Designers > Peter Saville > City Life 518
City Life Magazine : issue 518 : 14-22 January 2004 : By Jonathan Schofield
Getting away with it
Peter Saville fidgets as he talks. He leans back, moves forwards, stirs his coffee, chews on a Danish, and manipulates the air slowly with easy hand strokes as though painting a picture. Above all, he talks. On anything and everything in measured South Manchester tones, enlarging upon and pursuing his own lines of enquiry, seeing how far they'll go.
Thus Factory Music is still much on his mind. Saville is aware that when he stepped into that peculiar organisation in 1978 as a Roxy Music obsessed Manchester Polytechnic graduate, it might not always have had the best consequences for his future career.
"Factory spoiled me," he says affectionately. "It's not the way commercial design is done. I still can't believe the freedom I had. I remember thinking, no one's looking and no one's stopping me. And they've no fucking idea what I'm talking about anyway."
He laughs before backtracking a little.
"But, of course, they found the money to pay for it and they bailed me out when I fucked up. I remember Rob Gretton [New Order manager] saying, 'Peter, don't forget we let you do it.' The two of them, Rob and Tony [Wilson], were great patrons. They weren't a committee - they were prepared to let someone who was driven to get on with it. As with the bands, New Order, the Happy Mondays, as with Ben Kelly who designed the Hacienda. The result of this liberal, independent attitude was some important work."
And how. Saville, above all - but Kelly too - created an iconic stripped-down yet often lush set of references that you can see now in everything from car ads to the interiors of clothes shops. Visually, Factory and the Factory legacy has, perhaps more than the music, wormed its way into people's heads, affecting the way we look at the world.
The talent around Manchester at the time still amazes Saville. A school friend was Malcolm Garrett, another design overachiever who started out with The Buzzcocks and went on to work with a whole roster of major names. In 1979 they both left Manchester expecting the worst.
"When we left Manchester to go to London we thought we've had it easy but in London we'll be one of hundreds." Saville suddenly explodes with mirth. "It was nothing like that. We went from being good in the art room in St Ambrose's school, to good at art college, to becoming the best in our chosen field in the world. How the fuck did that happen? What were those London kids thinking of? How on earth did they let two boys from the North West come and dominate the sexiest part of graphics."This is typical Saville who throughout the interview, combines modesty with a very big head. But then everybody associated with Factory appears to have a large hat size. Why should that be? Saville considers for a moment.
"Well, achieving anything, having a vision and realising that vision requires an awful amount of egotism and elitism. You have to believe that you have something to give otherwise you don't bother. It's part of this place as well. There's a wilful elitism about Manchester which is very condensed, compared to other cities, one which elsewhere becomes diversified and weakened. There's something historically, geophysically, socially about the climate, the people, the attitude, the wherewithal to life in Manchester that prepares you for something. Of course it can be dangerous if you put up too many mirrors and just see yourself. That's the problem with it. You've got to want to move on. If Manchester United's vision was just to beat City and Liverpool then they'd have a problem."
Saville takes a sip from his coffee and sighs. He's a good-looking man who's in shape, and looks nothing like his 49 years. Oddly, he wears a similar donkey jacket to the one you can see him photographed wearing outside the Russel Club in 1978. He must really like that design.
"I'm seeing my life in three stages," he says, munching his way though a Danish. "The '80s was when I was doing the work I wanted to do but I was still in the playground. Then I tried to find somewhere beyond the playground in the '90s where I had the same sense of purpose but didn't find it. The third stage is where I've accepted this perception of me and I'm doing something with that."
Saville has never functioned properly in any type of corporate structure. His best work with clients as diverse as Factory, New Order, Peter Gabriel, Suede, Pulp, Givenchy, Dior, Yohji Yamamoto and Stella McCartney has been produced away from the formal office. Notoriously late in delivering work, his muse has never been suited to hot desking. A particular low point was a mistaken adventure to the LA office of Frankfurt Balkind on movie-related design in 1993 which ended up with the company credit card being confiscated. It was similar story of frustration with Pentagram, Meire and Meire and others. Why did he put himself through it?
