Music and songwriting are only two mediums in which Jack White excels
It was fairly evident, once the White Stripes became a secret that neither the Detroit nor the general American underground could contain any longer, that there was something unique and special about them. Leader Jack White, manhandling a red plastic Airline guitar from the ’60s, seemed especially touched by genius. Atop “sister” (in actuality, his former wife) Meg’s simple, pounding drums, he unleashed a torrent of fuzz and well-crafted original songs such as “Fell In Love With A Girl” and “Seven Nation Army” that restored the glory of ’60s garage punk to the Billboard Hot 100. Those top-selling records, which he produced, also reestablished the connections between Led Zeppelin’s stadium-shaking rock and the blues. They made the one-time upholsterer from Detroit and his former bride famous and very, very rich.
Twenty years and 25 days from the date the breakthrough album White Blood Cells was released, a new website was launched. Jack White Art & Design, which went live July 28, highlights mostly previously unknown dimensions of his work. Even a cursory crawl through the riches that the site presents should fuel a reconsideration of White’s identity: Let’s now think of White as an “interdisciplinary artist,” as the site dubs him. Music and songwriting are merely two of his mediums, the only ones he’s chosen to show us thus far.
Or have they been? White’s been offering us peeks all along. He’s designed the covers of every record he has released, going back to the White Stripes. The website offers a selection of flyers he made promoting their early shows, done quickly in Xerox and Letraset. All are graphically interesting. Then think about the first White Stripes articles you read after “Hotel Yorba.”
He spoke often about how he based the band and their entire aesthetic on the number three. Jack and Meg dressed in three colors — red, white and black. All of their equipment was in those colors. So were the album covers and single sleeves. He said he based the songwriting on three elements — melody, rhythm and storytelling. Then there was the band itself, centered around his voice, his guitar and Meg’s drumming. He frequently remarked how he liked to put a governor on himself, just to see how creative he could get within those restraints. He called it “the liberation of limiting yourself.”
Now consider the title of the second White Stripes album, De Stijl. It was named for an early 20th-century Dutch movement in art and architecture, dubbed for the native term “the style.” And that style was reductive: unadulterated abstraction and universality via strict adherence to color and form, sticking to the vertical and horizontal, utilizing only black, white and primary colors.
Does this sound familiar?
One of De Stijl’s prime movers, architect and furniture designer Gerrit Rietveld, is among the figures highlighted at Jack White Art & Design’s “Influences” section, alongside American Modernist industrial designers Henry Dreyfuss and George Nelson, and pulp magazine/comic book cover painter Norman Saunders. One begins to notice the clean lines and hard, modern, heavily industrial look of everything White touches, from 45 sleeves to the interiors of his various Third Man operations, just looking at these influences’ work.
That album sleeve saw Jack and Meg dressed in white, standing in a De Stijl-ist environment of red, white and black rectangles. The back sleeve depicts the Peppermint Triple Tremolo, a freestanding mechanical guitar effect constructed out of three Leslie rotating speaker cabinets White designed and constructed himself. A window exhibits an oversized starburst peppermint mounted to one of the spinning speaker baffles. The unit is showcased in the site’s “Instruments & Hardware” section, alongside various custom guitars and effects pedals he’s designed.
“To work with Jack White, to watch him work at anything…is to witness the mind of an artist as it explores and problem solves,” his nephew Ben Blackwell writes in a statement in the “About” section. Blackwell has served as White’s right-hand man in all of his ventures, going back to Third Man Upholstery’s founding in 1996.
“Beauty from construct, construct from purpose” the website announces as the home page loads. It’s easy to see this dictum in action, as you pore over the different sections of the website. You especially see his active aesthetic in “Industrial” and “Interiors,” which mostly involve White’s various Third Man business ventures — the upholstery shop in Detroit’s Pioneer Building at 2679 E. Grand Blvd. that named all the other parts of his empire, the recording/photo/mastering studios, the pressing plant, the various record stores. There are even never-before-seen photos of the two Third Man Records headquarters in Detroit and Nashville, all bearing his unique design stamp. Blackwell writes that his uncle’s brainstorming process can be “both inspiring and maddening.”
“There’s no reason a building needs to have acoustical tiles, tin ceilings or shiny yellow floors,” Blackwell continues. “But that’s not the point. The point is to make something beautiful.” He adds that White’s goal is “to take an empty space, to envision what you’d like it to look like, not just visually, but spatially, texturally, experientially, and design into that vision, making and taking the occasional left turns, keeping architects and contractors on their toes and folks like myself, who have to find the kind way to say, ‘No Jack, I don’t think a fog machine would be a good idea for the pressing plant.’
“And then to hear him explain it, with a viewing window, the public looking in, tight spotlights over each individual record press, calling the beauty and the cinematic quality he wants to highlight in this situation…most of the time I find myself saying, ‘When you put it that way, it does sound pretty impressive.’”
There’s a selection of White’s upholstery work, including his refurbishment of a couch owned by Sun Records owner Sam Phillips that was commissioned by the rock ’n’ roll recording pioneer’s family. Almost all are mid-century modern designs, reupholstered in three different bright colors, squares and rectangles incorporated into the redesigns.
The “Sculpture” area highlights such fully functional pieces as a pair of whimsically designed dog houses constructed for friends and an industrial cooling unit built in 1997 dubbed “Machine Gun Fan” that he continues using in the upholstery shop he still maintains at his Nashville residence.
“Vinyl Concepts” concentrates on various unusual record releases from Third Man Records, including liquid-filled LPs; triple-decker records featuring clear vinyl 12-inch discs containing 10-inchers inside, a standard seven-inch inside that; and records with playable grooves on the labels.
“Instruments & Hardware” spotlights various guitars and effects pedals he’s had built for his myriad musical projects, including a Gretsch featuring a copper top and copper hardware and a triple-function digital octave pedal with telegraph keys for triggers. “Film & Directing” collects promo videos he lensed for the Dead Weather, plus various industrial-style films done for various Third Man enterprises. By the time you reach “Photography,” with White’s sundry series of Polaroid experiments and digital photos, you start to think, “Of course, he takes pictures! What doesn’t he do?”
It’s a lot to take in. One could spend hours basking in the visual delights inherent in Jack White Art & Design, dazzled by the cohesive vision and coherent aesthetic he applies to everything he touches. It’s now obvious that he has designed his entire life. Every aspect of his existence is some form of art.
This goes into his music: Every last one of his bands — the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, the Dead Weather, even his solo work — is a complete package, down to the graphic design, the instrumentation, the clothing all musicians wear, even the clothing worn by the road crew. Everything he touches is another medium to work in, including all of his businesses, the buildings in which they are housed, the environments within, down to the uniforms his employees wear. White’s life is a work of art. Now we can all appreciate the breadth and depth of the work online.