Graphic designer doyen Peter Saville was presented with the London Design Festival's Medal, the first creative to receive it. Blueprint talks to the man about his career and ethos and also asks some of his contemporaries, colleagues and acolytes to choose their favourite piece of Saville's work
Interview by Liz Farrelly
Portrait by Ivan Jones
By way of introduction, most articles on Peter Saville begin with a potted history, telling us that (back in the Eighties and Nineties) he designed inscrutable record covers for Joy Division/New Order and gorgeous fashion catalogues for Yohji Yamamoto. Then, comes the personal stuff. Chugging coffee and cigarettes, he regales us with stories. As most press on Saville has been prompted by a 'what Peter did next' moment, we lap up the gossip.
On becoming a probationary partner at Pentagram the tone was celebratory, if a little sceptical, (Blueprint 72, 1990). Later it turned forensic, picking over the aftermath of the dissolved partnership and an ill-fated sojourn in Los Angeles (Eye 17, May 1995). Saville tells it as 'down and out in Beverly Hills', admitting that he'd 'annoyed everybody and disenfranchised myself'.
Above and below: Be Original / Be Modern, installed by Creative Concern of Peter Saville's Original Modern ethos for Manchester
Highs and lows aside, it says much about design's shaky status that when a professional of Saville's standing (with an illustrious career spanning almost four decades) receives the 2013 London Design Festival Medal and is profiled in the mainstream media, The Guardian newspaper sends its 'head rock and pop critic' to cover it.
That graphics is marginalised within the design industry is evident too; it was about time (in its seventh year) that the LDF gave the medal to a graphic designer. Looking at past winners, it might be more accurate to say the LDF is a shop window rather than a festival reflecting the cultural, social and economic significance of design. If so, then the decision to give it to Saville seems even more weird.
Experimental Crocodile Series, for which 80 alternative versions of the famous marque were created and now feature on the current Lacoste Holiday Collector shirt designed by Saville with Paul Hetherington (see below)
It's worth asking why we continue to revisit Saville's past. As a truly independent operator, that he hops between industries and disciplines, reinventing and morphing his practice as he does, with clear PR messages conspicuous by their absence, means it might just be easier to locate him in familiar territory -- his well-documented past -- rather than understand this more mercurial, contemporary entity.
Describing Saville as a designer/graphic designer doesn't really get to the point. 'Graphic design is like tidying up tables,' he notes, while focusing considerable attention on realigning his desk accessories, which we moved for the photo shoot. So perhaps it's not too much of a stretch to suggest that Saville and his work exemplify the dematerialisation of design, as mass-produced objects and media are marginalised in favour of targeted, niche and bespoke message/brand/event/experience.
I would hazard a guess that Saville is unique among LFD medal winners in not having a website. He does have a healthy social-media presence though, maintained by sanctioned fans. But despite attempts to take himself out of the limelight the myth is durable and his explanation convincing. 'For the adolescent generation that received my early work,'he says ' ...it turns out that, unwittingly, I introduced them to many things that family, school, state hadn't, and it led on to other interests. And the remarkable consequence of canonical pop is that this happened for subsequent adolescents...Put "Unknown Pleasures" into Tumblr and have a look! So it goes on and on.' (An entertaining raconteur, Saville's interviews are legendarily lengthy; his delivery
oscillates between tortured angst and wordy enthusiasm. At one point I accuse him of 'not doing humour', but after revisiting our chat on my dictaphone, I take that back... )
Being of that first 'adolescent' audience, I remember Saville's cool, clear propaganda for Factory Records shining out of the NME's greyness, advertising those iconic sleeves that graced the walls of indie record shops and teenage bedrooms. Discussing that era, and his own student days in Manchester, Saville recalls wanting to share his self-instigated education in art and design history, by way of appropriating the dynamic visual language of futurism and modernism, and reusing those forms in his work with the aim of using design as 'an enhancement to life'. That said, the parting shot of his monograph exhibition at London's Design Museum (Peter Saville Show, 2003), the last thing to see when exiting the gallery, was a wall graphic offering this prophetic curse: 'Be careful what you wish for'. Well, I expect dark and complicated from Saville but not so bleak.
