Interview with Grammy-winning designer Fritz Klaetke on his work for Woody At 100

Interview with Fritz Klaetke on his Grammy-winning (for Best Boxed Or Special Limited Edition Package) work for Woody At 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection.

Posted April 2, 2013 by Mike Goldstein, curator,

woody guthrie, woody at 100, smithsonian

To be an artist of any sort in Depression-era America required both talent and commitment. For an artist like Woody Guthrie, inspiration for his song-writing came initially from his experiences living in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl (if you call that “living”) and meeting some of the many migrant workers who, like he, were looking for something – work, charity, companionship – to help them make it through the day. He learned a lot from absorbing the traditional music these migrants played and sang while they worked – or commiserated about their lack of work – ultimately creating the portfolio of songs that would earn him a place at the top of the list of “most-influential American songwriters” of the 20th Century.

While his legend has been built around his musical talents, many are surprised to find out that it was Guthrie’s capabilities as a sign painter, illustrator and cartoonist that kept him fed as he journeyed to California early on in his career. Fans of his music were first given a look at his artistic talents when they saw the cover sketch used on his 1943 autobiography titled Bound For Glory, but most have remained unaware of his prodigious output in this area, not knowing that he also produced a number of images used to illustrate his record albums, sheet music, tour posters, articles he’d written on a variety of subjects and, in many cases, drawn to help him better-visualize the inspirations for his music.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1912, the producers at the Smithsonian Folkways record label turned early on in the process to their long-time creative partners – Fritz Klaetke and his team at the Visual Dialogue design firm in Boston – to create a design for a retrospective box set package they’d release called Woody At 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection.

Collaborating with producer and archivist Jeff Place to dig deep into the Folkways archives to find examples sketches, drawings and other related ephemera that would he the design team fully illuminate the man and all his artistic capabilities. They also tapped Guthrie’s daughter Nora, who’d also been involved in a fine book that chronicles her father’s talents as a graphic artist (titled Woody Guthrie’s Artworks, written by Steven Brower and published in 2005), for additional help. The impressive results of this work were awarded this year’s Grammy Award for “Best Boxed Or Special Limited Edition Package”.

I caught up with Fritz recently and asked him to give us the story behind this award-winning design project and what it was like to be charged with coming up with a creative visual interpretation for a package that chronicles the musical output of one of our country’s most-honored creative forces…

Mike Goldstein (Curator, – Fritz, welcome back from your vacation break, and thanks for taking the time to discuss this project with me. Let’s get started with some background questions – How is it that you were first introduced to Woody Guthrie’s music?

Fritz Klaetke – (Partner, Visual Dialogue) – You know, it’s funny to say this, but I think that, as one of those classic American songwriters, Woody Guthrie’s music is just in the air here. I probably heard “This Land Is Your Land” as a kid growing up in Detroit. but the first time I really “studied” Woody and his music was in 1994 when I designed the CD package for Woody Guthrie: Long Ways To Travel, which was one of my first package designs for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

woody guthrie, long way to travel, fritz klaetke, designer

Woody Guthrie – Long Ways To Travel

Mike G – In your opinion, what was it that made Woody Guthrie – the artist and his music – different from other artists in his “category” or of his day?

Fritz K – I don’t know if Woody even had a category back then. I think that he took the traditions of the “wandering, singing storyteller” and made them his own.

MG – I understand that this is a comprehensive compilation, featuring many, many songs, but was there a particular track on the album that served as the inspiration of the package art and design?

FK – The inspiration wasn’t a particular song, but rather the direct, personal feel to Woody’s music–hence the life-size cover photo of Woody staring out at the listener. Another inspiration was his type-written lyrics, letters, and notes. We created a collage of the typewriter type which functions as a rough-textured border for the cover photo and continues inside the book.

MG – What “guidance” – or specific instructions – did you provide the illustrators or the photographers/designers that created the key parts of your packages?

FK – Well, all the design was done right here at Visual Dialogue – it was only me and designer Kimber Lynch working on it. I’d say that the “illustrator” was Woody himself – we were able to select from an amazing collection of visual artwork he created that was housed in the Folkways archives. The photography and other artifacts were supplied either by Folkways or came directly from the Guthrie archives. With all of it, the package was really about Woody, so we wanted to make the design about him, not us. From the large photo on the cover to the interior layout which emphasizes his artwork and original lyrics, Woody and his work is in the foreground and we’re backstage hopefully making him look good.

