Interview with designer Tom Nikosey, Part 1, produced by Gerald Watson II of Art Vs. Commerce
Today’s interview installment was provided to the ACHOF by Gerald Watson II of Art Vs. Commerce. I’ve been corresponding with him for a few years now, first connecting after he saw my interview with photographer Drew Carolan about an album cover he’d shot for Eric B. & Rakim. Gerald has a vast knowledge of all things rap & hip-hop and has used his talents to produce a whole series of music art-related exhibitions over the years, as well as some in-depth and immensely-watchable interview videos with a wide variety of subjects. When he let me know that he’d produced an interview with artist Tom Nikosey, I was more than happy to be able to share it with the ACHOF’s fans. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did… Mike G, curator.
A note from Gerald – For the Interview component of SOUL, I had Soul 1 (The Frank White Space – BKNY) interview a designer that, in my opinion, has truly earned the title of “Icon” – Tom Nikosey.
Since the 70?s, Tom Nikosey has created some of the most identifiable logos, posters, album covers (and other goods) for some of the most recognizable brands in the world (including The Commodores original logo and IDs for the San Diego Padres and The Grammy Awards, to name a few)….and he’s not done yet.
As with RAP – the interview (or really conversation) Soul 1 conducted provided more than enough content, so I’ll be splitting the interview in two parts.
Thanks again Tom for your interest and participating and thank you Soul 1 for again coming through!
Soul 1: For those who don’t know, what’s your name, where were you born and where did you grow up?
Tom Nikosey: My name is Tom Nikosey, I was born in Brooklyn New York, and I went to grammar school, high school, and art school in Brooklyn. I went to Pratt Institute which was an international art school right there in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. I graduated with a degree in communication design and graphic design and illustration and two weeks later, ‘cause I was involved in a rock band all through my youth, I was on a plane with the guys and we were on our way to L.A. to try and make it in the record industry; and here I had a degree in art, go figure. So, when things didn’t work out financially with music, I turned to my portfolio and started working in the graphic industry. I eventually started doing album covers, pretty early on luckily, and then started getting known.
Soul 1: Do you know around what years you started?
Tom Nikosey: I know exactly: I graduated Pratt in 1972 and I came out here (L.A.) two weeks later in June of ‘72, and my first album cover that I worked on was in 1975 and the title of it was Papa John Creech and the Midnight Sun. It was the very first piece of lettering – I specialize in lettering and logos, and I didn’t realize it then when I started that that was going to be my forte´. I had a strong feeling for letterforms, and people really weren’t creating these dynamic logos at the time and I had this vision that that’s what I kinda wanted to do; make a statement with lettering.
Soul 1: Right.
Tom Nikosey: So, Papa John Creach was the first project I was lucky enough to work on. I was just 24 years – old, trying to ‘make it’, and David Larkham, an English fellow who was designing all of Elton John’s albums at the time, gave me a chance by designing the lettering for Papa John’s album. Yeah, “David Larkham and Friends” was the name of his design studio. I went around with my portfolio, and he saw that I had a flair for lettering – hand lettering, and again this was before digital and we did everything by hand, he gave me a chance to do lettering for that album and it went to finish and it was my first piece and I got a credit on the record …
Soul 1: Nice
Tom Nikosey: …and I was feeling like a million bucks. I went on to do some more covers after that. He introduced me to Ed Caraeff – an independent photographer/Art Director, (who) was my age, and he was already shooting pictures of rock bands at rock concerts. He would shoot these great photographs then approach the band, sell the band pictures, and they would say, “We wanna use this on our album cover!” So then he started designing album covers. I met him at David Larkham’s studio and Ed needed a designer to work with him independently and so David connected me with Ed and that was the beginning of my career to be honest with you. Ed hired me on Sergio Mendes and Brazil ’77, Eric Clapton’s No Reason to Cry, Cheech and Chong’s Sleeping Beauty, Three Dog Night’s American Pastime, the Bee Gee’s Children of the World and Saturday Night Fever, and what happened was, Ed would give me the photographs, we’d talk about the idea – Ed usually had the idea for the cover, and I would put it all together graphically.
