Peter Saville: Graphic Designer
the UK's most famous graphic designer
He talks about the joy of Factory Records, hating the fashion industry and being sacked by the city of Manchester
Peter Saville is, he says, an extremely busy man. At 57, he is about to be awarded the prestigious London Design medal, recognition of his status as the UK's most famous graphic designer. The award brings with it "a lot of attention – I thought they were just going to give me a medal," he sighs.
He is also flying to New York for a Yohji Yamamoto show on which he has collaborated, despite his open contempt for contemporary fashion. He has emblazoned the collection with the words "Meaningless excitement" and "For further advice please contact our fashion advisors". Saville says Yamamoto didn't even flinch at what he calls his "slightly facetious stance".
To hear a man who has been so heavily involved in the industry – as well as Yamamoto, he has worked with Jil Sander, John Galliano, Christian Dior, Stella McCartney, Raf Simons and Kate Moss – claim the whole business is an exercise in "mass mind control and triviality that enslaves people to consumption" comes as a shock. Yet it is virtually the first thing Saville says to me when I walk into his studio/home in Clerkenwell, London.
It is not as if this is a great revelation, the cry of a man gradually disillusioned by life amid the rag trade's ugly swirl, he points out. Earlier this year he was asked to come up with a design to celebrate Lacoste's 80th birthday. "They said: 'Do anything you want, but don't touch the crocodile logo.' So that's what I did: destroyed the crocodile. Digitally shattered it in 80 different ways." He shows me the resulting shirts. "A completely fucked crocodile," he laughs. "I felt I had to do it because of this sort of brand obsession. People talk about brands and it's awful. You can sell anything with a logo on. That needed to be questioned."
The stuff about fashion turns out to be a characteristic Saville answer. It is both extremely long and a little contradictory. He may be celebrated for his work, but he claims he never really wanted to be a graphic designer in the first place, and in any case has "sort of retired or disengaged from" the job, apparently mortified by its commercial aspects. "I remember sitting in a meeting and there was an impasse, and the man at the head of the table said: 'Relax, we're all just here to make money.' Actually, I'm not here to make money. I'm here to try and make something better. The idea that people are only doing things to make money, and actually there are no values in it whatsoever, will adopt whatever position is necessary for that goal, that has nothing to do with what I ever did."
Given a retrospective show at the Design Museum in 2003, Saville says, he "put a piece on the wall that said: 'Be careful what you wish for'" and closed his studio. "I'm not running an agency," he says. "I don't have an agent, I'm not actually looking for work although I need to do a bit, because it's expensive and difficult being on the ground in London."
Retired or not, in 2013, his name is pretty much the only one in the field that might spark a flicker of recognition in someone who does not have membership of the Design Museum and an ongoing subscription to Creative Review. Yet the designs on which Saville's reputation rests are all between 25 and 35 years old: the diagram of a pulsar's radio waves on the cover of Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures and the stark photos of tombs on their album Closer and the single Love Will Tear Us Apart, that seemed to take on an eerie, precognitive power after the suicide of singer Ian Curtis; the die-cut replica of a floppy disc and the reappropriation of Henri Fantin-Latour's A Basket Of Roses that housed New Order's Power, Corruption and Lies. Furthermore, they are all record sleeves, "a dead art" that he says he had no interest in pursuing after the age of 30.
He is clearly enormously proud of his work in recent years as creative director to the city council of Manchester, his hometown. His explanation of what the job entailed is an epic, even by his standards – a fascinating and rather beautiful stream of tangential ideas that variously takes in the condition of the post-industrial city, how bankruptcy can turn your value system upside down, the difference between a waste of time and an abuse of time, Professor Brian Cox, the Manchester Art Treasures exhibition of 1857, how London isn't really the capital of Britain any more but "an independent city state", and the Labour MP and historian Tristram Hunt ......