England shirt, Umbro 2010, Peter Saville with Paul Barnes
I ask about the wall graphic. 'I was dismayed,' he says. 'The "look" had became ubiquitous. What I was perhaps a pioneer of became the status quo. The adolescents of the Eighties became the decision makers of the Nineties and the transition from the visual pun to the semiotic nuance was done. The quotation of the canon of design and art was becoming commonplace and was being used, in my opinion, inappropriately. 'There was a sense of purpose, meaning and intent in my work. When I quoted the canon, literally, Fortunato Depero's futurist poster on the cover of Movement, I was asking: "What would Marinetti think of this?' I kind of felt that Marinetti would love New Order.'
But, I suggest, if everything is a sign then meaning is fluid and relative, so such niceties as relevance are bound to end up sidelined. 'I tried to make my quotations from the canon respectful and relevant,' counters Saville. 'It was naïve and foolish of me, but I did not expect to see the canon used to sell air miles or text minutes, which deeply upsets me, because it was ravaging our cultural legacy to legitimise profiteering. I would walk through Heathrow and see everything looking much better, but hideously lacking in any authenticity and, in fact, a misuse of cultural reference, and that's what I meant by "Be careful what you wish for'.'
But doesn't every pop culture quotation have a resonance for someone? 'But it's not art,' replies Saville. 'It's just business.' So, you want everything to be art? 'Yes. Or at least to know when it is.' Saville then mentions several ads that appropriate signature artistic practice. 'It would be crazy for me to be upset about people "ripping things off", but to use it without significant meaning and legitimacy...' We boil it down to 'appropriate when appropriate' (verb then adjective).
Such discussions might sound esoteric, but with Saville this is that stuff that matters. Back in 2003 he had another surprise up his sleeve. 'The Frieze book [designed by Saville] and the Design Museum exhibition were the "thank you and goodbye", he recalls. A decade ago this month, he closed his studio, for the second time. Leaving Pentagram (in 1993) was messy; this time it was considered. 'I had to have no overheads,' he adds by way of explanation.
It was a moment of retrenchment and reinvention, but within the year Saville had attracted a client that would reanimate his practice. Since 2004, the City of Manchester and latterly Marketing Manchester, have retained Saville as consultant creative director to the City of Manchester. 'I was coming up to being 50 years old, and it was an appropriate level of responsibility for one's age. You grow out of doing record covers and fashion,' he admits. 'All of us actually have an opinion about the politics of our society and we sit around dinner tables discussing it. Fine. This was like, step forward, it's the real thing. Come and meet governance.'
Balancing the Manchester consultancy are Saville's forays into niche-branding-marketing. Think Adidas adicolour, the Umbro England shirt, the deconstructed Lacoste crocodile, and Y3's Meaningless Excitement collaboration, all of which (literally) employ Saville's cultural cachet and design-world status. Here I'm reminded of the dying days of the Nineties, and The Apartment in Mayfair, Saville's home/office (doubling as photo studio/cultural salon too). I had turned up to interview Saville about sleeve design for an exhibition, but he was so over it. Now, he recalls a statement by German ad-man, Mike Meiré ('my last great patron, he helped me have The Apartment'). "Well Peter, you are your own brand now'" My reaction: "Great." So from 2000, my principal client was me, and I have been on a steady, steep, learning path about what on earth do you do with your own brand by way of being a visual artist.'
For Saville (often in collaboration with work and life-partner, Anna Blessmann) the gallery is a place to be 'authentic'. There's a lot of goodwill towards Saville in the art world too, because not only are his grown-up fans brand managers and creative directors, they're artists and curators too. Hans Ulrich Obrist calls him 'a great social sculptor'.
Undoubtedly responsible for some ultra fine design, Saville is as much myth as he is meat, and it may be his actual career that proves most inspirational. Having accelerated the designer full-throttle into the 'designer decade' of the Eighties (and the hangover of the Nineties), his reinvention as a multifaceted visual communicator constitutes a new methodology for how the 21st-century designer might work, and live. For a start his pragmatism knows no bounds: he's the only designer I've interviewed who's ever mentioned money. And, having breached the boundaries of design's disciplines, he's now negotiated a working definition of freedom, meaning he chooses clients that allow him to remain independent.
Thinking about the LDF medal again, awarded to 'an individual who has made an immense contribution to design and to London', I'm starting to see the point. Saville has inspired generations of designers who, by sheer weight of numbers, have contributed to London becoming the world's design capital. And, while many are busy doing, Peter is thinking too, and he'll share his thoughts. Don't expect an easy ride, though, as Saville keeps hurtling forward, because despite all his history and all that 'quoting', he doesn't do nostalgia.