I always had this flair for lettering as well and I had this vision of designing logos that were the main piece rather than a subordinate piece that went along with the photograph. I wanted to embellish a name and make it the central piece. Lo and behold I get a call from an Art Director at Motown, and this is early 1976, and he had seen something that I had done and he wanted to know if I would design a logo for this album by a band called the Commodores. He said they already had one or two albums at the time and he wanted to make sure that the logo stood the test of time.
He was an African-American Art Director named Carl Overr; a great Art Director and a great guy. He said, “I want you to create a logo for the Commodores under one condition – you make it black chrome.” “Black chrome?” I said, “I don’t even know what ‘black chrome’ is!” He said, “Make it somewhat reflective but I don’t want it real bright and shiny, I want it more subdued.” That’s what he told me. I said, “What’s the title of the album?” He said, “The working title is ‘Zoom.’” So he said, “Come back to me in three days with some sketches.” I was just so excited. I went back and did three designs, came back in three days, and he chose one that turned out to be the main logo of what you saw on the cover of Zoom, and it’s been used ever since. I did two other album covers for them from that logo: One was called Heroes, and the other Midnight Magic. That logo launched my career, to be honest with you.
Then the band…that was really great. I met the band when they were rehearsing over here in Hollywood. I walked in and Lionel (Ritchie) comes up to me and he said, “Who are you!?” And I said, “Tom Nikosey.” He says, “Well, what can I do for you?” I says, “Well, I was instructed to come over to meet with to you guys and talk about your new album cover.” And he said, “Well we want the guy who designed the other one.” And I said, “I am the guy.” And he said, “Well, we thought you were a Brother!” Those are his exact words!! I said, “Thank You!!” Then we started to laugh, and all the other guys in the band came over and he introduced me to them and from that point on it was sorta magic ‘cause they called me in to design “Midnight Magic” from the logo, ‘cause the original logo was called “Zoom” and it was floating in the sky and “Midnight Magic” it was the logo being projected over the Hollywood Hills as if it were a klieg light in the sky. So we were discussing the concepts for that album when they called me in.
Soul 1: Now all of that was done by hand at that point?
Tom Nikosey: Oh yeah. All three of the covers I did for them were all by hand. I think the Commodores did at least ten albums with that logo. I think they still use it.
Soul 1: Well yeah, that one and the Kenny Rodgers Greatest Hits, and the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and just the way that you use text to create images. Like the ‘brass-work’ with the trumpet and the ‘scroll- work’ with the Kenny Rodgers to make everything symmetrical; that is just super impressive. What are some of your design approaches? When you are approached with a project, is there a different approach for a musical endeavor vs. a corporate endeavor or how do you go about that?
Tom Nikosey: That’s a really good question. That’s a hard one to answer because it’s a feeling that you get. Music has a different impression than a corporation does or than a book cover or a postage stamp. When I approach something, I don’t have a very conscience decision that I say, “OK, I’m going to do it to make it look like this.” I think it does, because there’s a different purpose: One represents sound, the other might represent other things. A lot of times it just comes from the sketch. But I always try to make it relate to the product if possible. You know, if I’m doing a baseball thing, I did the San Diego Padres (logo) and I wanted the logo to be a classic image that they really hadn’t had before on their uniforms. And Kenny Rodgers – this was his twenty- five greatest hits up to that point. I wanted to do something that was etched in metal and stone, and when I thought about that I said, “Bingo!” Let’s make it metal.
Soul 1: Yeah because it looks like embossed foil.
Tom Nikosey Yeah, embossed, carved and engraved. I hired a sculptor to sculpt Kenny’s portrait and we put it right in the center; but again, it was based on the lettering, “Kenny Rodgers’ Greatest Hits.”
Soul 1: There was another logo that you did, it was a country logo but it looked like a belt buckle. Did you hire someone to make a (physical) rendering of one of your sketches as well?
Tom Nikosey: Oh, you’re talking about Pure Country.
Soul 1: Yeah. Bringing everything full circle. So you’ve been in L.A. basically since ’75?
Tom Nikosey: ’72.
Soul 1: Wow. How has L.A. vs. New York influenced your outlook on art?
