it went to red—and it seemed perfect—and that’s how we got it.

R.J. Preece: Could you talk about the focal points? The silhouette above, Laurie Anderson playing the instrument, and the red. My eye moves around in a triangle.

Yolanda Cuomo: That’s very good! I just want to make things that are interesting and evocative. But I can’t talk about design that way.

R.J. Preece: Why not?

Yolanda Cuomo: For me it’s very intuitive and emotional. It hits a chord, and you did your job—like invisible architecture.

It works. If it works, it feels perfect, and it kind of moves you, then I did my job.

R.J. Preece: I see. With regard to the collaboration, is that how it usually works—that the designer is in direct contact with the musician—or does it vary?

Yolanda Cuomo: In the way I work, it’s always with the boss. I find it exciting. We’re collaborating… it’s like theater.

Yolanda Cuomo: Songs and Stories from Moby Dick was a performance piece, fantastic, visually stunning.

At that time, she was heavily orchestrating with computers. To get images for the poster, there were a lot of photographers still doing traditional photography. But there was this guy, Frank Micelotta, and he was doing digital photography. He was so good at it. And he made the most beautiful, stunning images from the performance. And we ended up making a postcard set which she sold on the road.

R.J. Preece: What was the poster used for?

Yolanda Cuomo: These were used for promotion— sent to theaters— when she would perform.

R.J. Preece: Bonnie [who works with Yolanda] sent me two images (below). What are these?

Yolanda Cuomo: I wanted to photograph Laurie. I had a lot of performance photographs, but I didn’t have any close-up photos. So the drawing—I work a lot with a photographer named Neil Selkirk—if you look at the Moby Dick poster, there’s a beautiful image of her on the upper right hand corner playing the violin. If you look at my drawing—I showed it to Neil—yellow flash, blue light, words on the face, elevator shaft, Laurie and a map. Now if you look at Neil’s photo, he did everything I asked for. The photo shoot itself was like a performance piece—lights flashing, rear screen projections, projected type on her face.

So it was really incredible… thinking up a picture and then having a photographer work on it, and then having Laurie perform and photographing her.

R.J. Preece: Any final thoughts to share with the readers?

Yolanda Cuomo: I loved collaborating with Laurie Anderson. She’s so smart on so many different levels. That’s what’s really fun: when you get to collaborate with really smart people.