The music artwork design of Peter Saville

The music artwork design of Peter Saville

Peter Saville is an English art director and graphic designer. He came to fame for the many record sleeves he designed for Factory Records, of which he was a director.

Peter Saville was born in Manchester, Lancashire, and attended St Ambrose College. He studied graphic design at Manchester Polytechnic from 1975 to 1978. Saville entered the music scene after meeting Tony Wilson, the journalist and television presenter, whom he approached at a Patti Smith show in 1978. The meeting resulted in Wilson commissioning the first Factory Records poster (FAC 1). Saville became a partner in Factory Records along with Wilson, Martin Hannett, Rob Grettonand Alan Erasmus. Ever since his first work for the fledgeling Factory Records in the late 1970s, Peter Saville has been a pivotal figure in graphic design and style culture. In fashion and art projects as well as in music, his work combines an unerring elegance with a remarkable ability to identify images that epitomize the moment.

Early life

When the fly posters for Suede’s new single Film Star were pasted on walls across London in 1997, the languid male sprawled elegantly on the back seat of a Lincoln limousine was instantly recognizable to any graphic design enthusiasts who happened to stroll past. It was Peter Saville, the graphic designer, who had not only art directed the cover of Film Star and the rest of Suede’s Coming Up album, but had posed for the photograph by Nick Knight. Such a visible manifestation of the designer’s signature was exactly what Brett Anderson, Suede’s lead singer had wanted when he had sought out Saville and asked him to design the artwork for Coming Up. Obsessed as a teenager by Saville’s work in the 1980s for Factory Records’ bands such as Joy Division and New Order, one of Anderson’s treats as an adult indie rock star whose record company was willing to indulge him was to commission Peter Saville to design for his own band. Another of Saville’s clients at the time, Jarvis Cocker, the lead singer of Pulp, had commissioned him for exactly the same reason.

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Suede – Coming Up (1996)

The images that Peter Saville created for Joy Division, New Order and, later, Suede and Pulp were so compelling that they struck the same emotional resonance with the people who bought those albums and singles as the music. Just as the musicians in those bands wrote and produced their songs as catalogues of their thoughts and feelings, so Saville has conceived his images – for fashion and art projects as well as music – as visual narratives of his life.

Born in Manchester in 1955, Saville was brought up in the affluent suburb of Hale. Having been introduced to graphic design with his friend Malcolm Garrett by Peter Hancock, their sixth form art teacher, Saville decided to study graphics at Manchester Polytechnic, where he was soon joined by Garrett. At the time Saville was obsessed by bands like Kraftwerk and Roxy Music, but Garrett encouraged him to discover the work of early modern movement typographers such as Herbert Bayer and Jan Tschichold. He found their elegantly ordered aesthetic more appealing than the anarchic style of punk graphics. Tschichold was the inspiration for Saville’s first commercial project, the 1978 launch poster for The Factory, a club night run by a local TV journalist Tony Wilson whom he had met at a Patti Smith gig. Having long admired the ‘found’ motorway sign on the cover of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, the first album he bought for himself, Saville based the Factory poster on a found object of his own – an industrial warning sign he had stolen from a door at college.

When Tony Wilson decided to release a record of music by some of the bands that played at The Factory, he asked Saville to design the sleeves and when he launched a record label – Factory Records – in 1979, Saville became its art director. As a co-founder of the label, he was given an unusual, if not unprecedented level of freedom to design whatever he wanted, just as the bands were with their music: free from the constraints of budgets and deadlines which were routinely imposed on designers elsewhere. Saville treated his artwork for Factory acts such as Joy Division and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (so-called because it was the most self-indulgent name they could think of) as form of self-expression to articulate whatever happened to obsess him at the time. He was allowed to do the same at DinDisc, the label which signed hired him as art director after he moved to London in 1979. There he met and befriended the photographer Trevor Key, and Brett Wickens, a young Canadian who joined Saville’s studio as an assistant but later became his business partner. Together they helped Saville push his work forward by experimenting with new techniques of photography, production and typography.

Having drawn on early modernist symbolism in the late 1970s, Saville turned to classical art historical references by the early 1980s juxtaposing them with complex coding systems. For the cover of Power Corruption And Lies, the 1983 New Order album, he combined a 19th century Fantin-Latour flower painting he had spotted as a postcard in the National Gallery shop with a coded color alphabet. Having seen a floppy disk for the first time, he conceived the sleeve of Blue Monday, a single from that album, as a replica. The indulgent Factory had to pay more to print the replica floppy disk than it could sell the single for.

By the mid-1980s, Saville’s reputation as a designer of music graphics was assured and he was sought-after by mainstream acts such as Wham! and Peter Gabriel, yet he felt constrained. At a time when style culture – once the preserve of obsessives, like himself – was being commercialized by high street chains such as Next, he had tired of post-modernist appropriations and wanted to strip away excess from his work. Unsure of which direction to take, Saville looked for reference points in what he regarded as the last great period of modernism – the late 1950s and 1960s. Inspired by The Void, a 1958 exhibition staged by the French artist Yves Klein, he and Trevor Key set about creating their own take on Klein’s concept of ‘nothingness’ using advanced photographic and printing techniques. This produced a beautiful series of sleek, silkscreen-style images for New Order’s 1989 album Technique.