Tom Nikosey: Oh, a lot. I think growing up in New York, in Brooklyn, I was very influenced by my surroundings. There’s a lot of age, a lot great architecture, and signage and just everything in New York as you know. The East Coast is just layered with history and all kind of graphic ephemera. California is virtually newer in terms of city, but there’s that outdoor (feeling), great sunsets, great beaches and palm trees, and the whole surf culture and the mountains. That also is very influential. Both coasts I think come through my work from time to time.
Soul 1: What were the entertainment and the art scenes like in the 70’s – specifically for designers?
Tom Nikosey: Well number one, there was a lot more work in the 70’s for people who did what I do because it was done by hand. In the old days, I’d still do the same drawings, to get the character of the piece out first – it’s like the structure of the house, you know it’s like the foundation, but back in the 70’s it took many, many hours to do the kind of thing that I do. You had to sit down and draw everything out, and do several drawings until you arrived at the final one, show what it would look like in color, then go to a stage called a color comprehensive, and you had to show that to the client and they would either approve it or reject it or ask you to go back and make changes. If they approved it, you went back to your studio and created a final piece of art; a final repro quality (piece) for them to photograph and then print. It would always amaze people when they see the process.
Soul 1: So I imagine you worked with “Letraset” and all that stuff too…
Tom Nikosey: Yeah, you knew that huh!? (laughs) Yeah, I remember when it first came out. I was working in an art supply store right across the street from Pratt.
Soul 1: If the Commodores album cover was the one that launched your career, then was that one the most important to you?
Tom Nikosey: That was the one that gave me notice in logo design, in logo illustration and that’s what I wanted to go towards as a focus once I realized that I had that specialty. I built a whole career on that. Prior to that, I was doing some lettering, graphic design, and I was doing “mechanical art” meaning, taking the photograph and sizing it and sometimes re- touching it, and putting it together with typography and layout. But I wanted to eliminate all that: hiring a photographer, using type houses, and using re-touchers, hiring models if you needed it, and doing photo-sessions, because it’s a lot of work and a lot of responsibility. I wanted to just focus on logos and illustration… put all of my creative effort into that. I figured if I did that, and I did it well, then I would stay busy. ‘Cause every designer, every illustrator wants to keep a career going. That’s why I bring up the Commodores, ‘cause that was really the first lettering piece that created notice.
Soul 1: What is your (own) favorite logo or typographical piece to date?
Tom Nikosey: That I did? Oh boy. That’s a hard one, ya’ know I’ve done hundreds.
Soul 1: Or maybe a top 3…
Tom Nikosey: You know, I’ve done four Super Bowl logos, and I’ve done three Grammy logos, I’ve designed postage stamps for the Postal service…the San Diego Padres, and I did a logo for the Seattle Supersonics basketball team; I mean it just goes on an’ on. Luckily you know, I’ve been very blessed and fortunate to have been given those projects. But I would say because of the emotional connection and what they meant to me and my career, and the people I did it for, I would say The Commodores is definitely one, Crosby, Stills and Nash, I did the one for them…I really love that piece, I have it hanging here in the studio too. I just created a design for a corporation that I’m a part of and it’s called Fireman’s Brew . It’s a microbrew-beer and coffee. We’re building that brand and hopefully it’ll be on the East Coast in a short period of time. It’s all over the West Coast now. That’s mainly a logo that stands for the whole company and all the brands.
Soul 1: Fireman’s Brew?
Tom Nikosey: Yeah. The Sgt. Pepper piece was very important in my career also. Even though it wasn’t for the Beatles unfortunately, it was for a movie. I did it in ’76. By the time the movie was done and all that, it was 1978. Although I think graphically and aesthetically I’ve done pieces that were drawn better and painted better, ‘cause I got older and more experienced, but those two pieces are favorites.
Soul 1: How important is it for you to establish a relationship with the client?
Tom Nikosey: You know what, that’s a great question. Not everybody asks that. I think it’s very important – especially with what I’m doing. You know I’m doing logos… it’s like naming your child. It’s so important. I have two children and my wife and I when trying to come up with names for our children, it was a whole scene trying to figure it out because you gotta realize, you’re gonna be calling that child’s name out for the rest of your life! You gotta love that name, it’s gotta mean something! When you design a logo for somebody’s name or somebody’s product or somebody’s album, you’re taking on a huge responsibility. You’re designing something that people look at and when they see it – will remember and think about the music or the album or the band or the book cover or the movie, right?
