Ever since his first work for the fledgeling Factory Records in the late 1970s, Peter Saville has been a pivotal figure in graphic design and style culture. In fashion and art projects as well as in music, his work combines an unerring elegance with a remarkable ability to identify images that epitomise the moment.
When the fly posters for Suede’s new single Film Star were pasted on walls across London in 1997, the languid male sprawled elegantly on the back seat of a Lincoln limousine was instantly recognisable to any graphic design enthusiasts who happened to stroll past. It was Peter Saville, the graphic designer, who had not only art directed the cover of Film Star and the rest of Suede’s Coming Up album, but had posed for the photograph by Nick Knight. Such a visible manifestation of the designer’s signature was exactly what Brett Anderson, Suede’s lead singer had wanted when he had sought out Saville and asked him to design the artwork for Coming Up. Obsessed as a teenager by Saville’s work in the 1980s for Factory Records’ bands such as Joy Division and New Order, one of Anderson’s treats as an adult indie rock star whose record company was willing to indulge him was to commission Peter Saville to design for his own band. Another of Saville’s clients at the time, Jarvis Cocker, the lead singer of Pulp, had commissioned him for exactly the same reason.
The images that Peter Saville created for Joy Division, New Order and, later, Suede and Pulp were so compelling that they struck the same emotional resonance with the people who bought those albums and singles as the music. Just as the musicians in those bands wrote and produced their songs as catalogues of their thoughts and feelings, so Saville has conceived his images – for fashion and art projects as well as music – as visual narratives of his life.
Born in Manchester in 1955, Saville was brought up in the affluent suburb of Hale. Having been introduced to graphic design with his friend Malcolm Garrett by Peter Hancock, their sixth form art teacher, Saville decided to study graphics at Manchester Polytechnic, where he was soon joined by Garrett. At the time Saville was obsessed by bands like Kraftwerk and Roxy Music, but Garrett encouraged him to discover the work of early modern movement typographers such as Herbert Bayer and Jan Tschichold. He found their elegantly ordered aesthetic more appealing than the anarchic style of punk graphics. Tschichold was the inspiration for Saville’s first commercial project, the 1978 launch poster for The Factory, a club night run by a local TV journalist Tony Wilson whom he had met at a Patti Smith gig. Having long admired the ‘found’ motorway sign on the cover of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, the first album he bought for himself, Saville based the Factory poster on a found object of his own – an industrial warning sign he had stolen from a door at college.
When Tony Wilson decided to release a record of music by some of the bands that played at The Factory, he asked Saville to design the sleeves and when he launched a record label – Factory Records – in 1979, Saville became its art director. As a co-founder of the label, he was given an unusual, if not unprecedented level of freedom to design whatever he wanted, just as the bands were with their music: free from the constraints of budgets and deadlines which were routinely imposed on designers elsewhere. Saville treated his artwork for Factory acts such as Joy Division and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (so-called because it was the most self-indulgent name they could think of) as form of self-expression to articulate whatever happened to obsess him at the time. He was allowed to do the same at DinDisc, the label which signed hired him as art director after he moved to London in 1979. There he met and befriended the photographer Trevor Key, and Brett Wickens, a young Canadian who joined Saville’s studio as an assistant but later became his business partner. Together they helped Saville push his work forward by experimenting with new techniques of photography, production and typography.
Having drawn on early modernist symbolism in the late 1970s, Saville turned to classical art historical references by the early 1980s juxtaposing them with complex coding systems. For the cover of Power Corruption And Lies, the 1983 New Order album, he combined a 19th century Fantin-Latour flower painting he had spotted as a postcard in the National Gallery shop with a coded colour alphabet. Having seen a floppy disk for the first time, he conceived the sleeve of Blue Monday, a single from that album, as a replica. The indulgent Factory had to pay more to print the replica floppy disk than it could sell the single for.
By the mid-1980s, Saville’s reputation as a designer of music graphics was assured and he was sought-after by mainstream acts such as Wham! and Peter Gabriel, yet he felt constrained. At a time when style culture – once the preserve of obsessives, like himself – was being commercialised by high street chains such as Next, he had tired of post-modernist appropriations and wanted to strip away excess from his work. Unsure of which direction to take, Saville looked for reference points in what he regarded as the last great period of modernism – the late 1950s and 1960s. Inspired by The Void, a 1958 exhibition staged by the French artist Yves Klein, he and Trevor Key set about creating their own take on Klein’s concept of ‘nothingness’ using advanced photographic and printing techniques. This produced a beautiful series of sleek, silkscreen-style images for New Order’s 1989 album Technique.
During this period, Saville was invited to work in other areas by people who had admired his music projects. Through the curator Mark Francis, he was commissioned to create identities for the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London and Centre Georges Pompidou’s Magiciens de la Terre exhibition in Paris. He also started working in fashion by joining the art director Marc Ascoli and photographer Nick Knight – who was to become a long term collaborator – on advertising campaigns for the Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto. In 1986, they produced two elaborate catalogues of Yohji’s collections. Saville’s design fee was tiny but the production budget seemed to be limitless. When he asked for one catalogue to be laboriously thread sewn, Yamamoto’s staff obliged.
By the early 1990s Factory was in financial crisis as was Saville’s business and he accepted the offer of a partnership at the Pentagram design group. Unhappy there, disillusioned with design and the frenzied overload of early 1990s visual culture, Saville filled his work with with images of exhaustion and depletion. He drew inspiration from artists like Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince, but borrowed images from stock photography libraries instead of fine art catalogues. His work reflected the uncertainty of global recession and echoed the mood of Yamamoto, who was equally disillusioned with fashion.
