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Designer Laura LiPuma Nash talks directing Prince’s iconic album packages from ‘Purple Rain’ to ‘Lovesexy’

Purple colored vinyl for the first printing of 'Purple Rain,' limited edition. [Courtesy Laura LiPuma Nash]

In 1984, Laura LiPuma Nash was a fresh hire in the art department of Warner Bros. studios when a twist of fate landed the twentysomething a spot working with the label’s biggest artist.

“I was kind of the new kid on the block,” she said. “One day, the boss comes running into the art room and he’s in a panic.” The members of the art department were all out to lunch at this point, she explained, and Nash just happened to stay behind. “He goes, ‘Oh my God, you’re the only one here? I’m going to have to send you to meet with Prince.'”

Prince was in the midst of shooting the When Doves Cry video, and in need of someone immediately, Nash remembered, to help with the single cover. “I was so intimidated, I honestly don’t have the greatest recall about that meeting,” she said. After their first serendipitous encounter, Nash would go on to art direct all of Prince’s album packages from Purple Rain through Lovesexy, in addition to all other Paisley Park releases. “Any artist connected with Prince through Warner Bros., he put me on,” Nash said.

After Prince and photographer Jeff Katz completed shoots for an album, Nash’s job was to sort through the images, highlighting motifs and using Prince’s favored color palettes of the era, to design the rest of the visual package. “He always made sure that I was the one doing the design; he had my back. I’ll never forget it,” she said. “After many years and many big projects with Prince, we had this connection that was really special.”

During their first year working together, Prince wasn’t much of a talker. “In the beginning he wouldn’t talk, he wouldn’t look me in the eye, he would just point,” Nash laughed. “When he pointed I would say ‘Okay, this is the one you want?’ And he would nod.” Looking back, Nash believes the artist, a notorious prankster, was deliberately messing with her. “I think he was testing how much weirdness I could take. ‘If she can take my weirdness, then she’s in,'” she said. “I was like ‘Buddy, bring it on. I’ll take your weirdness.'”

Nash’s first full project was not an insignificant one. For Purple Rain, “everything I did involved this purple,” she said. “The same purple; I never varied from that purple.” Yet the album’s association with a film presented a design challenge. “No designer ever likes to be stuck with a movie poster for an album cover because [you’ve got to fit] a big vertical into a square,” Nash explained. “I was a little disappointed. I though ‘Oh shoot, it’s my first album cover with Prince and I’m stuck with this movie poster,'” she continued. “That’s why I had the flowers created for borders. You couldn’t really bleed the image because you had to see the whole poster.”

Purple Rain album cover. Nash utilized borders to compensate for space lost as a result of the vertical film poster.

While creating the Purple Rain package, Nash used a kind of magnifying glass called a “loupe” to scan slides of the film poster. On one of these occasions, she happened upon a detail that later became integral to Prince’s aesthetic: an amalgam of the male and female glyphs, painted in red on the gas tank of his motorcycle.

“I took this orange — they were called ‘china markers’ — and I did my own interpretation of the symbol and blew it up,” Nash remembered. That symbol appeared in promotional materials for the album, and after the Purple Rain era ended, she assumed it would be put to rest.

When Prince adopted a similar version as his name in 1993, Nash was pleasantly surprised. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s resurrected the symbol, and he’s going to become the symbol!'” she laughed. “What I still don’t know is who came up with it to begin with and put it on the gas tank. I can’t really take credit for it, because it was there.”

Sticker applied to the first release of the Purple Rain album — the first time the symbol was used as rendered by Nash. (Courtesy Laura LiPuma Nash)

In 1986, Nash received the full photo session from Katz’s Parade shoot. She appreciated the chosen cover image, in which Prince’s hands are lifted as his wide-eyed gaze beckons the viewer, but “there was another shot that I just fell in love with,” Nash said. “If he wanted a certain shot for the cover, I would do it. This time was the first time I thought, ‘I gotta present him with the other photo.'”

“There’s a shot of him looking with his head to the side and he’s lifting his shirt. It’s one of the sexiest photos hands-down, in my opinion. I thought ‘I’ve got to use this photo too,'” she said. “If I join those two photos where the bellybutton is on the spine and you open it up as a gatefold, he is not going to be able to resist that.” Nash mocked up the images, and Prince immediately approved. “Hook, line, and sinker,” she said. “That was the first time when I had the confidence to say, ‘Hey, this is better.’ And he loved it.”

Parade album gatefold.

As time went on and the pair built trust, Prince began initiating more contact with Nash, calling her directly and relaying design instructions in his signature soft speaking voice. “I remember it was so awful because I would be at work in a noisy art room, and I would get so stressed out being on the phone with him because I could hardly hear him,” Nash laughed, remembering that she still didn’t have her own office at that point. Nash rarely saw Prince outside of a large group of people; he didn’t “hang out” around the Warner Bros offices, and Prince projects were whirlwind affairs wherein Nash often didn’t even get to speak with the photographer or others working directly with the artist before a package was completed.