"13 years ago I wasn't doing interviews with journalists, I had no idea I would become an institution. I needed to know what to do with the rest of my life, as a grown-up - who the fuck wants a 40-year-old record sleeve designer? I was trying to find out where in the evolving adult, business world did I fit."
He didn't - that was the problem. He eventually realised that he had to find the jobs that suited him if he was to work effectively.
"In the right kind of commission we use ourselves. If you lose sight of yourself in the work who is the arbiter of judgement? If you're a writer then you're going to try and write for a magazine which you would read. As soon as you find yourself writing for something that you would never read - and that you aren't interested about the people who do read it - then it becomes a job. It's nothing more than words per hour, per pound.
"When I give a talk in Tokyo or wherever and people come up and say, 'I want to become a graphic designer because of your work', I apologise. That spirit of independent thinking in Factory or, for instance, at Yohji Yamamoto was the exception and never the rule. I am the worst type of model for a design career."
So is this a good period? Saville thinks about the question. "Philosophically yes, practically no. I don't have any money. I'm in transition - the Peter Saville Show has been the focus. I'm shifting from forming other people's brands to forming my own brand, moving from service provider to own label."
This entails Saville moving away from graphic designer to artist. It's a fundamental shift which may come as a surprise to some people. Surely his work - the Unknown Pleasures album cover for instance - is art? Strictly, it's not, it is a commercial work designed to help sell product and Saville worries about that, worries about the motives. "As designers, we are concerned with pleasing others - we actually try to make things look good. This is an important part, as a graphic designer. It's very important that people understand or feel quickly. I've done this by making codes people could read and if they couldn't read it, it probably wasn't for them."
Now he wants to go that extra mile and produce works that stand on their own without the product as crutch. Even whilst riding the crest of the master-designer wave, even whilst living it up and being all conceptual and getting away with it, Saville's doubt about his contribution and his place has been an ever present. The Peter Saville Show is, after all, at its core about packaging we have loved - and he seems to know it.
This is not to disparage Saville's work, which can be achingly beautiful, at times almost perfect. This is not to deny him genius. But this exhibition is a perfect modern metaphor: international, slick, aspirational. Like an ad for a loft, no one home, designer furniture and a view across a cold city. Jesus, don't we all hanker for that pared-down perfect life of wealth, simplicity and beautiful objects. It's beguiling, seductive. Yet ultimately it's just a collection of smart things. What happened to the soul? Where did that go? Of course the designs themselves were never really meant to have soul - that was locked away in the thing it represented: the music.
"There's a piece towards the end of the show," Saville says wistfully, "a piece called 'Be Careful What You Wish For'. That is how I feel now about what I set out to do originally. But I don't like the way it's worked out, the commodification of it all, its intense consumerism. I don't like, for instance, that design is the new advertising."
"You see ads don't work any more like they used to. Just to say something is good doesn't make people believe you. The design-aware generation understand design as a tool of business and they've harnessed design to business. The problem here is that the audience will result in not believing in design just as they stopped believing advertising. This is a problem because the whole essence of design is that it is true."
Yet Saville, as he is only too aware, was fundamental in beginning that process. Now it's something he's fallen out of love with. "I'm too close to art to function profitably and professionally as a designer any more. I'm coming to design thinking does it matter? That's not good. But art is another fucking planet. It's like starting out, I'm learning all the time. Art shouldn't necessarily look good like design. I'm beginning to see how diametrically opposed these things are."
The problem is that it's unlikely that Saville will ever be as good an artist as a designer and he'll certainly not be likely to replicate his potential income complete with "a sparkly lifestyle", as he describes it?
In design he was the right person, in the right place at the right time. Graphic designers don't normally have a fame outside their profession, don't normally produce more than one or two works that become entwined in the way others see the world. Saville did. In his own words, the Mancunian suburban lad -despite his doubts and difficult working methods - has made "a significant contribution." Not half. Let's hope that he doesn't give up completely on design just yet.
The Peter Saville Show at Urbis, 23 January - 18 April, entrance charge. See also 'At Home', a new project for eight billboards throughout Manchester to run concurrently with the exhibition. An Evening with Peter Saville, 24 and 25 March, 7.30pm- 9pm, Urbis £10 (£7.50).
Thanks to Conor (again) for sourcing duties.