Oi Polloi

Interview: Peter Saville

Published: Fri Sep 22 2017

Peter Saville doesn’t need much of an introduction. Not only was he the man responsible for what might be called the ‘visual language’ of Factory Records, designing record covers for the likes of Joy Division, New Order and A Certain Ratio, but he’s also produced powerful imagery for David Byrne, Suede, Pulp, George Michael and countless other icons of audio.

And, if all that wasn’t enough, he came up with that dynamic logo that’s on the side of those yellow trams that roll through Piccadilly Gardens every few minutes.

Ahead of a talk he’s doing at Altrincham Town Hall this Sunday as part of this this weekend’s AltHarfest, I called him up to talk about his work today, Manchester in the 70s and his idea of 'the interzone'.

Are you busy at the moment, have you got a lot on?

Yes, even when I think I’m not busy, things just seem to come up. As you get older you tend to think things will change, but actually, they don’t change at all. Anyway, it’s better to have something to do than nothing, so I’m not going to complain. 

What have you been up to lately?

The highest profile project over the last 12 months has been Calvin Klein  — the redesign of the Calvin Klein identity for Raf Simons.

What does that involve then? What would you call that? Is it ‘branding’?

I try to avoid the term ‘branding’. It’s a useful word to understand the context of the work, but it’s not a process that I wish to perform. It’s a strange hybrid between design, advertising and PR. It’s almost entirely commercial, and therefore, it’s not something I want to be involved with.

So you’re not getting bogged down with the commercial stuff?

The capturing of markets and controlling of markets is not something that I wish to be associated with. My work, and any reputation I have, is based on giving something to people, not leading them to a market.

The Factory Records covers were not about making people buy the records. They didn’t even try to make people buy the record. They existed independently to the music, and therefore people’s relationships with them were quite different. The people who liked the covers or became interested in the covers saw them as possessions - they learnt through them, things they maybe didn’t know before.

Was that the intention of those covers? To show people the things you were into?

That was my intention. I was learning and so, I was sharing. The nature of Factory Records was that I had complete autonomy to do that. There was no marketing and no one was trying trying to sell records. Factory was a situation that allowed a group of individuals to do what they wanted to do. If other people liked it and supported it, then fine.

That was what Factory was about. And it was the same with The Haçienda. It wasn’t run as a business, trying to take money off the kids of Manchester, it was a gift to the kids of Manchester.

Something separate from money and business?

Yes,  you did it because you could. But you’ll know very well that in the contemporary market place, there are very few companies who are doing things just because they can. They do things to make money. That’s business.

For a period of time in my career, I needed to engage with business. I was not an up-and-coming young designer, nor was I a ‘statesman’ of popular culture — it was an in-between period - in the ‘90s I needed to have a relationship with business.

Everyone’s got to eat.

Yes exactly, you’ve got to make a living.  I had this uneasy relationship with different sectors, but I didn’t find a comfort zone for myself.

So at the end of the 90s, I stopped looking. I did a retrospective book and a show, and I closed the studio. I didn’t want to go into fashion marketing or branding or retail. I didn’t really want to do that. So I just had to be on my own. Since the early 2000s, I’ve operated independently.

I suppose you’re maybe in a comfortable position where you can pick and choose a bit, thanks to all the things you’ve done in the past.

I’m fortunate that just enough people engage me with work and commissions that I can address on my terms.

When Raf Simons phoned and asked me to look at the issue of the Calvin Klein identity – I was able to identify with his position. He is not Calvin Klein — Calvin Klein is Calvin Klein, and Raf is someone else. So I had to say to myself, “If I was in Raf’s position, what would I do?” So I changed the original Calvin Klein lettering from upper and lower case to upper case – it became capitals. It’s evolved from the subjective to the objective, but it still looks like Calvin Klein.

When you’re asked to intervene in aspects of cultural history, it’s quite an honour. You feel a sense of responsibility in responding to the challenge.

To respect what’s gone before?

Exactly. So in certain situations, I’m really happy to do that. But when someone is approaching me with something that has absolutely no virtue other than profit, because I don’t have a company to carry, I don’t have to do it.

When I first started to learn about art and design history, I was frustrated. Going right back to the ‘70s in Manchester, I would sit in the library at what was then Manchester Polytechnic, looking at the history of art and design, and simultaneously looking out of the window at Oxford Road, and feeling an enormous disconnect, and a sense of frustration. I was angry.

