He has never made or produced a record, but Peter Saville is one of the most important people in British pop.
Saville’s sleeve designs for OMD, Roxy Music and most famously, for Factory records have changed the way that we think about pop music. Along with his schoolfriend, Malcolm Garrett (the man responsible for the early Buzzcocks’ sleeves), Saville was a major player in a graphic design revolution that converged with the convulsions that were happening in pop at the end of the 1970s. If Jamie Reid’s cut and paste covers were the image equivalent of the punk sound, then Saville and Garrett’s more abstract, impersonal designs were the visual analogue of post-punk.
It was Saville who developed the instantly recognisable minimalist style that became Factory’s trademark in the 70s and 80s. Saville’s designs did far more than illustrate the records on which they appeared. The implicit message of his work was that music is always more than just music, and his high-concept, modernist-influenced sleeves invited record buyers to see connections between pop and avant garde art.
With Saville’s Accessories to an artwork exhibition opening this week at London’s Paul Stolper Gallery , we thought it an opportune time to get our interview with him, which first appeared in FACT: 14, up online. Enjoy…
Do you see yourself as a graphic designer or as an artist, or as something else entirely?
I’m qualified to do something I don’t actually want to do, and I’m not qualified to do what’s probably more appropriate for me.
“Well, a lot of how I see this now is in retrospect, and the last few years have forced me to try and figure out what I was doing. What did I think I was doing. You have to admit there are certain things you do when you’re young which – you just do them. You actually don’t have an intellectual or philosophical point of view about it, you just do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
What impact did punk have on you?
“I didn’t even see the Pistols on their debut performance in Manchester. I was not connected enough to anything to know about that. But I caught up by the latter part of 76, early 77. And it really did make the world of Roxy and Bowie look ineffectual. It had been a brilliant grounding, and it was the learning curve was going to be essential, but in a way there was a field to raze before a new era could start. And punk razed the field. And I just stood back and watched.
“And of course it was pretty evident that punk couldn’t burn forever. You know, you can only burn the house down once. And it’ll burn for a while, and then it has burnt down. Before punk had run out of its energy, the new generation was coming. And to me my personal seeing of the new era was at an event called the last night of the Electric Circus, which was actually two nights, when the Damned played, the Clash played, the Pistols played, all on the same bill, the Buzzcocks played, and Howard Devoto debuted his new project, Magazine, and they played three songs. And we were all curious. ‘Howard’s got a new group, Howard’s got a new group.’
“Howard played Shot by Both Sides. He had Barry Adamson, a black guy playing bass, he had Dave Formula with a keyboard! We hadn’t seen one of those for a couple of years. He played Shot by Both Sides, and he played Goldfinger. It was déjà vu. Magazine were everything we’d learnt from Roxy and Bowie and Kraftwerk and Can and all of that experimental and glamour and fusion, with a postpunk energy and irony. It had the pointedness of punk, it had the cutting edge of punk. It knew that you weren’t in a chateau somewhere in Cote d’Antibe, it knew where it was. It knew it was in a postindustrial urban wasteland. But there was a romance again – a romance of a reality. In the beginning – I think it’s called Real Life, the first Magazine album. And you are there with it. In a way that you’re not listening to Prairie Rose from [Roxy’s] Country Life. That actually isn’t reality for most of us.”
So that gig was…78?
“77. Last night at the Electric Circus would be some time in 77.”
What about now? Will pop ever again be central to a forward-looking culture in the way that it was in the 60s and 70s?
“I see the canon of everything being re-brokered through pop – in order for something to be in our new postwar democratised culture it needs to be re-brokered through pop, whether it’s Tutankhamen’s exhibition at the fucking Royal Academy, or whether it’s the Three Tenors, or whether it’s Joy Division, or Corbusier, or Mies van der Rohe or whatever, it needs to be re-brokered through the portals of pop, popular entertainment, popular culture, and then it’s back in our system. We’re in a way reprocessing the canon into a new popular canon. Which is one of the ways I see what I was doing 25 years ago. And you’ve got a rapidly maturing, learning audience who are dealing with pop trivia at an earlier age. I mean my point of view now as a 50 year old person, when somebody says to me what do I think about Coldplay, what do I think about Franz Ferdinand – I don’t have an opinion about Coldplay, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard Coldplay. I have heard Franz Ferdinand, and they are what, to me, you would call an act. Herman’s Hermits. They’re an entertainment act.
