John Berg, 83, Remembered For Album Art Innovation - 27 East

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John Berg, 83, Remembered For Album Art Innovation

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author on Oct 20, 2015

John Hendrickson Berg was quite literally the rock star of art directors—winner of four Grammy Awards for his creative supervision at Columbia Records on some of the most iconic album covers of all time, from Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” to “The Barbra Streisand Album.”The East Hampton resident was a pioneer, an innovator in his field, and a loving husband and father at home. He died of pneumonia on October 11 at the Hamptons Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Southampton, following a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis two years earlier. He was 83.

“For the first 20 years of our marriage, I never cooked a meal,” Durell Godfrey said of her husband of 33 years. “I would come home from work, and there was dinner. I was so blasé about it that I would actually say, ‘Not pasta again!’ He re-created his mother’s clam chowder and called it his Brooklyn chowder. He was born in Brooklyn.”

On January 12, 1932, William J. Berg and his wife, Jeanette, welcomed their son into the world. He would go on to graduate from Erasmus Hall High School, and then Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in Manhattan in 1952, before landing a job at Columbia Records.

“Everybody who went to his alma mater, Cooper Union, went on to greatness. It was an amazingly creative time,” Ms. Godfrey said. “To work at Columbia was the job that everybody wanted to have. Record covers was the holy grail of graphic designers.”

Mr. Berg oversaw the production of more than 5,000 records, earning Grammy Awards for his keen direction of “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits,” “The Barbra Streisand Album,” “Chicago X” and Thelonious Monk’s “Underground”—not to mention 29 other nods over the span of his career.

When Christina Strassfield, museum director and chief curator of Guild Hall in East Hampton, saw his body of work in 2012, she knew she had to display it. Of the retrospective, Mr. Berg had said it felt like being at his own funeral, Ms. Godfrey recalled, though the comment was meant in good fun.

“I knew his work before I ever knew his name, which is amazing,” Ms. Strassfield said. “Durell asked me to take a look at it. And then, when I went to their home, he was so charming, really such a nice person. He was pulling out these record albums. I was just, ‘Oh my gosh!’ As a child in the Bronx, we would get our allowance on Fridays, and I would go straight to the record department at Corvette’s, where I had seen those images. That meeting brought back all those incredible memories. I’ll never forget when he said that it was great that I remembered the covers even though I couldn’t remember the music.”

Before MTV began broadcasting musicians in living color within elaborately choreographed music videos, all consumers had was album art. Anyone who loved album art growing up remembers how exciting it was to open any two-fold set to find the unexpected surprises that came when the gatefold was laid flat, such as posters or lyric sheets.

That was an invention of Mr. Berg. The first was Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde,” in which the two-record set’s sleeve opened up to expose a vertical photo of Dylan. It was a move that cemented Mr. Berg’s career as a titan of art direction.

His chiseled style encompassed a sophisticated use of typography that was well before its time, and photos cropped in unexpected ways that exuded flirtatious humor and even iconoclastic appeal. “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits,” for example, displays an extreme closeup of the musician’s profile, a now-legendary halo circling the musician’s wiry hair, created with backlighting.

And “Chicago X” featured the band’s famous logo—which Mr. Berg also helped design, with a sly nod to the Coca-Cola logo—molded into a ripped open chocolate bar, the album framed by the tin wrapping.

Whether it was Chicago or Vivaldi, Mr. Berg would listen to the album first, and then build a concept from the music into a memorable story, Ms. Godfrey said.

“John just wanted to engage the viewer in seeing something cool and interesting,” Ms. Godfrey said. “For instance, the Grammy Award cover for Thelonious Monk’s ‘Underground,’ John wondered how to design the word ‘underground.’ He asked, ‘Do I put Thelonious in a subway? What about the Underground Railroad, so we think of slavery?’ He finally decided on the French Resistance, with Monk as part of the revolution.

“Back then, it was a big production,” she continued. “There was no Photoshop or Illustrator. They had to build an incredible set for that cover with chickens and cows. It was a massive operation and on location.”

Doug Kuntz first met Mr. Berg in the early 1980s—“pre-D,” as in “pre-Durell,” as he says—and offered the burgeoning photographer a job in Manhattan. “He was one of my best f------ friends,” he said, before reminiscing about the gig: “He sends me to work with a famous guy who was making a Tampax commercial, and it was in two parts. The first shoot was of a gorgeous woman walking around the fountain at the Plaza. The second part of the ad was the same woman, but this time she walks into a pharmacy on 78th Street. It’s got a counter in it. She slams her fist on the counter like it’s a bar—and the caption says, ‘Make mine a double.’

“That was a Thursday. On Sunday, there’s this huge story above the fold about toxic shock syndrome, that tampons are killing women. I quit working with John’s people on that day. But John and I stayed great friends.”

Columbia Records was absorbed by Sony in 1985 and, that same year, Mr. Berg’s retirement from his position as a vice president followed a massive cleaning of house that “put John out to pasture,” Ms. Godfrey said. He never embraced computers, the digital age was on the horizon and CDs were quickly becoming the norm, making album art less and less important.

It was during this transition that Mr. Berg began spending more time on the East End in a little house he bought as a “divorce present” to himself after his first marriage ended.

“He was moving himself mentally out here,” Ms. Godfrey recalled. “He didn’t want to impose a retirement on me because I am 13 years younger. I wasn’t ready to give up my job at Glamour magazine. But by the mid-’90s, he was out here year-round. By 2001, I said to myself that I’m missing a life with my husband, so we put the apartment up for sale.”

Ms. Godfrey credited his gentle guidance for leading her toward her photography career. When she began shooting for The East Hampton Star, he would accompany her on photo safaris because, as a Manhattan girl, she wasn’t accustomed to driving.

“The first picture I ever had in the Star was one of those moments driving,” she said. “We spotted a piano on the street, just sitting there. It made the front page of the Star, and I was totally hooked.

“He was never ever able to teach me about f-stops or shutter speed, but he was a terrific photography coach. Even now, I’m shooting with his eye. I wonder if he would like it. That’s with me every moment, and I’m so proud of that. I wouldn’t have been a photographer if we hadn’t seen that piano together.”

Mr. Berg is survived by a daughter, Kristina, who is a graphic designer in Manhattan. A son, Lars, died in 1984—31 years before his father, to the day. Mr. Berg’s body has been donated to Stony Brook University’s Department of Anatomical Sciences, after which he will be cremated and a marker placed in the Orient Central Cemetery in Southold, alongside those of Ms. Godfrey’s family members. A memorial will be held next year in Manhattan. Memorial contributions have been suggested for his alma mater, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

Ms. Godfrey said she is adjusting to the absence and acknowledges that there will be waves of nostalgia and sadness, but she is thankful for the time she had with him. Mr. Berg had given her the directive, “If I start to go, let me go.”

“He didn’t put himself or me through the horror of growing very old, or ultimately getting very crazy. That’s sad,” she said. “But I’m just grateful that he let go at exactly the moment when he still had his dignity and brain.”

Mr. Kuntz said he will always remember the way Mr. Berg called him “kiddo.”

“I went to the nursing home a few weeks ago. I brought him ice cream, and when I had to leave, I blurted out, ‘I love you, John,’” he recalled, choking up. “He said weakly, ‘I love you, too, kiddo.’ Everyone in that room woke up and smiled. He was a good man. He was a really good man.”

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