Yamamoto gave him the same creative freedom as he enjoyed at Factory: urging him to art direct an advertising campaign just as he would an album. The result marked a turning point in fashion communication. Saville’s campaigns were acerbic visual commentaries on what they both saw as fashion’s creative crisis. For the first campaign, Saville juxtaposed stock photographic images with caustic slogans like Game Over. Yamamoto’s distributors were horrified: not only was their own advertising predicting the end of their industry, it didn’t even feature the clothes. Saville softened the following season by including the clothes: but styled just as they would be in real life: by a model shooting hoops and an artist dripping paint on to a canvas.
Equally acerbic was his artwork for New Order’s 1993 Republic album for which Brett Wickens used a new Photoshop blend filter to collage images of contemporary Los Angeles: from forest fires and race riots to the beach. When Saville left Pentagram in 1992, he and Wickens moved to LA to work for the advertising agency Frankfurt Balkind. Equally dissatisfied there, Saville returned to London within a year leaving Wickens behind in California.
Back in London, Saville ‘squatted’ at a desk in the studio of the Tomato design collective in Soho, then opened his own studio in a 1970s apartment block in Mayfair, which doubled as his home and the London office of the German advertising agency Meiré and Meiré. He embarked on corporate identity consultancies, for companies such as Mandarina Duck and SmartCar, which, he felt, were more appropriate to a graphic designer of his age. Then in his forties, Saville not not only felt uncomfortable designing youth oriented products, like albums and singles, but creatively frustrated by the limited canvas offered by compact discs. Yet identity projects weren’t as creatively challenging as music had been. The solution came when a younger generation of visually sophisticated musicians, who had discovered his work in their teens, courted him as clients. Britpop bands like Pulp and Suede had specific ideas of what they - and their fans - wanted to see. To Saville’s relief, they asked him to realise their own visual concepts for their artwork, rather than to conceive them.
Sought out by a younger generation for his signature style, Saville’s work became increasingly self-referential. Not only was he photographed for Suede’s Film Star, but The Apartment was a set in the cover of Pulp’s This Is Hardcore. Meanwhile advances in image manipulation software enabled him to digitally rework images, rather than having to work with sourced imagery. He applied these processes to commercial projects including Coming Up and to ad campaigns for the fashion designer John Galliano at Christian Dior as well as to personal projects, such as his ongoing series of Waste Paintings.
After leaving the The Apartment in 1999, Saville moved into a live-work space in Clerkenwell for a time, before moving further east into various spaces in Shoreditch. His work combined commercial projects – including consultancies for companies such as Selfridges, EMI, Pringle, Givenchy and Stella McCartney – with the experimental, more self-indulgent projects he had begun in Mayfair. For a time the focus of these personal projects was SHOWstudio the online gallery of fashion, art and design projects Saville co-founded in 2000 with Nick Knight. Saville created visual essays sparked by memories of his life in Los Angeles for the site and used a Photoshop programme to digitally shred his vintage 1970s and 1980s album sleeves for Joy Division and New Order into beautiful, but haunting remnants of the original images.
No longer involved with SHOWstudio, he continues to recycle his own work, alongside that of others, notably by reappropriating the artist Peter Blake’s appropriation of Sir Edwin Landseer’s 1851 painting The Monarch of the Glen. Other designers are now doing the same to Saville, notably the Belgian fashion designer Raf Simons, who scoured his archive for images of vintage Factory projects to use in the clothes of his summer 2003 men’s wear collection.
Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures album cover, 2003 Peter Saville
Waste Painting #2 Peter Saville, Howard Wakefield, Paul Hetherington
New Order, Power Corruption and Lies, Original Painting - Henri Fantain-Latour, Design - Peter Saville Associates
New Order, True Faith, Art Direction - Peter Saville, Photography - Trevor Key
Colour and form, 2002 Peter Saville
Born in Manchester, England
Graduates from Manchester Polytechnic in graphic design. Designs poster for Tony Wilson’s Factory club
Co-founds Factory Records and creates artwork for Joy Division and OMD. Moves to London and becomes art director of Dindisc, a Virgin Records label, where he meets the photographer Trevor Key
Designs for Ultravox and Roxy Music. Collaborates with Ben Kelly on the design of the Haçienda nightclub
Starts a 13 year collaboration with Brett Wickens. First New Order project
Opens his own studio, Peter Saville Associates, with Brett Wickens
Designs for Wham!
Identity for the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London
Collaborates with art director Marc Ascoli and photographer Nick Knight on catalogues for Yohji Yamamoto. Designs for Peter Gabriel
Graphics for Magiciens de la Terre exhibition in Paris
With PSA in financial crisis, he joins the Pentagram group as a partner
Creates on-screen identity for Channel One in Los Angeles
Collaborates with Nick Knight and architect David Chipperfield on a gallery for the Natural History Museum, London
Factory Records collapses
Moves to LA to join the Frankfurt Balkind advertising agency
Leaves LA and Frankfurt Balkind
Back in London, he opens The Apartment in Mayfair with the German advertising agency Meiré and Meiré. Consultancy for Mandarina Duck
Designs for Suede
Collaborates with Nick Knight on Flora book and advertising for Dior
Designs for Pulp and Gay Dad. Starts a series of Peter Saville editions
Co-founds the SHOWstudio website with Nick Knight
Consultancies for Givenchy, Pringle and Selfridges
Creates identity for Design Museum website
Consultancies for Stella McCartney and EMI
The Peter Saville Show opens at the Design Museum, London, and then tours to Tokyo
Publication of the book Designed by Peter Saville
Collaborates with Nick Knight on the 2004 Pirelli calendar
Commissioned to create a new visual and cultural identity for Manchester by Manchester City Council
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