How did the Factory connection start?
“What happened with Factory was that I was in the 3rd year of art college, my best friend Malcolm Garrett working for the Buzzcocks, and I was terribly envious. That led to my going to see Tony Wilson one day – who I didn’t know, but because he was on television I imagined you do, and saying, ‘Mr Wilson, I hear you’re organising a club night’ – which he was – ‘can I do something?’ And he said ‘yeah, what do you do?’ And I said, ‘I’m at the art college, doing graphics’. I hadn’t got any work which I had actually done which was representative of what I wanted to do now.
“So in the first year or so when at art college I was obsessively working in the idiom of the time, which obsessed me, which was the early 70s airbrush culture. There was a whole group of trendy fashion illustrators, who worked on album covers and things like that, Aladdin Sane is a good example of it – I was into that. And as that kind of confection, that fiction, style fiction, gave way to the hard new energy of punk, it all looked kind of wrong. And that created a bit of dilemma for me. I soon became aware of early punk as a look, cos if you applied 2nd year graphics student stuff – to a ransom letter, that’s kind of a problem.
“So the background to this is a very strange phenomenon, and to me it’s a quintessential part of British culture – Malcolm Garrett and I had done our A-levels together. Malcolm was a more attentive 6th form student. He had aspirations being more academic to go to a university rather than a polytechnic. All the art colleges were part of the polytechnic system. And you couldn’t do graphic design at university. It’s a weird anecdotal moment in design history. When Malcolm went and did his first term, at Reading, and I did my first term on foundation where you do crazy things like paint bits of paper in the dark and make runners – you don’t know what you’re doing at foundation, it’s almost an experience to erase what people think they know about art so that you can start again. So I’m like on this mad thing called foundation, and Malcolm is on this dry, incredibly academic graphics course.
“But he had these books about early 20th century design. He had the books that covered the foundation of graphic design as we know it. So he had books on the Bauhaus. And Herbert Bayer. And he had a book called Pioneers of Modern Typography. With the Russian Constructivists in it. And the evolution out of Dadaism. We didn’t have any of that. There was a library but none of us went to it.
“The tutorial curriculum was entirely oriented around contemporary visual communication. I hated the establishment of an art college. It seemed out of date to me, it was all woolly. And there were some other students, the fashion students, there were some groovy people around, but they weren’t tutors. And the tutors hated the airbrush stuff that I was doing, that was just slick, and sexy, and superficial and urrgh, they hated that.
“Any way, what Malcolm did – he did a really weird thing. He referenced this modernist stuff from his books, but then he fucked around with it in a pop way. And by the final term of the first year, Malcolm had done this huge body of work which became a show of his own of dayglo Dadaism. And it was really weird that like, this referencing of like modernism, it seemed to sort of rattle some fucking cages amongst the staff. Things that they’d had to learn earlier in maybe the early 60s, and they knew it was good, but they’d forgotten it. And Malcolm was like a wake up call to them. It was like Roy Liechtenstein meets El Lissitzky in Malcolm’s stuff. Screenprinting in dayglo in dotscreens – basically the early Buzzcocks look. And it was wild. The staff actually liked it, but in a way it shocked them..
“So Malcolm did this. And I was like, wow. I was just knocked out by it. But I didn’t quite get it, to be honest. Then one day in the 2nd year, he’s there doing full page ads for the Buzzcocks in the NME, and I saw this book on his desk called Pioneers of Modern Typography. Fucking hell. I suddenly looked at what he was doing, and then I look at Lissitzky – ah. I see. So I moved on a bit through the book. And I saw Herbert Bayer. And I saw Piet Niewaart. Ultimately I saw [Jan] Tschichold. Particularly the Tschichold. And it was a step removed from where Malcolm was operating. And it just naturally appealed to me.
