Tom Petty, Van Halen ... Prince?! This Des Moines duo created art for some of rock's biggest albums
Photo shoots with Tom Petty. Car rides with Stevie Wonder. Studio time with Fleetwood Mac.
One fan’s rock ‘n’ roll fantasy is reality for Jay Vigon and Margo Nahas, a husband-wife artistic duo who spent decades crafting album covers for some of the world’s best-known rock stars.
And, on Friday, Iowans get a chance to step behind the lens of music history as Vigon and Nahas open “The Art of Vinyl,” a gallery at Mainframe Studios in Des Moines highlighting careers of a combined 80-plus musical design projects.
It’s the first time, Nahas said, that they’ve put this many albums on display in one setting. The show plans to through May 21.
“Really, no one knows that we’re here,” she said. “We have a lot of fun things to take a look at.”
The two met at the ArtCenter College of Design in Los Angeles, where they first began working on album covers in the mid-1970s. Still in school, Nahas landed an introduction at Warner Brothers, culminated in her designing the cover of the 1974 Seals and Crofts release, “Unborn Child.”
From there, the opportunities snowballed into work for Prince, Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, Devo, Van Halen, “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi” and more.
But, you’re probably thinking: how do two California-born rock ‘n’ roll artists end up in Des Moines?
“We stopped here (in 2003) and I totally fell in love with Des Moines,” Nahas said.
They’ve had two stays in central Iowa: Nahas and Vigon moved to rural Adel in the mid-2000s, fulfilling a dream of living in a rustic, Midwestern home. They wanted an escape from the pace of a Los Angeles lifestyle (“To go to dinner 7 miles away, you had to leave two hours early,” Nahas said).
They returned to California in 2013, though, to be closer to Nahas’ mother. But the two returned to Des Moines, where their daughter and grandson live, in 2015.
And, in returning, they decided to become more involved in local arts.
“We wanted to ... have some fun,” Nahas said.
The show promises to display the process behind crafting some of music’s most recognizable album covers, Vigon said.
It’s in the spirit of process that we sat down with Vigon and Nahas to discuss behind-the-scenes stories from the couple working with music’s biggest names.
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Toddler time with Rod
Vigon met regularly with the musicians, part of the creative process.
Sometimes these meetings came in the studio, sometimes at the record label offices, and, at least once, in the back of a Rolls Royce (more on that later).
For Rod Stewart, meetings happened on occasion at the singer’s pink-painted Beverly Hills home. Nahas, who opted mostly not to meet face-to-face with the musicians, and Vigon had developed a half-dozen directions for what would be Stewart’s 1982 “Absolutely Live” release.
The thing is, Vigon recalled, Stewart had a difficult time making a decision on which of the six he preferred.
“He’s looking at all this stuff and he can’t make up his mind about anything,” Vigon said. “So, finally, he calls over his little son. He said, ‘Which one do you like the best?” Of course he just points to the most colorful one.”
The child selected Nahas’ design, she recalled, laughing.
“Rod Stewart says, 'Well, go work on that,’” Vigon said.
“We didn’t wind up even using it.”
A not-so-quiet argument
Working with rock stars means getting midnight phone calls from rock stars.
That was the case in the early 1980s, Vigon recalled, when a few members of the Quiet Riot camp called him up to settle an argument.
He was working on what would be the art for the six-time platinum-selling “Metal Health” album — the release with the arena-ready “Cum on Feel The Noize” cover. The album’s cover featuring a man strangled in a straitjacket, his face concealed with a steel mask (Think Iron Man, only unhinged).
Vigon was greeted with a midnight call from the group’s producer, Spencer Proffer, and lead singer Kevin DuBrow.
“Spencer Proffer and Kevin DuBrow are arguing about who came up with the (metal) mask idea,” he said.
He wasn’t too keen on this midnight music industry debate, though.
“I’m married. I’ve got kids. It’s midnight,” he recalled. “I said something kind of off-hand. I said, ‘Oh … I thought that I thought of that.’ Click.”
So … where did the idea come from?
“I don’t know who thought of it,” he said, laughing. “I don’t remember who actually said what about the metal mask.”
Farewell with a flash
Sometimes the art gig included touring.
Vigon signed on in the early 1980s to do album artwork for the Doobie Brothers’ “Farewell” live album, a double LP that dropped in 1983 (and yet the band still tours in 2018).
Vigon, photographer Chris Callis and a lighting assistant had “all access” to the tour’s east coast run — hotels, backstage, tour bus ... nothing was off limits.
They captured hundreds of images, using the best for a collage inside the album; but, as the team reached its final day on the road, Vigon recalled not yet being sold on any one design for the cover.
One of the band members tipped him off that night, he said, that following the show’s last song, they’d be taking a pair of pliers and cutting the strings off one of the band’s guitar.
“I thought, ‘That’s the cover. We’ve got to get it,’” he recalled.
The catch: He didn’t tell Callis he wanted this shots until seconds before it happened. And it worked.
“(They) got the perfect photo,” he said, smiling.
A ride with Stevie
About that Rolls Royce meeting … that happened, Nahas said, with Motown great Stevie Wonder.
The two spent about a half-hour in the back of Wonder’s car, on the way to his studio, discussing 1979’s album and film soundtrack “Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.” The album’s known for producing the hit single “Send One Your Love.”
Another double LP, the album featured a cohesive color theme. They included Braille on the cover, a nod to Wonder’s blindness.
Nahas designed the cover in “relief,” a technique that raises the art above the surface, making it easy to feel.
“He could feel it much more so than the album cover,” she said. “He was translating what it was doing into his head.”
1984 and beyond
Things in the ‘80s were so busy that Nahas could say “no” to projects.
And that’s exactly what she did when Van Halen’s label pitched her on creating four chrome women for the cover of what would be the band’s pivotal “MCMLXXXIV” album.
She’d worked with acts like Devo and Autograph, gaining recognition in Los Angeles for her chrome illustrations. But four women? That felt too daunting at the time. So, she passed.
“I didn’t know who the hell they were,” she jested. “I was still listening to Neil Diamond.”
But the label wouldn’t take “no” that easily. This was the record that would bring fans “Jump” and “Panama,” after all.
They called Vigon, who took Nahas’ portfolio to a meeting with the band’s representatives.
It was then that the label found a fit: A blue-eyed, blonde-haired baby with angel wings, staring over his shoulders into the clouds, smoking a cigarette.
She created it for an advertising reference book, having always wanted to capture something rebellious. She painted from a photograph of her friend’s son, Carter Helm, who posed with a candy cigarette.
The cover was censored in some parts of the world, she said, by the distributor placing a sticker over the cigarette.
“I always wanted to do something that looked real that couldn't actually ever be real,” she said. “It looks like he’s looking up at God watching him. That’s the whole concept.”
The album dropped that winter to wild commercial success, eventually earning diamond status in the United States, moving more than 10 million copies. Helm’s mother owns the original, she said, but hand-numbered prints of the baby still sell via Nahas’ website.
“The right place at the right time,” she said.
‘84 proved to be a milestone year for the couple. Nahas’ art flew off shelves by the millions as Van Halen climbed the charts — all while Vigon worked on a different project.
The label that year asked him to develop a logo for an album and film that would be coming out of Minneapolis that summer.
And, that June, Prince and the Revolution fans were greeted with a release boasting jagged purple and yellow lettering that spelled “Purple Rain,” a logo synonymous with one of a generation’s most beloved records.
"The Art of Vinyl"
When: Friday, 5 p.m.-8 p.m. Open through May 21 by appointment.
Where: Mainframe Studios, 900 Keosauqua Way