In January, Fritz Klaetke and Susan Battista received an invitation in the mail to a black-tie affair. The couple is not typically interested in hobnobbing, but they couldn’t — and wouldn’t — miss this event at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Feb. 10. Battista immediately went out to buy a gown (more on that later), and next week they’ll fly to California for the 55th annual Grammy Awards.
Klaetke, design director for Visual Dialogue, a design firm he founded 25 years ago, is nominated for the best boxed or special limited edition package Grammy for his work on “Woody at 100,” a four-CD Woody Guthrie centennial collection released in July by Smithsonian Folkways.
Klaetke has designed more than 70 CD packages over the past 20 years for the Smithsonian’s nonprofit record label. Given its lofty mission of “supporting cultural diversity and increased understanding among peoples through the documentation, preservation, and dissemination of sound,” any new release is going to include a package that offers a wealth of information.
Of course, taking a wealth of information and refining it into a tidy object or logo is precisely what Klaetke and his life and business partner Battista do daily at Visual Dialogue. Whether it’s a restaurant, a law firm, or a school, Klaetke, a graphic designer, and Battista, who comes from a marketing background, decode the often jargon-laden details of a business into a common language and then, like linguistic alchemists, transform the concepts into what Battista calls a “visual brief.”
Knowing this, when you walk into their home, which rises for three stories above their minimalistic South End office, the vintage poster in their slick white kitchen is perfectly appropriate. It reads: “Tasty Metaphors, 79 cents each.”
“Having worked with Smithsonian Folkways, I understand their history. They have a rich visual tradition. They use old, simple typography,” Klaetke said, of the guiding principal for the Guthrie box set. “There’s a lot of brand equity. I wanted to go back to the way it began. You have to do something appropriate to represent Woody — like an advertisement would — so I didn’t want to be tricky or trendy.”
The end result is a book the size of an LP jacket and about one inch thick. The CDs slip into a poster board end page. Guthrie’s doodles are sprinkled in the margins throughout the book of text, drawings, photos, and sheet music. There are no slick plastic packaging elements. That wouldn’t be in keeping with the songwriter’s earthy aesthetic.
“Fritz has a good sense of the history of album art,” said Jeff Place, head archivist of Smithsonian Folklife collection, who has produced more than 50 Smithsonian Folkways albums and has several Grammys to show for it. “He uses visual elements like type from historic recordings and brings them into the present. He gives those same ideas a modern, classy vibe. He picked the artwork, lyric sheets, and doodles of writings for the marginalia. He took elements out of context and used them in different ways. Art just jumped out of the page at him.”
Klaetke founded Visual Dialogue in 1988 when he was a student at the University of Michigan. He moved to Boston in 1989 and, while doing design work for the New England Foundation for the Arts, he connected with Rounder Records, a Cambridge-based label that was distributing Smithsonian Folkways recordings. The rest is music history, made visually compelling and accessible to music fans.
Battista joined the firm this month. She oversees the exhaustive research that goes into the projects and passes it on to Klaetke, who has a knack for deftly incorporating it into the final product. It’s an approach that stands out in a landscape of brash, in-your-face advertising and design.
The faded, never-before-reproduced photo of a young Guthrie on the box set cover is bordered by a pattern created with a dense typewriter type. It looks like burlap and suggests the time spent sifting through dusty archival material. And consider a catalog they designed for Art Institute of Boston. The cover incorporates prospective students’ responses to Battista’s questionnaire inquiring why they’re interested in AIB. The first six pages are blank except for tiny text at the bottom like “think about what’s in, not on, a blank page…”
“It’s a way of presenting to make you have to read it. Everyone’s shouting, let’s whisper,” said Klaetke.
“Fritz really understands the power of good information and what to do with insight to make it come to life. I never thought my research would be on a cover of a project like this catalog,” said Battista.
Of course, anyone in the design industry for decades is in the business of adapting to sea changes in technology. Given the ways that most of us purchase and consume music now, it’s easy to wonder how relevant album packaging is in the era of digital music.
“We have to realize we value different things,” said Klaetke. “A lot of things in design have shifted. Now newsletters are online. There’s been a shift to where we have real content worth preserving and showing. Everyone bemoans the decline of the 12-by-12-inch LP, but a book or box set allows you to use a lot more archival materials and text. It’s better than the heyday of album art because you’d never see that amount of content back then.”
“People do want this physical stuff. Packaging is incredibly valuable to hard-core fans with emotional connection to the music,” said Mike King, chief marketing officer and instructor for Berklee College of Music’s online school. “It’s a shame things are down to thumbnail sizes. Digital is not the full experience. But if there’s a need, people are going to create a supply.”
The Grammys are exciting, of course, but there are no guarantees. What’s for certain is the pomp and ceremony. Battista scored a vintage gown with silver and gold floral brocade at the SoWa Market for the affair. And her chunky gold Nanette Lepore heels will complement the silver Doc Martins that will punctuate Klaetke’s tux. Did he help her design the outfit?
“No,” Battista said, “but he said it’s OK.”