Oh, you’re still here?” Peter Saville’s colleague asks me slightly incredulously when she arrives back at his dazzlingly white Clerkenwell studio. I got here three hours ago. Peter Saville, designer and “social sculptor”, can talk. I look a bit sheepishly at her, as if to imply it’s not my fault. “They’ve run out of these at the post office,” she continues. She hands me a newly printed first-class postage stamp which reproduces a tiny image of Saville’s record cover for New Order’s 1983 album, Power, Corruption and Lies.
The cover reproduces a still life with flowers by Henri Fantin-Latour, with the addition of a colour chart at the edge so that it looks like a printers’ proof. No band name, no title. In blending Bauhaus modernism, Swiss typography and a stock of surprising juxtapositions, Saville created one of the most pervasive and influential oeuvres in contemporary culture. As his career progressed, bands from Suede to Pulp, who had grown up with his imagery, approached him to claim a piece of that legacy.
Not many designers can ensure that a stamp sells out. Or perhaps it’s not the design, it’s the context. Pop confers a scale of fame that graphic design cannot and, although Saville hasn’t done album covers for years, it was his involvement in the brilliantly anarchic Manchester record label Factory (founded in 1978 by Tony Wilson, Alan Erasmus and Saville himself) and the urban myths swirling around it which propelled him to cult status.
One of these myths concerns the die-cut sleeve he designed for the 12-inch single of New Order’s “Blue Monday”, based on the perforations in the then-new floppy disks. The story was that, as they had never expected to sell many copies of a seven-and-a-half minute electro anthem, the cover cost Factory more to produce than the record and, when they sold hundreds of thousands, made them a loss on each copy. It is, apparently, a mischievous fabrication – yet its persistence illustrates both Factory’s disdain for commerce and the fanaticism those covers engendered.
Saville today is as sleek and sharp as his record sleeves, in white jeans, dark-blue polo-neck and Chelsea boots. Cigarette in hand, his hair and face longish, contemplative, he exudes the kind of cool that the designer of some of the most memorable images of the modern era should. More music biz than design biz, he appears a good decade younger than his 54 years, and speaks articulately, unstoppably, thoughtfully.
At the moment he has jumped from the micro-scale of stamps to the macro-scale of cities. Saville’s latest and most ambitious commission is the ongoing branding of his native Manchester: he is the city’s “creative director”.
But this is no ordinary branding commission. “There’s no conventional slogan,” Saville tells me. “No advertising campaign or logo. No fixed expectations.” So what’s left? “Out of that process came a notion that I had of my home city [which he left in 1979] as the ‘original modern city’. I tried to think just as I thought in 1980: ‘How would I like a record cover to be? How would I like Manchester to be in the 21st century? What is it? What can it be?’ ‘Original modern’ is not a slogan, it’s a route map, a profile to aspire to, it provides a reliable socio-economic pathway.”
Saville makes the point that the city was both the first industrial and, in a manner, the first post-industrial city. The name “Factory”, of course, was part of the city’s industrial aura, his wonderful logo of saw-toothed roof and chimney a defining image, while his first poster was based on the hyper-clarity of construction signage. He diverges at length about the Hacienda, the 1980s urban club which formed the centre of the burgeoning Manchester sound. “It was industrial, modern,” he says. “There were some boys who worked in my brother’s warehouse. They asked about the Hacienda, what was it like? I didn’t want to tell them about the industrial aesthetic, I though they wouldn’t get that, so I said it was just a disco and a bar. They said: ‘But what does it look like?’ I said: ‘Like a warehouse’.” Saville pauses. “They said: ‘But we spend all day in a warehouse’.’’
It’s a story that shows how post-industrial we’ve become. Now nearly every boho café and urban bar is stripped to brick, kitted out in industrial chic. He ponders on the change. “We’ve become culturalised,” he emphasises.
Surely though, Saville himself has had an effect on that process, indeed has been one of its catalysts? “I made contemporary products in a way I believed they could be made for my generation. Factory was a proto-designer label. There was no investment, no experience, only the sort of idealism that normally lasts for a few months in a new business. But then with Ian’s [Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division] death we were selling hundreds of thousands of records and it brought in an immense amount of money and we could do whatever we wanted, with few limitations.” Those sleeves allowed him access to a realm far wider than art. “The music made people interested in the designs and I found myself crafting ‘cultural commodities’. The sleeves became default cultural collections for people who never thought they would be collectors.”
“When I was young I wanted to have things that would help me to define myself. I had the opportunity to make things the way I thought they should be. I didn’t think the covers needed to be over-labelled and I believed that cultural aspiration could be addressed through commodity. In the end those covers became stepping stones towards the iPod.”
But between Factory and the branding of Manchester there was a long period, in the 1990s, when Saville had a consultancy, finding himself in demand (although by his own admission, often broke and bored) to produce designer marketing. What about those years? “Once ideas are wedded to marketing,” he returns with something approaching a snarl, “once they’re strategised [he spits the word sibilantly], they lose their idealism. Merely making money isn’t interesting. Communications design is often lying, you are articulating the message, not the product. If that message is important – like Manchester – it’s an honour, otherwise it is gratuitous and, at worst, misleading.”
“Britain’s been ravaged in the pursuit of profitability. When you can see through everything to a residual principle of purely making money, it’s demoralising.”
Does he believe he can begin to make a difference with the Manchester brand, then? “My role in Manchester is to act as a constant provocation.” Hans Ulrich Obrist (co-director at London’s Serpentine Gallery) recently called him a “social sculptor” and he is turning his attention to Manchester’s population.
“A place is the sum of the values of its society. If it’s going to change, it needs to be about the people changing, rather than the place changing. It’s not just about imposing arts centres, the people need to want them first.”
With such a loose brief, though, does he feel he’s achieving anything? “Someone described it as ‘visionary common sense’. If my intervention can just shift or nudge the trajectory of the place just a bit, I’d probably be content. At Factory in 1979 I really believed in what I was doing and I do here, too.”