Style: The great rock & roll exhibition

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Never mind the Sex Pistols, what about the record cover? A new exhibition celebrates the design artifacts of a famously throwaway culture

Within a fortnight of arriving in London in 1971 to study fine art, Ben Kelly stumbled across a Teddy Boy clothes boutique on the King's Road called Let It Rock. "It hit me right between the eyes," he recalls. "It was amazing - more an experimental lab than a shop. I couldn't stop going back." It was just as well he couldn't: he had walked into what was to become one of punk's main breeding grounds, the primal ooze that begat The Sex Pistols. One day in 1977, Malcolm McLaren, who ran the shop with Vivienne Westwood, asked him to help redesign Seditionaries, as it was later called. The result was "a cross between a betting shop, a launderette and a firm of solicitors."

Kelly belongs to a generation that relished mixing and matching, breaking rules before it had even acquired them, emboldened by the mid-Seventies DIY pop culture. Though his revamp of the World's End landmark has long since vanished, the artistic free-for-all he took part in radically altered the face of modern design, particularly graphic design. This is according to Paul Khera, co-curator with Maria Beddoes of "Destroy", the first exhibition of punk graphic design, opening on Friday at the Royal Festival Hall. This 400-strong display of record sleeves, posters and fanzines, made between 1976 and 1982, should show, according to Khera, that "what happened in design back then still impacts on the way we do things today."

It's an odd thought: that an era characterised by nihilistic bands whose average life expectancy was not much greater than a bin-liner's should have bequeathed anything lasting. Some of the names linked to the exhibits (such as Kelly, Jamie Reid, Sebastian Conran, Malcolm Garrett, Linder Sterling and Peter Saville) are now almost establishment. But it was the involvement of untrained, often anonymous, men and women in the sleeve designs and fanzines, that demonstrated how adaptable the raw punk aesthetic could be.

As Khera puts it: "It was back to year zero, with people reaching for anything they could lay their hands on - biros, photocopiers, felt-tips, scissors, aerosols. There was a positive urge to destroy or deface all the boring glam rock and hippy nonsense that had gone before."

One of the best-known acts of defilement is Reid's visual vandalism for the Sex Pistols' "God Save The Queen" single, the monarch's eyes removed and her nose safety-pinned just in time for the Silver Jubilee. It will appear alongside other familiar images: Reid's archetypal ransom-note typeface Never Mind the Bollocks and the graphic photo-montage by Sterling and Garrett for "Orgasm Addict" by the Buzzcocks. There is colour too, from the Clash's Marxist red soap powder spoof EP, The Cost of Living (1979) to the milder irreverence of X-Ray Spex, with their Day-Glo Woolworth's chic.

More shocking, perhaps, is the inclusion of design-work for bands a million light years from the punk movement: The Human League, Simple Minds and (whisper it) Duran Duran. Early Eighties' exceptions, apparently, to the new corporate design rules. "Design became a disease - you caught it," says Kelly. "The idea that you can go out and do what you want is coming back at last. I still count myself as one of the lucky generation."

`Destroy', Ballroom, RFH, South Bank Centre, London SE1 (0171-960 4242) 6 Feb-16 Mar free

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