Soul 1: Right.
Tom Nikosey: I take tremendous responsibility in making sure that I do justice to that, you know, just like an architect. I feel like an architect has a tremendous responsibility because they’re designing structures that people have to look at. They have to drive around them; they block the sun and we have to look at that. We have to go in them and live in them. What a responsibility that is to design something aesthetically pleasing. I feel that same responsibility, maybe not on as grand a scale as an architect but I owe it to my public. Therefore the relationship with the client should be established on that premise. I like to think because of a special connection from a point in time when a logo was designed by me for them that every client I’ve worked for is free to call me and vice versa.
Soul 1: Would you say you have a certain style and if so how would you define it?
Tom Nikosey: I don’t know if I have a style that necessarily can be described in terms of a time period, but I’m influenced by the past… by Americana. I mean, I did a piece for Ahmad Jamal and it was very much in the vein of his sorta religion or his style. I’ll use a style to influence me when I design a logo if it’s appropriate for the project or the person or the heritage or the music. I don’t know if I can define the style, but I think I have an approach.
– End of Part I – Part 2 coming soon!
About the artist, Tom Nikosey –
You’ll find his biography in the Featured Artists L-P section on the Album Cover Hall of Fame.com web site (scroll down to the Ns).
About the interviewer, Soul 1 –
Soul 1 is a born and bred Philadelphia artist who’s been a part of two art galleries, including the Frank White space in Brooklyn, NY. A writer and interviewer with over 25 years of experience for music-focused publications such as Wax Poetics, Soul 1 is also a multi-media artist who’s proficient in a variety of artistic media – photography, oil, spray paint and acrylics – as well as gallery installation and fashion design.
About this interview’s producer, Gerald Watson II –
Gerald Watson has been developing creative programming since 1996. His first experience was through a Hip-Hop inspired phone card company he developed called the Phatline. This led to a chance internship with a company called Kalodge Projects – a concept event company that produced the pre-eminent music showcase known as Lyricist Lounge – the launching pad for ground breaking Hip-Hop artists such as Notorious B.I.G, Eminem, and The Cella Dwellas.
The internship with Kalodge Projects, which had a fashion segment, led to Watson working heavily in the streetwear industry where he became a sales and marketing consultant for then startups Armegedia, 10 Deep, Staple, and Scifen. While attending various clothing tradeshows – including MAGIC and the fledgling POOL show – Watson’s industry networks and contacts blossomed which led to him doing sales and marketing for a now defunct lifestyle magazine called While You Were Sleeping. It was during Watson’s time at While You Were Sleeping that he not only brought his clothing alliances to the table but got very acquainted working with corporate brands and their agencies including PUMA, Rockstar Games, Zenith Media, and Wieden + Kennedy.
As the print industry began to wane Watson’s skills in developing creative and effective added value campaigns strengthened, in addition to an increasing number of brand contacts. The timing and experience led to Watson becoming one of the founding members of a creative group called AM Radio (clients include Heineken, Toyota SCION, Adidas), establishing his own multicultural/lifestyle marketing company called Art vs Commerce (clients include Virgin Mobile, Smirnoff, FILA) along with diving back into his passion of art where he and long time collaborator DJ 2-Tone Jones created a monthly art installation known as Artz $ Craftz.
One of Watson’s latest endeavors, a vinyl record album cover art exhibition called The CLASSICS, became the catalyst for one of the creative’s biggest ideas to date – SHAOLIN JAZZ – The 37th Chamber. Together with 2-Tone, the two have carefully crafted and curated a boutique music project that has received over 10,000 downloads in three months, received press from notable media outlets such as NPR, and recognition from notable music industry aficionados such as world renowned DJ Rich Medina.
All images featured in this story are Copyright 1972 – 2012 Tom Nikosey – All rights reserved – and are used by permission. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2010-12 – Gerald Watson II & Art Vs. Commerce – All rights reserved – and are used on this site by permission.