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The music artwork design of Peter Saville 02

During this period, Saville was invited to work in other areas by people who had admired his music projects. Through the curator Mark Francis, he was commissioned to create identities for the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London and Centre Georges Pompidou’s Magiciens de la Terre exhibition in Paris. He also started working in fashion by joining the art director Marc Ascoli and photographer Nick Knight – who was to become a long term collaborator – on advertising campaigns for the Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto. In 1986, they produced two elaborate catalogues of Yohji’s collections. Saville’s design fee was tiny but the production budget seemed to be limitless. When he asked for one catalogue to be laboriously thread sewn, Yamamoto’s staff obliged.

By the early 1990s Factory was in financial crisis as was Saville’s business and he accepted the offer of a partnership at the Pentagram design group. Unhappy there, disillusioned with design and the frenzied overload of early 1990s visual culture, Saville filled his work with with images of exhaustion and depletion. He drew inspiration from artists like Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince, but borrowed images from stock photography libraries instead of fine art catalogues. His work reflected the uncertainty of global recession and echoed the mood of Yamamoto, who was equally disillusioned with fashion.

Yamamoto gave him the same creative freedom as he enjoyed at Factory: urging him to art direct an advertising campaign just as he would an album. The result marked a turning point in fashion communication. Saville’s campaigns were acerbic visual commentaries on what they both saw as fashion’s creative crisis. For the first campaign, Saville juxtaposed stock photographic images with caustic slogans like Game Over. Yamamoto’s distributors were horrified: not only was their own advertising predicting the end of their industry, it didn’t even feature the clothes. Saville softened the following season by including the clothes: but styled just as they would be in real life: by a model shooting hoops and an artist dripping paint on to a canvas.

Equally acerbic was his artwork for New Order’s 1993 Republic album for which Brett Wickens used a new Photochop blend filter to collage images of contemporary Los Angeles: from forest fires and race riots to the beach. When Saville left Pentagram in 1992, he and Wickens moved to LA to work for the advertising agency Frankfurt Balkind. Equally dissatisfied there, Saville returned to London within a year leaving Wickens behind in California.

Back in London, Saville ‘squatted’ at a desk in the studio of the Tomato design collective in Soho, then opened his own studio in a 1970s apartment block in Mayfair, which doubled as his home and the London office of the German advertising agency Meiré and Meiré. He embarked on corporate identity consultancies, for companies such as Mandarina Duck and SmartCar, which, he felt, were more appropriate to a graphic designer of his age. Then in his forties, Saville not not only felt uncomfortable designing youth oriented products, like albums and singles, but creatively frustrated by the limited canvas offered by compact discs. Yet identity projects weren’t as creatively challenging as music had been. The solution came when a younger generation of visually sophisticated musicians, who had discovered his work in their teens, courted him as clients. Britpop bands like Pulp and Suede had specific ideas of what they – and their fans – wanted to see. To Saville’s relief, they asked him to realise their own visual concepts for their artwork, rather than to conceive them.

Sought out by a younger generation for his signature style, Saville’s work became increasingly self-referential. Not only was he photographed for Suede’s Film Star, but The Apartment was a set in the cover of Pulp’s This Is Hardcore. Meanwhile advances in image manipulation software enabled him to digitally rework images, rather than having to work with sourced imagery. He applied these processes to commercial projects including Coming Up and to ad campaigns for the fashion designer John Galliano at Christian Dior as well as to personal projects, such as his ongoing series of Waste Paintings.

After leaving the The Apartment in 1999, Saville moved into a live-work space in Clerkenwell for a time, before moving further east into various spaces in Shoreditch. His work combined commercial projects – including consultancies for companies such as Selfridges, EMI, Pringle, Givenchy and Stella McCartney – with the experimental, more self-indulgent projects he had begun in Mayfair. For a time the focus of these personal projects was SHOWstudio the online gallery of fashion, art and design projects Saville co-founded in 2000 with Nick Knight. Saville created visual essays sparked by memories of his life in Los Angeles for the site and used a Photoshop programme to digitally shred his vintage 1970s and 1980s album sleeves for Joy Division and New Order into beautiful, but haunting remnants of the original images.

Probably most noted for his record and album cover designs for Factory Records, Peter Saville is a designer whose career spanned several decades. His early work, in the late 1970s and early 80s, included album covers for several bands on the Factory Records label, but the ones that achieved the highest level of fame were for New Order and Joy Division. The bands that really brought the record label into the spotlight, Saville designed the covers for many of the two groups albums between the years of 1979 and 2005.

