The art outside the box: The story of Roger Dean

How the visionary artist fused architecture, art, music and games into one psychedelic whole.
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The stark white walls of the Daelim Contemporary Art Museum in Seoul, Korea are familiar with the sound of adults speaking in hushed tones. They're familiar with the gentle footsteps of gallerygoers, of the carefully considered "umm"s, "aah"s and "hmm"s of art lovers and the composure of those who understand they have walked into a fine art establishment.

On a mild spring day in 2010, these walls are greeted with something less familiar: giggling. The sound of children chatting, laughing and animatedly giggling at the gallery's paintings. The schoolchildren have come to see a retrospective of Roger Dean's work. Their teachers have explained ahead of time who he is — his decades-long contribution to the world of architecture, his famous album cover art for rock bands, his powerful box art for video games — but it means little to them. They're too young to appreciate what Dean did for rock music and games. They just want to see the pictures.

Roger Dean's paintings light up the gallery space with vibrant colors that pop like balloons. His eclectic mix of paintings and architecture range from the fantastic to the futuristic, with some subjects that sit eerily in between. The children stare and grin. They excitedly point at paintings — a dragon soaring through a crisp blue sky, a lush green island floating in the air, robots that look like a cross between reptiles and armor.

Dean wanders the gallery, watching his audience watch his work. He has no idea what any of them are saying, but he can tell they are happy. The adults almost fall into the paintings. The children smile. Their cheery voices bounce from wall to wall.

Arms akimbo, Roger Dean beams. The smiles and stares are no happy accident. Dean knows why his work gets the response that it does.

Outside the box

In the world of video games, Roger Dean is best known for creating Psygnosis' visual identity, famously designing the company's logo and its most elaborate pieces of box art. For more than a decade, his video game box art set the bar for everyone else to fall below, with players often remembering his art more than the game inside the box.

In the world of music, Dean is regarded a legend who brought something fantastic, futuristic and visually stunning to album art. He's traveled the world as an architect and designed the "retreat pod" chair that appeared in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. So iconic is his work that James Cameron's Avatar was accused of borrowing too much from Dean's famous floating island landscapes.

In the world of Roger Dean — now silver-haired, with his first iPhone and iPad game under his belt — he is the kid who went through college wanting to have a say in how the future looked.

"When I was at college and went to art school, I had no clear idea what I was going to do," he says. "But part of what I had in mind was an incredible idea that I could design the future. It was a terrific, motivating thing."

Dean had grand ideas of how outside-the-box design and architecture could change the way we live, the way we think, the way we interact with our world. The industrial design prototypes he created during college reflected his way of thinking: Why should a chair in the future have four legs? Why does a building need to be rectangular? Why do modern designs of everyday objects still follow blueprints that are hundreds if not thousands of years old?

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"I discovered that pretty much everyone thought the future was going to be a box, and I found that very disheartening."

His college didn't agree with his ideas. Weeks after starting art school, Dean — who was a few days past his 17th birthday — was pulled from a life drawing class and marched to an administrator's office. Here he was told that he was in the wrong course because he'd studied physics and math in high school — skills the college believed were more suited to industrial design. Barred from studying fine art, Dean switched courses where he found new avenues to design the future, but the college wasn't so keen on this either.

"I discovered that pretty much everyone thought the future was going to be a box, and I found that very disheartening," he says. "I couldn't understand why they thought we would live in a box. If I challenged that, I would be told that form follows function. And if I challenged that, I'd be referred to [Swiss-French architect and pioneer of modern architecture] Corbusier."

Frustrated with a system that was intent on making him conform, Dean had an idea. He'd find out what people want, what people like and what makes them the happiest when they are in a particular space. He enrolled in a master's program to study the psychology of the built environment. If he could find evidence that people really do want to live in boxes, fine. Corbusier would win. If he didn't, he'd snatch the brush from Corbusier's dead hand and keep trying to design the future he wanted to see.