MG – As I know that he was a prolific painter, cartoonist and illustrator, were you tempted to use, or riff on, any of his own work? Was the label as hands-off as you make it sound, or were they actively involved in any/all aspects of the development of this design?

Woody Guthrie, archival images, Woody at 100

Archival images by Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie, drawings, archives, Woody at 100

More images from the Woody Guthrie archives

FK – At the outset of the project, I worked closely with Mary Monseur, the production manager at Folkways, to come up with the format for the book with disc pages in the back. During the process, I also worked very closely with Jeff Place, the producer and archivist at Folkways who really drove the selection of content, but the design was basically left up to me.

MG – How did you choose the talent – the designers, illustrators, typographers/graphic designers, photographers, etc. – who would work with you on this effort?

FK – As I mentioned previously, all of the creative work was done in-house here at Visual Dialogue. We did get a bit of advice on the text typography from my colleague and neighbor Jim Hood, who teaches at the Art Institute of Boston and is a scholar of type design history. We were looking for a typeface that worked as a text font but was also appropriate to the era in which most to the songs were recorded and ended up with Devinne. That typeface was paired with Trade Gothic Condensed used for headlines.

MG – Taking into account all of the project coordination, how long did this process take – from start to finished product?

FK – All said, it took about two years, but that’s because we had to nail down a format for the package well in advance before anything had been designed in order to get printing estimates. Once we actually had our kick-off meeting at Folkways with Jeff Place, the producer and archivist, and Mary Monseur, the production manager, the process took about three months to first deliver files to the printer, then quite a while to produce, since the package was being printed in China…

Woody at 100, Woody Guthrie, design, comp

Design comps for Woody At 100

design, comp, woody at 100, woody guthrie

comp, design, woody guthrie, woody at 100

Almost there…!

MG – Were there any special tools you used or work processes followed – manual or computer-based – that helped create the finished product? Can you give me any more details of that final aspect of the process? How were you able to oversee the quality of the pre-press and final printing? Did you or Smithsonian have anyone in China overseeing the process?

FK – there weren’t really any “special” tools used – just our usual graphics software – Adobe InDesign and Photoshop. For the printing and production, we worked with Tri-Plex Packaging in New York City and I kept close contact with the account person there, Jason Roth, while he coordinated the review of materials, proofs, etc. and acted as the liaison connecting us with the actual printing and binding teams in Shanghai.

MG – When working on a package like this, do you consider your efforts to be works of self-expression, or do you take your lead from your client?

FK – In this case – the artist Woody Guthrie – was definitely the driver for our design. In working for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, we’re also cognizant of the rich visual heritage of Folkways and the album covers created by Ronald Clyne (Editor’s note – the late Ronald Clyne was the designer responsible for over 500 of the label’s record covers over a 40-year period and is credited with developing Folkways’ unique style of album imagery). In a sense, the Woody At 100 cover is an extension of the early LP cover designs for Folkways – strong, black & white photography combined with bold, straight-forward typography and a limited color palette.

MG – Before we change gears a bit, I’d like to ask you if there is any other anecdotal info about this project you’d be willing to share…every project I’ve ever looked into seems to have something of an “ah-ha moment”, so anything you’d be willing to share would be quite a treat!

FK – One of the hardest parts about the Woody At 100 project was coming up with a photo for the cover. So many photos of Woody have been used to death in other projects and, like Monet’s haystacks, they can become pretty dull after you’ve seen them a hundred times. We really had our hearts set on using an image of Woody where he’d be looking straight out from the cover. After much searching, Nora Guthrie found an undated, passport-sized photo tucked away in a closet somewhere that had never been seen outside of the immediate family. When we found that image, we knew we had our cover photo!

MG – Let’s talk a bit about some topics I’d like to get your opinions on – First off, with the electronic delivery of music products growing at a fast pace, are you noticing any more or less enthusiasm on the client’s – or artist’s – behalf to invest time and money in packaging that stands out?

FK – It’s interesting how the role of music package design has changed with downloaded music. Cover art definitely takes on less importance when it’s viewed on an iPod screen but, conversely, box sets – with their ability to deliver a fuller experience with the inclusion of extensive song notes, essays, artwork, etc. – give package designs like Woody At 100 an arguably bigger role than the in the heyday of the LP cover era. I believe that this deeper experience is what many real fans of particular musicians or groups ultimately crave – a way to go beyond just the songs included on the records.

MG – How do you think album cover art help us document human history? I believe that iconic album cover art – in many ways – has had a noticeable effect on Pop Culture. What’s your take on this – is the imagery and music providing the direction, or is it reflecting the culture, or ??