Influenced by fellow student Malcolm Garrett, who had begun designing for the Manchester punk group, Buzzcocks and by the book Pioneers of Modern Typography by Herbert Spencer. The book included information that explained how modern typography had actually developed out of the ideas of 20th century painting, poetry and architecture, and not from the development of the printing industry. He was particularly influenced by the work of Jan Tschichold, chief propagandist for the New Typography and his disciplined, yet subtle approach to typography:

“Malcolm had a copy of Herbert Spencer’s Pioneers of Modern Typography. The one chapter that he hadn’t reinterpreted in his own work was the cool, disciplined “New Typography” of Tschichold and its subtlety appealed to me. I found a parallel in it for the New Wave that was evolving out of Punk.”

Peter Saville's design for "Closer" album by Joy Division (1980). Saville's album design for Joy Division's last album, Closer, released shortly after Ian Curtis' suicide in May 1980, was controversial in its depiction of Christ's body entombed. However, the design pre-dated Curtis's death, a fact which rock magazine New Musical Express was able to confirm, since it had been displaying proofs of the artwork in its offices for several months.

Peter Saville’s design for Joy Division’s Closer (1980). Saville’s album design for Joy Division’s last album, Closer, released shortly after Ian Curtis’ suicide in May 1980, was controversial in its depiction of Christ’s body entombed. However, the design pre-dated Curtis’s death, a fact which rock magazine New Musical Express was able to confirm, since it had been displaying proofs of the artwork in its offices for several months.

Saville’s output from this period included re-appropriation from art and design. Design critic Alice Twemlow wrote: “… in the 1980s … he would directly and irreverently “lift” an image from one genre—art history for example—and recontextualise it in another. A Fantin-Latour “Roses” painting in combination with a colour-coded alphabet became the seminal album cover for New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies (1983), for example.”

In the 2002 film 24 Hour Party People, which is based on Tony Wilson and the history of Factory Records, Saville’s reputation for missing deadlines is comically highlighted.

Non-Factory work

In 1979 Saville moved from Manchester to London and became art director of the Virgin offshoot, Dindisc. He subsequently created a body of work which furthered his refined take on Modernism, producing work for artists such as King Crimson, Roxy Music, Duran Duran, Wham!, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Ultravox and Peter Gabriel. He was paid more to design Gabriel’s 1986 album So than for any other record sleeve in his career; he received £20,000. Saville founded the design agency Peter Saville Associates (still designing primarily for musical artists and record labels), which included Brett Wickens, before he was invited to close his office in 1990 to join the partner-owned Pentagram. Saville collaborated with Transport for Greater Manchester in 2008 for the re-branding of the Metrolink tram system with its now synonymous yellow and silver polka-dot scheme after a period of significance expansion on the network.

Work after Factory Records

In 1993 Saville left London and moved to Los Angeles, to join ad agency Frankfurt Balkind with Brett Wickens, but soon returned to London, where he asked designer Howard Wakefield to restart the design studio. For three years they became known as “The Apartment” for the German advertising agency Meiré & Meiré, and worked from Saville’s modernist apartment in Mayfair that also doubled as the London studio. (The same apartment is depicted in the record sleeve of Pulp’s album This Is Hardcore). The Apartment produced works for clients such as Mandarina Duck and Smart Car. In 1999 Saville moved to offices in Clerkenwell, later renaming the studio in 2002 as Saville Associates. In 2005 it was renamed again as Saville Parris Wakefield.

Saville grew in demand as a younger generation of people in advertising and fashion had grown up with his work for Factory Records. He reached a creative and a commercial peak with design consultancy clients such as Selfridges, EMI and Pringle. Other significant commissions came from the field of fashion. Saville’s fashion clients have included Jil Sander, John Galliano, Yohji Yamamoto, Christian Dior, Stella McCartney and Cacharel.[10] Saville often worked in collaboration with longtime friend, fashion photographer Nick Knight. The two launched an art and fashion website SHOWstudio in November 2000. Belgian fashion designer Raf Simons was granted full access to the archives of Saville’s vintage Factory projects and made a personal selection of Saville-designed works to integrate them into Raf Simon’s “Closer” Autumn/Winter 2003-04 collection.

In 2004 Saville became Creative Director of the City of Manchester, as a consultant.

In 2010 Saville designed the England football team home shirt.

In 2012 Saville collaborated with Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh in celebration of their centenary to create a large scale tapestry of his work After, After Monach of the Glen. This new tapestry commission is Dovecot Studios re appropriation of Peter Saville’s appropriation of Sir Peter Blake’s appropriation of Sir Edwin Landseer’s 1851 paintingMonarch of the Glen.

Exhibition, book and soundtrack

Saville’s reclaimed status and contribution to graphic design were firmly established when London’s Design Museum exhibited his body of work in 2003. The exhibition, The Peter Saville Show, was open from 23 May through 14 September 2003. A book by Rick Poynor, Designed by Peter Saville, accompanied the exhibition. The Peter Saville Show Soundtrack for the exhibition was performed and recorded by New Order, and was available to early visitors to the exhibition.

The music artwork design of Peter Saville

Peter Saville working in his studio.

Recommended reading:

Factory Records The Complete Graphic Album By Matthew Robertson

Factory Records: The Complete Graphic Album By Matthew Robertson

Design Museum biography
An interview with Spike Magazine
Estate solo exhibition at Show Studio


Check out more work by Peter Saville:

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