It's all in your head

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If Roger Dean had given into his art school and stuck to four-legged chairs and box-like housing, perhaps he would have received the institutional tick of approval. Perhaps he would have gone on to create the most functional of seating and four-walled buildings. The history of album art and video game box art could have been very different. Before giving in, Dean embarked on his master's degree.

One of his early projects was to build the perfect sleeping space, the idea being that the place where people sleep is also where they're most sensitive to their environment. He wanted to understand what it was about certain buildings or spaces that made people feel comfortable, relaxed and safe. It would be the first of his anti-box tests.

After a year of making no headway, he decided to turn to primary school children. He asked a close friend who was a primary school teacher to hand out a classroom survey that consisted of one simple question: What don't you like about where you sleep? The response he received was amazingly consistent: Children, he found, didn't like hidden spaces. They didn't like spaces under the bed, full-length curtains, full-length cupboards, clothes hanging on the back of chairs. Anything that could hide a mysterious presence, they didn't like.

"Any source for the imagination to fix on is a threat, and it seemed to me very easy to eradicate those things," Dean says. "You don't need to have beds that have spaces underneath them or full-length cupboards, so that was straightforward. But what was more interesting and much more complicated was the response we got when we asked children what they liked and what their ideal sleeping place would be."

The responses he received were varied, to say the least. There were caves, tree houses, boats, galleons, castle turrets and palaces. One child described a defendable space — a space he could feel in the dark. It had an entrance he could physically block and it was up in the air at eye-level with an adult in the room. Dean designed this room. He eventually designed a whole house based on the defendable space psychology. No boxes. People queued for hours to see it. They loved it.

For his paintings, which appear on albums and box art, he was less concerned about defendable space psychology and more focused on how pathways worked. He spent years studying ways to design a pathway that was not tiring, but interesting, and gave back energy rather than sapped it. All his paintings for box art contain a landscape and some sort of pathway. He wanted to find the best way to draw people into his futuristic, sci-fi worlds.

"For example, if you took a two-mile runway at an airport and just put a row of trees down either side, it would not make a very interesting two-mile walk. You'd find it very tiring and very, very boring," he says. "What I looked at in the choreography of pathways was how you go over, under and around things, how you entertain people as they walk and the importance of walking over and around water.

"In many of my paintings I do put pathways and bridges and that is how I bring myself into them. Pathways contain a hint of how you would travel around them. The paintings always contain a clue. Even some that have no scope for pathways or bridges at all, like floating rocks, there is still a hint that you could be in that painting, in that place, and how you would travel into it."

Happy accident

Dean's research into the psychology of the built environment gave him a renewed confidence in his work. In the late '60s, fresh out of college, he scored his first major industrial design gig: chairs. English saxophonist Ronnie Scott needed new seating for his jazz club. He wanted something fresh and different, something outside the box. Dean was the man for the job.

He set out to create a "landscape of seating" for the club. He thought of how the chairs would fit with the rest of the décor, the mood and message it would communicate and how people might use them. What he didn't think so much about were the paintings he carried around with him when he brought his chair designs to the club.

Dean had never given up on fine art. He loved to paint, he loved to draw. It wasn't always about chairs. One day, while working at the jazz club, British rock trio The Gun asked Dean if they could use one of his paintings for their album cover. Dean admits he was surprised. He didn't consider himself much of a graphic artist. He was an architect, an industrial designer, a conceptualizer of fancy chairs. It had never crossed his mind that his paintings would be valuable to anyone.

When Dean describes how he came to be such a sought-after cover designer, he makes it seem like it was a happy accident.

"I didn't do graphic design … on the other hand, it didn't seem that difficult, so I did it," he says. "I did their first album cover and on the strength of that I was asked to do more. Around that time I was also asked to design the logo for Virgin so, willy nilly, even though I hadn't particularly trained for it, I found myself in a position where I was designing album covers."