FK – It’s interesting to think about this question. In a case like Woody At 100, the cover art represents a documentation of a milestone project of one of the 20th century’s great artists. In a sense, it reflects Woody’s time in which he created the music, but it’s filtered through a 2012 lens. For contemporary music, I think cover art definitely becomes one of the defining visual representations of the era in which it was produced. It’s too bad that so many of our leading musicians – including those who are out there on the edge from a musical standpoint – are often quite unimaginative when it comes to their visual representation.

MG – You bring up an interesting point. When Guthrie was first releasing his records, there wasn’t any album art per se, so musicians had to rely on other forms of promotion to get their music into peoples’ homes – endless tours and radio. Since he was both a political animal and an active visual artist, it would have been interesting to see what sort of album covers (and music videos) he’d have approved and how involved in the process he’d have been. What do you think?

FK – As I mentioned before, his first album, which was released on Asch Recordings (Editor’s note #2 – Asch Recordings was the precursor to Folkways Recordings, run by Moe Asch, an early believer in the importance of impactful album cover images) in 1944, features Guthrie’s artwork.

Woody Guthrie, Asch Records

Woody Guthrie on Asch Records

I’m sure he would have been right at home designing his own music packaging. There are several of his cover sketches included in the book and, of course, it would be interesting to speculate on the results if Woody would have picked up a still or video camera…

MG – Last question – Where do you keep your new Grammy trophy?

FK – Well, as of this date, I still haven’t received it. I found out that it takes like two months to get the engraved award! I was hoping to go through airport security with it on the way back to Boston from Los Angeles but, when I do finally get it, I have a place of honor picked out in my studio next to a bunch of design awards and my middle school ping-pong trophy.

About the artist, Fritz Klaetke (info provided by the interviewee) –

Fritz Klaetke, Visual Dialogue

Fritz Klaetke of Visual Dialogue

The offspring of an architect and a painter, Fritz Klaetke was genetically pre-destined to be a designer. He grew up in Detroit and founded Visual Dialogue in 1988 while still a student at the University of Michigan. Today, the studio is located in a renovated row house in Boston’s historic South End neighborhood.

The output from Visual Dialogue ranges from brand identity to music packaging, print collateral to websites, magazines to sculpture, and book design to interiors. Clients include The Art Institute of Boston, Barbara Lynch restaurant group, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Harvard University, Institute of Contemporary Art, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, MIT, Moshe Safdie and Associates, New York Public Radio, and Smithsonian Institution.

Visual Dialogue has received recognition from organizations including the American Institute of Graphic Arts, Art Directors Club, Type Directors Club, and The Webby Awards and the work has been featured in publications such as Communications Arts, HOW, I.D., Novum and Sports Illustrated. In addition, several of Fritz’s projects are included in the permanent collection of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City.

The design of Big Wet Kiss for the Boston-based band Chucklehead was Fritz’s first foray into music packaging in 1992. Since that time, he has created music packaging for artists including Lead Belly, Boozoo Chavis, Johen Cohen, Roscoe Holcomb, Langston Hughes, Mississippi John Hurt, Ella Jenkins, Sleepy LaBeef, Bill Monroe, Jonathan Richman, Pete Seeger, Doc Watson, Mary Lou Williams, and Bob Wills.

Besides the Grammy-winning Woody at 100 package, other box sets Fritz has designed include Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology, Friends of Old Time Music and Lead Belly’s Last Sessions, all for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. In addition to over 70 music packages, Fritz and his team at Visual Dialogue also designed the Webby-nominated Folkways website:

A video Fritz’s Grammy acceptance speech can be viewed at

For more information on Fritz Klaetke and Visual Dialogue, please visit their website at

About this interview –

Our ongoing series of interviews will give you, the music and art fan, a look at “the making of” the illustrations, photographs and designs of many of the most-recognized and influential images that have served to package and promote your all-time-favorite recordings.

In each interview feature, we’ll meet the artists, designers and photographers who produced these works of art and learn what motivated them, what processes they used, how they collaborated (or fought) with the musical acts, their management, their labels, etc. – all of the things that influenced the final product you saw then and still see today.

We hope that you enjoy these looks behind the scenes of the music-related art business and that you’ll share your stories with us and fellow fans about what role these works of art – and the music they covered – played in your lives.

All images featured in this story are Copyright 2013 Fritz Klaetke and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings – All rights reserved – and are used by the author’s permission. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2013 – Mike Goldstein, ( & RockPoP Productions – All rights reserved.

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