A year after Parade, Prince had moved on from black and white to a new color palette: peach and black. “Color you peach and black/ Color me takin’ aback,” he sings on “U Got the Look,” a song off 1987’s Sign O’ the Times. “Whatever record he put out, it would carry on through everything; the way he dressed, every single, every ad carried the theme,” Nash said.

For the Sign O’ the Times package, Nash hired typographers to design fonts and physically collage in certain symbols or numbers in exchange for letters and in accordance with Prince’s meticulous direction. On the back cover, she decided to focus on the tapestry hung behind the stage set on the front, which, Katz revealed at this year’s Celebration, was borrowed from a Guys and Dolls production at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres.

“I was so surprised to see that cover because it seemed like a major departure visually,” Nash said. “I think he was just in a whole different frame of mind after Parade and being in France and trying to make [Under the Cherry Moon]. He was much more introspective, covering darker [themes]. But then he’d go to ‘Dorothy Parker’ and it sounded like a Broadway tune; and he’d go to ‘Housequake,’ which was the ultimate dance track. I mean, the guy was amazing.”

Nash flew from the Los Angeles offices to Paisley Park for the Sign O’ the Times design meeting. “I’d get a call at any time of day or night, ‘You gotta go meet with Prince,'” she remembered. She was waiting in the lobby of the building when something unusual happened. Prince, sans entourage, greeted her near the entrance.

“He goes, ‘Hey LiPuma, we’re going to my house for this meeting. I’m driving,'” she said. “I almost fainted. He was never that casual, ever.” The two entered Prince’s BMW “with the frosted windows” and Prince attempted small talk throughout the short drive. “I was so nervous I couldn’t even get my seatbelt snapped,” Nash laughed. “I’d been through several covers with him, but I’d never had that much exclusive one-on-one time.”

“We get to his house and nobody is there,” she said. “The house is empty. Usually there were all kinds of people around!” The meeting went well. “He was very pleased and picked everything right then and there,” she said. “He says, ‘Hold on, I have a present to give you,'” and Prince handed her a leotard. “I think it was an extra because it was very similar graphics to what his dancers wore on that tour.”

“By the time we got to Sign O’ The Times, it was a very interesting rapport.”

Sign O’ the Times dust sleeve mockup. Prince taped two Polaroids together. “It was always very specific and thought-out,” Nash said. (Courtesy Laura LiPuma Nash)

Back in Los Angeles, Prince began calling Nash before entering the Warner Bros. offices. “[He would] say, ‘Meet me at the front, and walk me up to Lenny Waronker’s office,'” she said, deepening her voice to imitate Prince. “I would go downstairs to the big purple limo coming up to the front of the building. He would just nod, no words [were] exchanged, and we would walk side-by-side up to the president’s office,” she continued. “I maybe did that two or three times over the course of the five years we worked together.”

Looking back, Nash believes Prince was sending a message to the executives, one that insisted he was on her side — that she was the one he respected, and her work was of value to him. Beginning with the liner notes in Parade, he specifically requested time and again that Nash’s name be placed above that of the senior VP of creative at the studio. “I think it was his way of saying, ‘Here’s your kudos, kiddo, you’re going to be walking with me to the president’s office,'” she said. “He would always defer to me and not the bigwig, it was hilarious.”

“He didn’t like executives, he didn’t like the bigwigs, and [he] was always rooting for the underdog,” she explained. “I didn’t have any power, you know, I was in the art department not making much money.”

Nash’s last Prince project was Lovesexy in 1988. She was discouraged from showing anyone at Warner Bros. the cover before the album’s release, per Prince’s earnest instruction. “He made me swear,” she said. “And again, he was just messing with the bigwigs. He wanted them to be concerned; he just wanted them to worry.”

‘Lovesexy’ album cover. Courtesy of Laura LiPuma Nash.

During the Lovesexy era, Nash was getting ready for the day when her phone rang around 7 a.m. “I pick up the phone. ‘Hi Laura, this is Prince.'”

“I said ‘David! Isn’t it too early to be getting one of these prank calls?'” Nash said, and explained she had a friend who occasionally called her pretending to be various celebrities.

“He goes, ‘No, this is really Prince.'”

“I go ‘Oh, hi, Prince.'”

“‘What’re you doing?’ he said.”

“I said, ‘I’m getting ready for work, what’re you doing?'”

“He said ‘Well, I just got done eating a Ho Ho.’ And that was the end of the conversation,” she laughed. “I’m telling you, it got very funny towards the end.”

Before departing the Los Angeles office for a promotion in Nashville, Nash left Prince a goodbye note, but never heard directly from him again. She still has the leotard he gave her, stashed away in a special place, and her kids often ask about those years. “When they tell their friends, the friends freak out!” she said. “Prince will always be admired — always, through generations.”

Lydia Moran is a music and arts writer in Minneapolis.

  • OLIVIA CAMRON

    And then they killed him