Music journalist, reviewer and critic Chris Welch was working for the U.K.'s longest-running weekly music newspaper at the time, Melody Maker, and wrote the sleeve notes of the Gun album for which Dean had designed the cover. He remembers visiting Ronnie Scott's discotheque, being amazed by the foam seating Dean had designed that patrons could "roll around" on ("It was lots of fun," Welch recalls), and hearing about this young artist who had designed this furniture and was now creating album art.

"I was blown away by it," Welch says. "When I first saw it I was entranced, especially with his work for [British progressive rock band] Yes. The impact on me was I thought his artwork really complemented the music. Yes' music was so widescreen in a way, almost orchestral, with lots of arrangements. They were painting pictures in sound, and Roger was painting pictures with images, so it really complemented it."

Until Dean's arrival, most album covers were designed by record companies to sell LPs. This often resulted in a glamorous photo of the musician or band with the name slapped on the front. Welch describes album covers of the '60s as formulaic and unimaginative — whether it was a rock band, jazz band or pop musician, every cover followed the same conventions. It wasn't until The Beatles changed things up with their album art for Sergeant Pepper and Revolver did the floodgates open, and Welch believes Roger Dean brought innovative album art to its heights.

"They were painting pictures in sound, and Roger was painting pictures with images, so it really complemented it."

"What was really special about Roger's art was this attention to detail and the imagination flowing in an almost romantic way," Welch says. "It was a mixture of sci-fi and 19th century romanticism. It draws you in. It's very seductive. It sparks your own imagination. Roger's art makes the viewer want to study it, not just glance at it quickly. You want to see what the story is. It's almost as if you're looking at a movie scene. You're expecting all those images to start moving."

Welch says Dean was able to produce something that matched the grandeur of the music. There were lots of record companies and album artists producing covers, but none had the skill or calm authority of Roger Dean.

"I think he brought album art to a peak of creative genius in a way," Welch says. "His work is tremendously important and stands alone as a work of art."

Before Dean knew it, his paintings were appearing on chart-topping records that sold in the millions around the world. Dean never stopped working on his industrial design projects, but he now found himself with an opportunity to pursue the fine art he couldn't do in college. Before long, video games came knocking.

Psygnosis calls

A row of video game boxes haphazardly line the shelves of a toy store. The wildly non-uniform box for Jordan Mechner's Prince of Persia falls off the shelf for the umpteenth time because its ridiculous shape won't balance. A store clerk sighs, picking it up and ramming it back onto the shelf. His efforts knock over a different box — one that is far too tall by game box standards and, in his opinion, too sparkly.

It's the mid-'80s, and box art design is going through an expressive period. Boxes are a nightmare to stack. The games themselves are primitive and aren't selling themselves, there's barely a games press to tell people what's worth buying and downloadable demos are years from existing. Without the marketing tools they have today, publishers turn to video game boxes, and Psygnosis games turns to Roger Dean.

A developer working in the games industry at the time and current head of development at Other Ocean Interactive, Mike Mika, says Psygnosis made a bold move by bringing in Roger Dean who, by this point, was well known in the music industry as an album cover artist.

"Psygnosis' theory of marketing was they wanted box art that was every bit as beautiful as the games they produced," Mika says. "They were one of the first companies to put a stake in the ground and claim that games were art.

"By aligning themselves with Roger Dean, Psygnosis not only found a way to stand out and not look like any other game on the shelf, they also inherited, by association, the prestige that came along with Roger's work. He was so well known for creating worlds in a single image, and Psygnosis created worlds on a single floppy."

The box art for Psygnosis' Shadow of the Beast features reptilian robots walking through a sunburnt landscape. In the foreground, jagged trees frame a window into a mysterious world you could reach into — behind the trees, sienna terrain stretches into the distance where a ghostly forest teases at what lies beyond.

