Peter Saville in conversation with Paul Morley

Words: Tony Pritchard, Course Leader for Postgraduate Certificate/Diploma Design for Visual Communication

Monday 16 September 2013 saw the the opening evening of the Global Design Forum, at the London Design Festival, where legendary designer Peter Saville spoke to music journalist Paul Morley.

Peter Saville is best known for being Art Director at Factory Records designing sleeves for Joy Division and New Order between 1979 and 1993.

Paul Morley is credited with steering the marketing of Frankie Goes to Hollywood in the 1980’s. He co-founded ZTT Records and the Art of Noise. He is equally known as a presenter of many arts and culture televison programmes.

On the eve of his 58th birthday, Peter was in a cheerfully reflective mood, evaluating the successes and failings of design both on a personal level but equally for a wider profession context. Oh yes…and there was the near appearance of Kanye West at the V&A – more later!

It’s been said of rock musician Jimi Hendrix that the guitar became an extension of his persona. The same can be said of Peter Saville and his designs. Peter still cuts a stylish appearance, albeit one of cultivated dishevelment. His minimalist designs always exude that distinctive, special quality that is highly recognisable as his. In his own words his work is neither art or design, he has come to refer to it as 2d fashion.

Paul Morley, having done his research and analysed over 100 interviews with Peter Saville, opened with the inevitable interviewer’s first question: why graphic design? Initially Saville appeared equally bemused by the question. There hadn’t been any history in the family that indicated a leaning towards this area. He mentioned that his father had thought of architecture as a profession but such fanciful options weren’t so readily available to previous generations. He mused that possibly there might have been something in the family genetics that predisposed him in this direction.

Perhaps the emerging pop culture of the 1950’s and 1960’s had far more of what Saville calls a ‘transformative influence’ on his own development as a designer. The 1960’s saw the emergence of music, design, photography, fashion and acting as a viable career choice in the UK. The first graphic design groups of the modern era had started to establish themselves in the form of Crosby Fletcher Forbes and BDMW Associates (who had connections with London College of Communication). This led the way to future generations entering what became the design profession.

Saville also credits his art teacher encouraging both himself and his schoolboy friend Malcolm Garrett (UAL Honorary Doctorate) to apply for one of the first graphic design degrees available in Manchester. Saville could see that graphic design was a useful and adaptable vehicle for his ideas. Whilst he had an appreciation of its service role he struggled to identify those things he wished to serve. He recognised that graphic design was more concerned with the communication of other’s opinions and not that of the individual designer. Looking back Saville concedes that eighteen is very young to be making a long-term professional commitment and that it requires immense courage to change career later on in life.

Saville discovered early on that there might be an issue with his unconventional attitude towards having a job. His first interviews were at Wolff Olins and Pentagram before settling with Acrobat Design. He lasted three months before confiding with his employer that he didn’t want to continue. It was suggested that he should work freelance and soon after he established Peter Saville Associates. Morley suggested to him that Factory had spoilt him and others in the company by creating a belief that they could do things differently. Morley continued that perhaps what Factory should best be remembered for is its ‘spirit of enterprise’ rather than the style Saville had created for them.

Saville stated that Factory had the DNA of a great brand. He believes the legend of Factory is largely built on the memory of Ian Curtis who wrote a tragic love song then enacted that with the real tragedy of his own death. Factory he believes has real authenticity. Great brands have authenticity or a strong individual self-belief. He cites companies such as Coca Cola, Nike, Adidas and Levi Strauss as brands that have that quality of authenticity. He defines authenticity as ‘doing what you believe in without compromise’. It is this that he identifies as a missing quality today.

Although he says many would dismiss record sleeve work as transient, he points out that they are important to each generation. He talks in terms of the ‘cannon of pop’. He suggests that for teenagers it forms part of their ‘rite of passage’. Pop culture is a common culture that young people share before they grow up and become doctors, lawyers, factory workers and so on. Record covers have a special context in most people’s lives and reflect a unique relationship between, music, fashion, identity and growing up. He also feels that the ‘visual reference material’ of record sleeves is transportable into other graphic design and advertising situations.

Whilst others might seek the cultural cachet of the ‘working class hero’, it was refreshing to hear Peter Saville refer to his own background as typically middle-class. Saville feels his upbringing was sufficiently broad to enable him in becoming a reasonably good litmus paper test for change. Morley begged the question as to whether his attuned trend-spotting foresaw his own decline in popularity. Saville reflected on this and concluded that he felt he has spent the last two decades exiting offstage.

He also acknowledges that it is possible to return to popularity with future generations. He recalls a visit to Holland to take part in an event called ‘Mind the Gap’. At the time he felt out of sorts with its motives, which was to take on the progressive attitudes of the Dutch design profession and suggest that the Brits had something they were missing out on. Here he met other participants such as Tomato and Fuel. When Saville confessed to feeling passé and unhip they reassured him that there would be no Tomato or Fuel without him having paved the way. He had become the godfather to a new generation. As an aside it is touching that when in receipt of such compliments he apologises and expresses his hope that they haven’t felt misled in their expectations.