Because you were so far away from the things you were reading about?

Yes, because the everyday world wasn’t the way it could be.

What was it like back then?

It was terrible. When I was 20, in 1975, buses, cinemas, bus stops, railway stations, department stores, taxis, packaging, signs, logos… they were appalling. There wasn’t any awareness of contemporary design — of how design led thinking could make things better. That frustrated and upset me. And I felt very strongly then, as I do know, that our everyday world can be better.

Now what ‘better’ is, is a kind of variable. We saw a lot of ‘design’ begin to get rolled out in the 80s and 90s, but then it got rolled out to the point of ad infinitum, and lost its significance.  

Things merely only looking good is not necessarily better, and an awful lot of art and design has been co-opted to camouflage the intent of things. And that’s not better. Using our cultural heritage, our civilisation, to sell mobile phone minutes or cheap holidays or gratuitous fashion — using it as merely packaging for the unnecessary — isn’t good.

And a lot of that started to happen. Business, as ever, takes a lead from the avant-garde, and begins to copy it, but without values.  I try to do things well, and to improve the look of things that have values. But if it’s something with no values, it’s kind of wrong to wrap it up as something important.

There’s a lot of that these days… a lot of things look pretty slick, but beyond the fancy shell, there’s not much to them.

The one thing that has upset me over the last 20 years is the way that the canon of culture has been used in ways that we no longer trust. 30 years ago if you did something better, it meant it was better… someone was trying to make a better pair of jeans or a better car. But now, it’s just a look.

I suppose it’s hard to put effort and thought into something you’ve got no belief in.

Exactly. As you grow up and get to understand the world better, you question things. Some of the things I used to take for granted when I was 25 or 30 — I now look at in a completely different way. Once upon a time I might have thought it was nice to do the identity for something like a bank. But who wants to work for a bank now? They’ve shown themselves to be utterly disreputable.

So the understanding of the work and the world and the people who approach is constantly changing. You have to try to hold on to your own values. My reputation, the fact that some people have some admiration for me, is because my work meant something to them.

But if you suddenly starting doing some naff work for a bank, it’d discount all that.

Exactly. I became more concerned with my own identity than in just being prepared to work for people who’d pay me money. And I’m quite happy being me, trying as much as I can to be genuine about the things I do. It’s not easy. We have to earn a living, so it’s not all spiritual… we have to engage with reality.

Going back to what you were saying about looking after Oxford Road and feeling distanced and frustrated. Was that what spurred you on to do those first designs for Factory?

In 1978, the year I graduated from college, I wasn’t being asked to do anything for the infrastructure of the country. But someone did ask me to do a poster. There were things happening – the whole post-punk scene and the notion of independence in music. All of the venues that Manchester had for punk and new wave bands were being closed for one reason or another, and on behalf of the youth culture of the city, Tony Wilson took it upon himself to organise a venue.

Factory was nothing more than what is referred to these days as ‘a night’. It was Friday night every two weeks for two months, and that was it. I knew he was doing this, so I went to see him and said, “Can I do something.” And he said, “Do a poster.”

In doing that poster, I tried to put a better poster, a more intelligent and more beautiful poster, on the walls of Manchester than the ones that were already there. And that led to Factory records where I was given the freedom to express my will and my wish for how things should be,

It was an autonomous situation; it was not a proper company and everybody what they did in the way they wanted to do it. Nobody had any former experience, no one told anyone else how they should do what they were doing, we all performed autonomously. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.

Were you ever questioned or disputed at all?

Not really no. Famously, Blue Monday went straight from me to the printers. No one saw it.

Did you listen to the music when you were designing the covers?

If I could, but very often that wasn’t possible. But the covers weren’t about the music, they were about the moment. But then the bands were making music about the moment too.

There was always accidental parallels. I was into the aesthetics of computer systems that people were talking about a lot in the 70s and 80s. I didn’t have a computer – it wasn’t a part of everyday life, but people talked about them in the way that people talk about artificial intelligence now. You haven’t met a robot, but you know they’re coming.

So in the late 70s and 80s, computers were on my mind, and I was thinking about the visual side of it. And at the same time, New Order were looking at the significance of computers in making music. So what I did on the cover of Blue Monday had a parallel to what they did. In fact, the floppy disk was the common factor between the two. The first time I saw a floppy disk was the day Stephen Morris gave me one, and that became the basis for the cover.

