The Dark Prince of Manchester: The Incomparable Peter Saville

Text by Alexis Georgopolis
Photograph by Anna Blessmann

It’s safe to say there is no one quite like Peter Saville. Certainly no other album designer has exerted such personality and such a distinct aesthetic as he has. Borrowing from Russian constructivism, the New Typography of Jan Tschichold, and Italian futurism, Saville made covers for Factory Records, a label he cofounded in 1979 and for which he served as art director. From Joy Division’s singular Unknown Pleasures to New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies and the “Blue Monday” single, many of his numerous album covers have become iconic images which continue to inspire new devotees; for example, in 2003, Raf Simons based a menswear line on Saville’s Factory designs. As NME writer Paul Morley said of Saville’s covers, “You were tempted to applaud whenever you saw them.”

In recent times, Saville has all but left the music world behind. Though he has done cover work for a select few (Pulp and Suede), he has spent the better part of the last 15 years creating identity for clients as far flung as Jil Sander, Pringle and Viacom. More recently, Saville has been put in charge of “branding” his hometown of Manchester.

You haven’t really been engaged with the music industry recently. What’s happened?
Even if you’re interested in music, there are some obvious reasons not to be there; it’s really a juvenile business that is quite unpredictable. There’s a great record company executive quote, “This would be a great industry if it wasn’t for the musicians.” (laughs)
Right, exactly! The really interesting thing is what the record cover meant to me and my generation in the ’70s. Without a doubt, the record cover became in a way the sort of mass realization of Pop Art – less so now, but certainly in the latter half of the century. So in the ’70s and ’80s and into the ’90s, towards the end of the century, the record cover was probably the prime example of a populist art form. And I actually can’t think of anything else which came close to it. Record covers have this special place in our kind of cultural assessment. We know that they’re not big Art, but they’re not just advertising either. They are in a way a kind of popular art form. Alexis, it changed during your lifetime. We have the ’net now and all sorts of marginal visual material. But the record cover was something that addressed your generation. It was really a thing. It was a kind of visual medium that was common knowledge across your generation. So, the music work had obviously dominated my activity through the ’80s. Then I took some early steps into identity and fashion. But then in 1990, my design partner Brett Wickens and I joined Pentagram in London, a sort of serious establishment design organization [which] provided my formal grounding and introduction to working as a professional communications consultant. The music work had to stop at that point. I mean, I’d been wanting it to stop since I’d gone in and entered my 30s. 
And fashion. You were really involved there for a bit – but fashion doesn’t interest you much now, either, does it? Yeah, I can’t come to terms with helping another fashion brand flub another handbag. I just have absolute… I don’t see any point in it. I mean, there was a point in the mid-’80s when I was thrilled to be involved with fashion because I felt it was still bringing something to people, still bringing them opportunities of independence. But now, all of these things have changed to almost an enslavement. I made a reference recently to pop culture having made the transition from being like acid or LSD to crack. LSD was something that people said was dangerous but was mind-expanding. I’m glad I did it. It showed me something I hadn’t seen before. That’s what my understanding of what pop culture was about. Now it’s like crack. It just will anesthetize you from reality and rub you and waste you in the process and basically just throw you out when you’re broke. I can’t bear it now, and that applies to the fashion industry, the music industry, the movie industry, all of the mass culture of pop entertainment, designer fucking hotels. All of it. It’s become meaningless.
How did the task of branding Manchester come to your desk? Luckily, Manchester – thank God – Manchester is a use of my abilities within a context that I feel has value. First of all, it’s my home city. I mean, I grew up outside Manchester, but Manchester was the epicenter of my formative life. I owe an awful lot to Manchester. You know, Factory and Manchester are inseparable. So, I owe a lot. And the profitability from my work for Manchester is a future for the future generations of Manchester. That’s the profit from the work. The profit is an ongoing viability in this century for that city. The shareholders in the profit are the people themselves – the people who live there, the community. So, it seems something valuable to do.
Kind of a large task for a designer, isn’t it? It was a strange thing to find myself doing. It started as a branding project, as everything seems to now be called. Towns, cities, regions, states around the world are all confronting issues of globalization and the issue of change: the migration of people from one place to another, from one type of industry and commerce and work to another, and many places are being left behind by the passage of time. That’s normal and has gone on throughout civilization. Manchester is typical of the formerly industrial cities of the north of England, as you have many in the U.S. whose quintessential raison d’être was industry in the 19th- or early 20th-century. And that industry has now changed and moved on, leaving these large communities without an essential wealth generator. Manchester is typical of that situation. It hasn’t failed, though, like many other cities have. It has a spirit. It’s been exemplary in regeneration. However, it’s sharing the U.K. with one of the world’s megacities, London. And London, this decade, is probably the hub of the Western world, so Manchester has to run to keep up. Manchester’s problem is how does it close the gap on London? How does it really become a viable alternative to London? How do you really get valuable activity in the second city? That’s the problem for Manchester, and how do you overcome the prejudices and forgone conclusions about Northern, post-industrial cities, some of which are unfair, and some of which are absolutely justified. These are the problems. The brand of Manchester needed to evolve. And the city and the council went about it in a very wise and professional way and they decided to engage somebody from the international spectrum. But by no means was the job handed to me. Most of the other people on the list had done this sort of thing before (laughs) and I hadn’t. And I didn’t know how to go about it, but I just went about it the same way I go about anything.
Which was? “What do I want?” For yourself? “What would I want?” I had to find a dream of Manchester, a fantasy of Manchester. A valid, believable, historically based idealization of the place. It is, of course, the first industrial city. It’s the test-bed of capitalist economy. That is what Manchester is. So, with the bright typographer Paul Baums, we rephrased the provenance of Manchester as “the Original Modern City.” So from “first industrial” we got “original modern.” And at that point, I stopped the conversation and said, “Paul, that will do nicely.” I think that’s maybe why there is a difference between me, still, and other professionals. Most professional designers, from expedience.


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