Legendary graphic designer Peter Saville is the latest creative to feature on online interview magazine, The Talks. Known to many for his Factory Records cover art during the label’s heyday, Saville is, in many ways, as finely ingrained in the culture as the music itself, and can veritably be held accountable for much of the movement’s visual identity. It’s not surprising then that it was music and the record sleeves it came packaged in that first inspired Saville to pursue a career in that vein. As always, The Talks extracts an insightful interview from the designer; check out an extract below and read the whole article here.
Mr. Saville, why did you want to be a graphic designer?
I spent my time in high school painting stuff and our art teacher said, “You could do graphic design.” Basically it looked like I could get a professional job doing what I liked doing in my spare time. I didn’t understand what it really meant. I grew up in Northern England and the cultural horizons were very, very limited. The only interesting, avant-garde visual information I was receiving in the mid ’70s was on a record sleeve. So, you know, you’re 20 years of age and you say, “I want to do that!”
That’s interesting because when we interviewed Raf Simons he said that the album covers you did for Factory Records similarly opened him up to the broader cultural world and helped him find the path he ultimately took as a fashion designer.
It ends up being an early inspiration for many. Whether it’s Raf Simons or Jonathan Ive or Wolfgang Tillmans or endless others. It still staggers me. Before they’ve decided that they want to be a ballet dancer or an architect or an accountant or a research scientist, the first shared common experience outside of the home is through this medium of music. And in my late teens my horizons began to expand all through pop. Not through a school curriculum, not through my family background, just pop culture.
What kinds of things did you learn through pop culture?
Roxy Music introduced me to the idea that somewhere out there was something called a demimonde, what history books referred to as a café society. I remember thinking, “I would quite like to find that place.” I began to listen to classical music because of Kraftwerk. Then, whilst I’m at art school punk happened and in ’76 there was a kind of coup d’état in youth culture.
A coup d’état?
The incumbent establishment of rock ‘n’ roll had lost the ear of the electorate and it wasn’t really speaking to you anymore. 23-truck convoys and huge inflatable pigs over Battersea Power Station weren’t actually anything to do with your reality, with your life. After Roxy there was a group called Dr. Feelgood and you felt something, a kind of a new authenticity. And suddenly in ’76 there’s this coup d’état and a bunch of kids come out of London and changed the order of youth culture. And then some groups in Manchester began. Suddenly, you’re actually close to it. Suddenly…
…you’re a part of it.
Yeah. Because you’re just in the right place at the right time and you’re the right age and… weren’t you at the bar with that guy last night? Suddenly you actually became a part of it. One evening in a little basement club in Manchester with about 30 other people, I remember thinking, “Wow, this must have been what rock ‘n’ roll was like.”
In retrospect that was probably pretty accurate.
Yeah, that thought actually went through my mind one night. Formerly I had sat with 2,000 other kids in an auditorium and was just a passive recipient and suddenly by ’76 you were in the very midst of it. We are suddenly there on the ground and we felt this responsibility, post-punk, to propose a new visual language for youth culture. There were 18 months of punk, the gates were pulled down, the palace was burned, cut up blackmail, anarchic Jamie Reid, Sex Pistols, okay, fine. You’ve done that. What are you going to say?
What did you propose?
It seemed we were in a revolution in our microcosm of youth culture and we had to propose a new way forward, so I began to reference early modernism – Malevich’s Black Square, Constructivism, Modernism in Germany, De Stijl in Holland, Marinetti and the Futurists in Italy. So when I met with Tony Wilson, with whom I would later start Factory Records, and said, “Can I do something?” and he said, “Yes, we’re having a night called The Factory, do a poster,” I knew exactly what I wanted. I knew I wanted to reference Tschichold, one of the pioneers of modern typography, a Swiss designer.
That’s how you got involved with Tony Wilson and Factory Records?
Yes and from then on the visual side of Factory ended up being my responsibility. For instance, Joy Division gave me some elements when they were ready to do Unknown Pleasures and I was just allowed to do it the way I wanted to do it. And when there was a second album they came to me: “What have you got?” And that’s where the Closer cover came from.