"I mean, Helvetica is used on everything from airports to hospitals to police stations. It's very much an institutional language and I think when you use it or any of its close relatives for an album cover, it's very much giving in and saying that this is a product for an institution."

The cover for Obliterator — another Psygnosis game with box art designed by Dean — shows a H. R. Geiger-esque robotic alien running through an equally alien place. The creature's design is technical and precise, its pathway curving off the side of the box. If the box infinitely stretched, we'd see where the alien came from and where it was running. So complete were the worlds that Dean dreamed up for his video game and album covers that viewers studied his art, stretching their necks and squinting their eyes just a little harder in the hope of seeing something more.

Video games at the time were so primitive that Dean's work fired up players' imaginations before they even started the game. The games themselves were often about transporting players to other worlds. Dean's work for album and game covers was no different.

"I felt that the music was attempting to really come from another world, another place, and it seemed not a good idea to package it within the graphic formulas of our existing world," he says. "So you might have some dramatic image on the cover and some amazing music, and then you wrap it in Helvetica and all the institutional conventions of our world.

"I mean, Helvetica is used on everything from airports to hospitals to police stations. It's very much an institutional language and I think when you use it or any of its close relatives for an album cover, it's very much giving in and saying that this is a product for an institution."

Dean brought these ideas to the world of games and made a splash with his box art, designing the logo for Psygnosis and the Helvetica-free title screen of Tetris Worlds. He would continue to work with Psygnosis throughout the '80s and early '90s, designing, in a sense, the future of games.

"Besides marketing, I thought it was important to have something both aspirational and inspirational — literally the shape of things to come, if you like," he says. "And pretty soon they did, because now what you get in the box is pretty amazing."

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Roger Dean Dragon's Dream

Earlier this year, British game studio Moshen approached Roger Dean to create a mobile game based on his landscapes. This was not the first time Dean received offers to feature his work in a game, instead of just on the box, but he agreed to work with Moshen because he liked their idea.

The game, Roger Dean Dragon's Dream, is a side-scrolling timed endless runner where players control a dragon that flies through one of two worlds created by Dean. It's not an easy game — the player needs to dodge floating rocks while collecting orbs, and the slightest graze against any surface results in the dragon's death.

"The artwork 100 percent determined the design and development of the game," says Moshen CEO Graham Baines. "[It's about] the celebration of the artwork — flying through two of Roger's paintings."

Moshen worked with Dean and explained how the individual assets and gameplay would work, how the artwork would be randomly generated for each playthrough and how these assets would still come together to produce a Roger Dean-like landscape. The landscapes were recreated digitally to produce a brush-textured set. According to Baines, Dean was very hands-on with how his art was represented.

"Roger was very specific on the size of rocks, order and how they formed on the screen," Baines says. "Roger spent time working with us on his color theory for how the art should be layered. We generated a four level depth of field, so [we then had to] agree on how all the pieces would interact and how light would fall on each piece."

Roger Dean Dragon's Dream is now available on the iTunes App Store.

Designing the future

Dean's retrospective at the Daelim Contemporary Art Museum is a milestone. He's about to undertake new projects and work on a stage production, and he's still an in-demand architect and industrial designer. Things could have gone so differently. This is a good a moment as any to pause and reflect.

The gallery is packed with schoolchildren and adults, with the sound of laughs, giggles, "umm"s and "aah"s tag-teaming each other from wall to wall. Dean watches as gallerygoers — who know to never cross the white line on the floor — frequently lean in too close, absorbed by his landscapes and pathways and soaring dragons.

If they stretch a little further, a little harder, they might see more of a different world, a different universe. If they could only reach out, their hands might cross from our world to something spectacular. If they plunge themselves — body and soul — into the paintings, they might enter a future designed by Roger Dean.Babykayak

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Header font & Art: Roger Dean
Design / layout: Warren Schultheis
Special thanks to: Ryan Gantz, Josh Laincz, Scott Kellum

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