Spencer Elden, who appeared naked as a baby on the cover of Nirvana’s 1991 album Nevermind, is suing the band, alleging sexual exploitation. He says his parents never signed a release authorising the use of the photograph, which depicts him swimming towards a dollar bill on a hook, and that its enduring distribution – it has sold more than 30m copies – has left him with “lifelong damages”. Elden also wants the artwork to be changed for all future releases of Nevermind.
In response, the former Nirvana drummer (and Foo Fighters frontman) Dave Grohl has said he has “many ideas” of how the surviving members of the band might alter the cover – which was art-directed by Robert Fisher – before a belated 30th anniversary reissue.
How do you redesign one of the most famous albums ever? We asked five artists and designers how they would tackle the daunting brief.
Artist and illustrator (designed covers for Dinosaur Jr, Ween, Grateful Dead)
“I can’t think of a job with heavier connotations and public impact. I’d struggle coming at it with a clear slate. Nevermind changed my life, so it would be so hard to remove 30 years of that album. You have to use the original album cover and make a comment on it. The symbolism of it matches this lawsuit perfectly: it’s that same kid going after the dollar. It’s ironic and strange.
“I wouldn’t want to bring too much of my own personality in. I would go back to Kurt Cobain’s original visions. Did he have a B-side creative direction? Maybe find a different version of the photo, like one where you just see the baby’s ass. Something from a different angle that creates a different perspective – something that brings it into the future without dismissing the past.”
Head of learning design, Snook (Elbow)
“I’d throw a party and take it on tour with loads of fans and have a travelling canvas that would be rolled up from venue to venue, retracing Nirvana’s 1990 tour. Then the fans make the artwork by being there with all their sweat and debris and leftovers. I’d take an aerial shot of all that, so that way everybody owns it. People could do what they want and so it would end up with sweat, piss and guts on the floor. Well, maybe not guts. Jumpers, fake eyelashes, lost keys, all collected and bundled up as well. A huge sweaty montage that gets taken from place to place and keeps building up, all in honour of this album.”
Designer and creative director (Arlo Parks, Interpol, J Hus)
“I would collaborate with Robert Fisher to do a contemporary version of Kurt’s original vision. The cover is supposed to be provocative, so I’d start there. Something Kurt said about people buying his music, was: ‘If you’re a sexist, racist, homophobe or basically an asshole, don’t buy this CD. I don’t care if you like me; I hate you.’ So I would scrap the baby and scrap the water and have a giant sticker on it with that quote. Then if people want to see where that came from, you could have an inner fold-out, layered over the baby, that tells Kurt’s original narrative.
“I would want to be respectful to Kurt’s wishes. My job is to make the artist’s visions beautiful, not conform – I don’t care about the general public, especially on a seminal album like Nevermind.”
Graphic designer (Madonna, Foo Fighters, BTS)
“My first instinct is to pay homage to the original, so I would crop in and focus more on keeping the baby’s head … I’d put it in the bottom-left corner and then have the dollar bill floating up on the right side.
“If you were to completely redo it, you could do something cool with the texture of pool water – like have the dollar bill just floating in a pool and reimagine it without the baby involved. But I don’t think you can stray too far from the original without upsetting fans too much.”
Head of creative, Beggars Group (David Bowie, Blur, Pulp)
“It would be a scary process. It’s going to get completely slated by everybody because nobody is going to think it’s as good as something that sold millions and is an iconic sleeve. But it could be an avenue for creativity and the chance to make something relevant for very changed times.
“I would use the existing image, but start integrating it into a collage with graffiti from a street artist, or commission a female artist who was able to make a really political statement. You could use the original and then completely annihilate it by finding an artist saying something relevant. Rather than just taking the genitals off, it could be a massive platform for good.”