If you choose graphic design as a vocation, his advice is to try and stay in touch with the things that matter and why you connected with the subject in the first place. He also reflected on the notion of design as a continuum and that he was handing over a baton. Shortly after his design for New Order’s ‘Lowlife’ album, North Design’s identity for First Direct made an appearance. Saville cited this as an example of ongoing influence. Although the work of 8vo and Swiss Modernism might have been a more obvious influence on North the point was still well made. Müller-Brockmann’s ‘Der Film’ poster with its overlapping typography could be seen as exerting a similar influence on his ‘Lowlife’ cover.

A younger generation of musicians, such as Suede and Gay Dad, referring back to the Joy Division and New Order covers they remembered from their youth, in turn approached Saville to art direct their visual presentation. Saville confessed that he didn’t think it proper to be designing record sleeves for pop and rock bands after the age of thirty. Morley expressed the same with music journalism except he stated the age limit as twenty-four. Saville wanted to work on projects he felt was more commensurate with his age. He feels that designers ‘talk’ to their generation and society through their work and he was searching for what the next thing might be.

Saville’s work has become most associated with the strategy of appropriation. He re-appropriated the ephemera of the everyday, imbued with cultural connotations, and applied this to record sleeve design. He refers to these first experiments from the late 1970’s as ‘protozones’ – suggestions of the way things could be through the public medium of record sleeves. This work was primarily undertaken for Factory Records, an ‘autonomous collective’ which was establishing its own operational methods that lay outside the defined conventional parameters of business.

Commenting on the shifting context between then and now he feels there was more a sense of design being ‘a virtuous task [aimed at raising] standards’. He became interested in ‘the look of things’ and how modifications of this could help himself and others aspire to the creation of a better visual world. During the 1980’s people developed ‘lifestyle choices’ and ‘aspirations’. Saville recognises that he was a part of creating this world view but is candid enough in his observation that for someone living in the 1930’s a ‘lifestyle choice’ was being alive.

He sees the 1990s recession as a watershed moment of substantial change within design attitudes. He cites Alan Fletcher’s V&A motif as an example of a virtuous visual identity for an institution as opposed to the commercial self-awareness of a brand. It didn’t seek a commercial position, it had higher ideals concerned with being an appropriate visual assimilation of the qualities of an internationally respected cultural institution. What Saville saw as dramatic changes within the profession towards a business/establishment culture inclined him against participating in supporting this prevailing ethos.

In his own words, Saville finds himself ‘three decades after his sell by date’, semi-retired and with ‘nowhere to go’. It has been suggested to him that he has become his own brand. This is a notion that he refers to as a ‘work in progress’. He has closed his studio and scaled down his operations in order to reduce his overheads. This has resulted in him being highly selective with who he works. Recent projects have included the design of the England football shirt and a typographic identity for Kate Moss.

Today he is largely dismissive of the fashion industry. He recently contributed the copy line ‘meaningless excitement’ to a fashion collection by Yohji Yamamoto. This reflects his attitude that we have reached a point of fashion and brand fatigue. When summonsed to appear before an interview panel to consider the branding of Manchester he polarised the panel, many of who were appalled by his candour. Saville described the panel as a ‘weaker version of the Spanish Inquisition’.

He suggested that logos and slogans were not the solution. He regards slogans as demonstrating a lack of security. He has spent the best part of ten years considering what the ‘representation of place’ could be for Manchester. He found himself on a steep socio-political learning curve, at one point appearing live on radio to represent the council. Manchester has become known as ‘the city of football’ – it is one of the world’s five centres of excellence for that activity. Saville has a higher ambition for the city. He feels talent in its broadest sense defines a place.

Contemplating what a post-industrial Manchester could be his suggested provocation to the leadership of Manchester City Council, is that Manchester is the ‘original modern’ city. The council mistakenly saw this as a potential slogan but Saville dissuaded them of this notion. His experience with working with local government was that it was a very slow process unlike record sleeves where he was left to his own desires and often the solution had a certain immediacy. Saville was in playful confrontational mode when suggesting that London is no longer the capital of England. He feels it has become something of an independent state covered by an impenetrable lead dome. Saville believes this provocation opens up opportunities for other regional cities to take a leading role.

On the night of this talk Saville had met with Kanye West – at Kanye’s request. Kanye is reasonably well informed about design. Aware of A M Cassandre’s motif for Yves Saint Laurent he suggested to Saville that he become his Cassandre. There is a sense in Peter Saville becoming a collectable object and brand. Saville said of West that he had that rare combination of talent and energy and that he was someone he felt to be genuinely alive and connected. Had Kanye not have been rehearsing for Later…with Jools Holland that night he was all ready to make an appearance at the V&A. Saville has learnt his own lessons from brushing shoulders with celebrities. He states that just because you meet someone doesn’t mean you are their friends. As something of a design celebrity he concluded that he often feels obliged to have an opinion about everything but somethings you just don’t know. And on that point the event finished.

Tony Pritchard is Course Leader for Postgraduate Certificate/Diploma Design for Visual Communication

Learn about LCC’s Postgraduate Certificate for Visual Communication

Learn about LCC’s Postgraduate Diploma for Visual Communication

More stories from LCC School of Design