It wasn’t about the music; it was about music as part of our culture. We were interested in the now. They expressed it musically, I expressed it visually.

The significant word to mention in any kind of understanding of me is the word ‘interzone’.

What do you mean by that? What is the ‘interzone’?

The interzone is the space between design, art, fashion, music, movies, photography, architecture, interior… it’s what people talk about now as convergence. And that was what interested me, even as a teenager. I was interested in the leading edge of mass culture, and how the new ideas would define themselves in different ways.

The feeling of the now is the feeling of the now. Musicians express it one way, film-makers express it another way and photographers express it in yet another way – but it’s all the same spirit. We know that now.

It’s all the same thing.

It’s all the same thing. That was my view 40 years ago in college, it’s just that I happened to want make art, which I saw as record covers, so I went to study graphic design. But what I found there was a closed mind-set — graphic people were into graphics, and weren’t very aware of what fashion or music was doing. This notion of the interzone wasn’t really appreciated. 

I was never particularly interested in graphics or typography, I was interested in how two dimensional culture could capture the mood of the moment — the feeling of the now. So I studied graphics, but I spent more time in the fashion department than the graphics department.

If you just started pasting posters up yourself, but they weren’t linked with music or an event, they would just be a bit of paper on a wall. They might be interesting, but they wouldn’t be tied in with anything.

If you just make work that is not applied to any situation, then it’s art. These days art is quite a credible thing to do, but in the mid-70s in the North of England, you were more likely to  become an astronaut then be an artist.

The only art that I saw was on record covers, so I wanted to do record covers. The record cover was the only place where you could see freeform visual thinking.

So Malcolm Garrett and I both wanted to do that. In a way we both wanted to be artists, but we didn’t know anything about art. So what was important to me was this broader feeling of the now.

As someone who is so into ‘the now’, what are your thoughts on the nostalgia that surrounds Factory? Why do you think people look back at that stuff so fondly?

I think there’s nostalgia about things that seem to have values. People are seeking authenticity and meaning. So things that have authenticity and meaning never die, because they’re more than just surface. 

People still talk about Coco Chanel because she changed the way women could be in the world. She didn’t found Chanel to make money, she found Chanel to express herself and what she cared about.

Companies exploit these values — they continuously harvest them like GM crops, to the point that the market and the audience become tired of it. But they’ll carry on wringing it out until there’s nothing left. It’s desperate and it’s tedious to see the way the world operates.

In regards to the nostalgia thing, do you think people often take the wrong things from history? Instead of being inspired by the free way you lot worked at Factory, people just rip off your graphics.

Yes, unfortunately the mass market can be rather superficial. They get the look more than the attitude. But it’s a long process of familiarisation. We are living in an era of the dissemination of privilege, it is really only in the last 50 to 100 years that ordinary people have actually been allowed to share in privilege.

Do you think the internet has had an effect on that?

It’s one step forward, one step back. The internet allows for the unfettered distribution of a message, and at the same time it allows for confusion and fake news. The problem with the internet is trying to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not.

Almost everything that we invent which is a benefit to society just becomes a problem sooner or later. The motorcar was brilliant – now it’s a problem. That’s just life.

Where do you see things going?

I don’t know. I don’t care anymore. Next month I’m 62. It is other people’s responsibility now. I don’t have any children, but if I did, I would be very concerned. I’m passing the baton of the ones coming up.

What would you say to them as you pass the proverbial baton?

Do things you believe in. There’s a constant battle between good and bad, but as least if you do things you believe in, you’re trying to keep it on the right side of good.

It’s very difficult for every new generation, as they face a new set of challenges that the generation before didn’t even dream of. I thought I had a lot of people to compete with in the 80s, but now there is a 1000 times more. It’s really difficult.

It’s not even easy to find somewhere to live, or to find a job of any kind. The safety net that I sensed as a young person in the UK in the 70s – how the state would stop you from falling – is not there anymore. I think it’s increasingly difficult for every next generation.

As far as you can, try to do what you believe in, because then you hold on to yourself. I don’t really have much money – I don’t own my home, but I’m happy with what I’ve done. I might regret some mistakes I made, but I don’t regret the work I made.  

Peter Saville will be in conversation with Mary-Anne Hobbs at Altrincham Town Hall on Sunday the 24th of September as part of AltHarfest. Get a ticket here.

Portrait by Wolfgang Stahr. Cheers to Alice, Matt and Nick (and obviously Peter himself) for helping with this.