“There’s two phases of Tschichold, there’s like this early period where he produces a manifesto in the early 20s called the New Typography, which is a very hard edged, san serif manifesto, where he sets out the typography of the new machine age. Which he strangely recants on, about 20 years later, and ends up in Britain doing Penguin book covers, and rediscovers his classical roots – his father had been a printer. But Tschichold’s neo-classicism shows the learning curve of modernism without a doubt. Tschichold’s classicism is reductive. And precise in a way that 18th or 19th century typography wouldn’t be. You can tell the difference between a piece of Tschichold’s work in the 50s, even though it’s using all the furniture of the 18th century you can tell that it’s not the 18th century. You can tell that it’s after modernism. You can see the difference. And I loved it.”
Those words, ‘reductive’, ‘precise’, they describe your work very accurately, and also indicate what the differences between your style and Garrett’s…
“Look in Pioneers of Modern Typography. Look in the front part you’ll see what Malcolm did, look in the back part you’ll see what I went and did. And I just liked it. I liked it and I was beginning to notice other things going on – this was before Factory. Ultravox, John Foxx’s version of Ultravox, were an influence. Systems of Romance. 77 or early 78, so it’s before Factory.
“I was frequently travelling to London in 75 and 76 buying books, and on one trip, let’s say 77, I picked up a book in the architectural bookshop, and it was a book of proposals by Philip Johnson for the AT&T Building in New York. And I had the high-tech one — I was looking outside of design. I was looking at fashion, I was looking at photography, but also I was looking at interiors. And I was looking at architecture, maybe contemporary, because that was what I was interested in. I wasn’t actually interested in graphics, but I was learning it. And I would say to Malcolm – ‘can I borrow this?’ And he said, ‘fuck off – but you could try the college library.’ I was like, ‘oh, where’s that?’ He said, ‘that big building, on Oxford Road!’ So for the first time, I went to the college library. And – fucking hell, it was all there! But nobody had ever taken it out! I’ve got art books still from the Manchester polytechnic library. You know the paper in the front – it had only been out once. They’d had it for like 8 years or 10 years. And I couldn’t believe it, it was so exciting.
“And I could see like, punk was happening – or in a way had happened. So the new wave is coming, the term had perhaps already broken. So I was looking at all this modernist design, and its relationship to – excuse the pun – the new order of the 20th century, the new order of the industrial age. So I’m looking at Tschichold, the Neue Typographie, and my cultural world is defined by this new wave that’s happening. And it’s a bit of a no-brainer really – you’re involved in this thing called the new wave, and your first introduction to modernism. Post-punk. They fit together, they make sense, there’s a kind of discipline. There’s an ideology evident in the aesthetic. It is about something. When you look at this stuff, the modernists, it’s about a changing time – a new order, a new way of life, a new…system.
“My education sort of started with picking up Pioneers of Modern Typography. My interest in history and its relevance to the now started that day. And it didn’t stop. There’s a thousand books in here, and I’ve collected all of them – mostly in the 80s. I’ve started to learn about, to look at, everything. And I kind of just voraciously consumed. I remember thinking, ‘this is what education’s about’. When you want to learn. And I sought out what interested me, and I discovered things I’d never heard about. I was working my way through the canon of 20th century design. Pop art was the only thing I knew anything about, so I was going to sort of, in a way the mould was set by pop, the methodology was set by pop, but I was going to – my content was coming from the canon. I was seeing all these things that middle class Britain had been denied. I was asking – ‘why don’t we have this?’ If Mart Stam made that great tubular chair, why don’t we have one? If the Bauhaus proposed all these ways of living, why don’t we live like that? Why isn’t anything in 1970s Britain like it could be? So – with this carte blanche of a record cover almost every month or so, a single or an album or whatever, I kind of curated a proposition. Of – how I would like modern life to be. What do I want in my life. And if I can’t have it I’ll have a picture of it. And pretty much through the 80s, that’s what I did. My own, kind of like grand tour, was reflected in all the work I did. And I was just – it was very in sync with fashion, and there was a sort of logical procedure to it. It did sort of make sense, it was almost like the entire century in 10 years, from the first factory to Warhol’s Factory in 10 years. By 1988, 89, it brought me back to where I’d started, brought me back to the 60s, brought me back to pop art. By 1988-89. Via the whole canon of modernism, and a little bit of classicism thrown in as well.”