The Faded Kodachrome Beauty Of Football: Q&A with Graphic Designer James Campbell Taylor

Soccer Features Beauty
Share Tweet Submit Pin

If you could travel back in time and go to one football match, which one would you go to? It’s a question a lot of soccer fans have a ready answer for. (Me: the 1972 European Cup Final.) But for James Campbell Taylor, it’s a tricky one.

Taylor is a British graphic designer and writer based in New York. After studying at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, interning at MoMA and working for NYC-based ad agency Creative Source, Taylor launched Pennarello, his independent graphic design practice, and has work has been featured in major media outlets like The Guardian and The Village Voice.

Some of his most celebrated work was inspired by football, including two galleries we’re delighted to feature here on Paste Soccer: his series of retro World Cup posters and his series on vinyl album covers based on iconic footballers.

Looking at his work, Taylor’s images and writings form a kind of love letter to the beautiful game, one you discover hidden away in an old box in the attic decades later, perhaps long after you and the other party in your affair had parted company. It summons joy and melancholy and fading memory. Perhaps the word that best describes Taylor’s designs is saudade, a Portuguese lacuna that means either “longing for an absent other” or “nostalgia for a future that never happened.”

I had the opportunity to talk to Taylor about his work, his love of football, and what he would do with a time machine.

Paste: What early memories do you have of being a football fan?

James Campbell Taylor: It might come as a surprise meeting me now, but for the first 10 years of my life I was pretty indifferent about football. I remember actually complaining to my dad because he wanted to watch it. I have hazy memories of Maradona during the Mexico ’86 World Cup, but I don’t really recall actively sitting down to watch any of the matches. I also remember buying a packet of Panini stickers that summer at a supermarket in France — I got Mark Hateley and a couple of Hungarians — but I didn’t have the album so I probably stuck them on my lunchbox. So I was very aware of football but probably far more interested in music and movies at the time.

That all changed with Italia ’90, a tournament that for me was like a light-switch being flicked on. By that time I’d been to Italy a couple of times and so I was able to relate to the event and the various venues. I loved learning about the different players and clubs, and spent hours researching the history of previous tournaments, to the extent that by the time the competition started I was something of a fledgling World Cup expert. It didn’t hurt that England ended up doing very well, and so for many fans it was a hugely memorable tournament. While a massive turning point for me it coincided with an even bigger one for British society in terms of how football in England was perceived, by fans and non-fans alike. That moment represents the beginning of what English football has become today.

The following year I began subscribing to a monthly magazine called World Soccer, which I continued reading for over a decade. I think I became attracted by the idea that football spanned the whole globe, that every city had a team, each with its own history, colors and culture. Whether through TV, magazines or my own imagination, football represented a means with which to travel the world and get a brief sensation of those places. I suppose for me that was — and probably still is — the sport’s greatest appeal.

Paste: You spent some time in Italy and ended up falling in love with the game there. What is it that sucked you in? What makes Serie A unique?

JCT: I had the good fortune of spending several summers there as a boy, and so I suppose I fell in love with Italian football as a consequence of having fallen in love with Italy. My family and I eventually made a lot of friends there, especially in and around Florence, so I soon started following Fiorentina. This also happened to be a period in which Serie A was football’s undisputed spiritual home: every great player of that era played in Italy at one point or another, the only exceptions were those who went to Barça or Real Madrid instead. In 1992 the British television network Channel 4 started broadcasting live Serie A matches, which for a young teenager desperate to live in Italy was definitely the next best thing.

Unfortunately Serie A’s appeal has waned in recent years for a number of factors, the main one being that it’s clubs can no longer compete economically with the biggest sides in England or Spain. Fortunately it has always remained a highly competitive league in which any team can beat any other, which certainly isn’t the case in some of Europe’s other top divisions.

Paste: With football increasingly about glitz, glamor, and high-definition, your designs present a view of the game reminiscent of 40 year old Polaroid pictures and concert posters. What informs your particular aesthetic approach?

JCT: I dislike how the corporate world has infiltrated football, just as it has everything else, particularly as I’m now old enough to remember I time when things were a little different. My series of World Cup posters was a reaction to this. With each poster I wanted to evoke a period and a place through graphic design that was neither corporate nor resorted to tired cliché. I think it’s important to have a good sense of history — that’s true for designers as much as anyone else. I enjoy placing examples of graphic design in their historical context, and seeing how styles vary between genres and eras. It’s incredible to me that a choice of typeface or subtle design flourish can suggest a very specific time and place. We all respond to these details whether we know it or not.

So my design aesthetic is frequently influenced by historical graphic artwork, another medium that has become increasingly bland and homogenized at the highest level. Even today’s best footballers can seem quite manufactured. Statistically speaking the achievements of Messi and Ronaldo are staggering, but almost to the extent that they seem like robotic PlayStation characters without flaw. There’s very little in the way of human personality on show.

Paste: You have a series of vinyl album covers based on famous footballers. What connections do you see, symbolic or otherwise, between music and football?

JCT: Well, historically the two things have not mixed well, at least outside the stadium. In the past several footballers attempted to make records (usually with horrendous results), but I chose to forget that and imagine the players as credible singers or musicians. I wasn’t thinking of their music literally; my interpretation was more abstract — I was interested in inventing an alternate universe. What would these players’ icon status been had they pursued a music career?

