Pentagram’s Abbott Miller and illustrator Ori Toor create neo-psychedelic album cover for Future Utopia’s 12 Questions

The project by producer Fraser T Smith features collaborations with Stormzy, Dave, Bastille, Es Devlin and Idris Elba, with the artwork interlacing a dozen stories into one tableau.

20 August 2020

Grammy and Ivor Novello award-winning songwriter, producer and musician Fraser T Smith was the co-writer and producer of Adele’s Set Fire to the Rain; he also produced Stormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayer and Dave’s first two EPs, and has worked with a slew of renowned artists from Drake to Gorillaz and Florence + The Machine, via Britney and Celine Dion. His new musical project Future Utopia is debuting its first album 12 Questions this autumn, with some of its own stellar collaborations, both in musical and creative terms. On the music there’s Stormzy, Bastille and Es Devlin (!) among many others, and on the visuals for the album there’s Pentagram partner Abbott Miller and illustrator Ori Toor.

Sonically, 12 Questions spans diverse genres, and Smith together with record label Platoon briefed Miller to create a “mystical, neo-psychedelic vibe that captured this interconnected world” for the album cover. Hence the artwork is a dense and intricate tableau interweaving 12 so-called ‘episodes’ based on each of the songs. It works as one image, but zoom in to different sections and you’ll see smaller individual illustrated stories hidden amidst the scene. Each of these is given its own mini teaser film (shown below) for social media, animated by 1983 Creative, where you can see the details of Toor’s illustration come to life, close up.

“Fraser approached this entire album as an interconnected set of questions that collectively represent a kind of picture of the world right now,” Miller explains to It’s Nice That of the wider concept for the creative direction. “While that could quickly become a bit dark – the dominance of technology, racial injustice, environmental crises – Fraser was clear that there needed to be a sense of hope underpinning everything. This sense of big themes explored through the music called out for joining them together. It’s a bit of a Gesamtkunstwerk in its musical, textual, and thematic ambition. So the unification of these themes in a landscape helps knit these elements together. It makes it a visual world that has coherence: now when I hear the music I see this very specific world that Ori was able to bring to life.”

Illustrator Ori Toor was firstly given the lyrics to the songs, and picked out phrases and words that seemed “visually striking, or inspired some image in my mind,” he tells us. “I started to draw out a scene that is a mix of everything I soaked up.” For example, he cites a line from Do We Really Care? which states: “Look at you, joy riding the soft-top hearse all the way to theterminus", which Toor says “made me think of a brain on wheels being led by a bird”. Also a line from Stranger in the Night – “Take these lungs cause I’ve stopped breathing,” which inspired a “lung tree”. Then considering the image as a whole, Toor found inspiration in the name Future Utopia as well as another lyric: “Human beings cannot live without mother Earth, but the planet can live without humans.”

“I had all these little stories representing the titular 12 questions frame this landscape that could be read as hopeful but also could be read as apocalyptic. It definitely has no humans in it,” Toor adds.

The illustrator’s style perfectly suited Smith’s neo-psychedelic vision, a style Toor feels he is “naturally drawn to… even without references I would probably churn out a similar vibe,” he says. Still, he looked to other album covers such as Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew painted by Mati Klarwein and fusion groups like Nucleus for visual reference. Toor brings all these complicated portions together using an underlying grid called Mandorla, an almond-shaped frame often used in medieval and religious iconography. “It gave me a sense of order and symmetry I sort of weaved in and out from during the process,” he says.

Miller used the typeface Supreme from Lineto for the title, appealing for its “call-back to the 70s” the designer says. “The music moves into prog-rock and the imagery certainly does, too, but it still feels quite contemporary. The dimensionality (of the typography) brings it into the landscape, and reinforces that sense of existing almost like ‘signage’ for this place called Future Utopia.”

12 Questions by Future Utopia is out 23 October on Platoon and 70Hz.

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Jenny Brewer

Jenny oversees our editorial output across work, news and features. She was previously It’s Nice That's news editor. Get in touch with any big creative stories, tips, pitches, news and opinions, or questions about all things editorial.

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