With this in mind I tried to evoke the period for each LP, assuming the record would be released to coincide with their success on the pitch. I also considered where each player was from, and what the popular graphic or musical trends at that time were in that particular country. In this sense the challenges were similar to those faced with my World Cup poster project. But since we can’t hear the records the “music” is left to our imagination. This left me little option but to attempt to design the album covers to reflect the players’ personalities. In this way I was reminded of the famous Blue Note designer, Reid Miles, who didn’t even like jazz and relied on the studio engineer’s descriptions of the music for inspiration.

I alluded to this before, but in England the summer of 1990 resulted in a big change in attitudes towards both football and music. The BBC used Pavarotti’s recording of “Nessun Dorma” as its World Cup theme tune, bringing opera to the masses, while at the same time elevating football (a game for so-called hooligans) to high culture. Meanwhile the official World Cup song of the England team was recorded by New Order, which suddenly brought credibility to a previously risible genre. Around the same time a retro culture began to emerge. Today pop music doesn’t have the same impact on the public it had thirty or even twenty years ago. You might say football has replaced it as the global pop culture.

Paste: You also have a set of photo essays you composed while visiting famous football grounds; one from the San Siro, and a recent one from the Azteca. How did you approach those pieces? Did you go in feeling like you had to report on what you saw and did there? Or did you have your experience there and then try to tell the story later as best you could?

JCT: As a student I lived for a year in the northern Italian town of Pavia, just south of Milan, and ended up visiting San Siro most weekends. My first visit to that stadium was like a dream, the kind that lingers with you for days afterwards. I took photos with a disposable Kodak camera, some of which I’ve since lost. But this was fifteen years ago, so I didn’t have the means to document it like I would have had today. It only occurred to me to write about those experiences a decade or so later, when enough time had passed for it to become something of a nostalgia piece. I later spent four years in Florence, during which time I barely missed a Fiorentina home match. I have hundreds of photos from those games but I’ve never done anything with them or written about it seriously. The same goes for my visits to the Bernabéu and Nou Camp. So while I’ve always been a rampant photographer – primarily due to an innate need to document – until recently the culture of sharing through blogs or social media didn’t exist.

This is probably why I approached my more recent trips to Buenos Aires and Mexico City a little differently. In each case I knew that I had the means (and would probably be expected) to document each experience extensively. I was also very aware that entering the Bombonera, Monumental and Azteca represented a childhood dream that had once seemed like a very remote fantasy, and I found each occasion to be quite moving. Before the internet or satellite TV the only hope of seeing these stadia was in a grainy black-and-white photo in the back of a magazine. One of the bittersweet aspects of the modern world is that the mystique and allure that those places once held suddenly dissipates. Today I can watch all the best teams in the world from the comfort of my apartment every weekend, which is strange when I think how until a few years ago getting to see Barcelona or Boca Juniors would have been a rare and wonderful treat. In fact Barcelona are on TV right now and I’m not even watching it.

Paste: While not all art carries social commentary, I feel like most art in some way tries to construct and present a vision of the world as the artist wants it to be, rather than how it is. What kind of vision of the footballing world are you trying to show? How, if it all, is it different from the one we inhabit?

JCT: Interesting question, especially given today’s technology-driven society. Nowadays every time somebody posts a photo on Facebook or Instagram they’re presenting their own tweaked vision, an edited version of their life as they wish it to be seen. I am no different in wanting to show the version of the world inside my head, including the aspects of football that I enjoy and appreciate. I don’t wish to come off as an idealist or a nostalgist, but I do believe in a purer version of football, one with a greater collective awareness of its historic and cultural implications, and a closer relationship between fans and players, cities and their clubs. That probably sounds very naïve, but I think many people around the world feel similarly, and it’s great that technology has provided a platform with which to express and disseminate these thoughts and ideas.

Paste: If you could go back in time and attend one match, which one would it be?

JCT: There are so many matches I’ve watched on TV that I would have liked to attend, but since I’ve been granted the gift of time travel I will take advantage and go a little further back. I’ve never been to a World Cup match, and as an Englishman it would have been nice to see the 1966 final at Wembley – especially since I’m not optimistic for a repeat of that result anytime soon. Though perhaps I would have preferred to be in Mexico in 1970. Something about the Estadio Azteca: the heat, the sunshine, those sombrero-clad fans packed into that vast concrete bowl. If I couldn’t make the final I’d happily settle for the epic semi-final between Italy and West Germany, a match still referred to as “El Partido del Siglo.”

A more honest response to your question would be that I wish I’d been born in a place and time where I could have grown up as a season ticket holder at one of the world’s great clubs. I’d have loved to spend my teenage years and twenties going to an iconic stadium every other weekend. Sadly by the nineties ticket prices in England had become almost prohibitively expensive, and I wasn’t passionate enough about my (mediocre) local teams to care, nor did I find the increasingly sanitized English stadium experience particularly inspiring. Had I been born in, say, Milan or Buenos Aires, I think this would have been a very different story. Though I later got to enjoy a similar lifestyle in Milan and to a greater extent Florence, I was still envious of the other fans as this was their own culture, whereas I’d been forced to move overseas and adopt it. Though essentially I became one of them it’s not the same thing. Since coming to New York it’s what I’ve missed most: the noise, the colors, the flags, drums and flares. There’s nothing quite like it.

Do your eyes a favor and check out Paste Soccer’s galleries of James Campbell Taylor’s work:

24 Legendary Soccer Players as Vinyl LP Covers

20 Retro, Non-Corporate World Cup Poster Designs

To check out more of his work, visit the website of his design practice Pennarello.