It’s no accident that a teenager who dreamed of being a part of pop culture became one of England’s preeminent graphic designers.
But what turned Peter Saville into Peter Saville?
Peter Saville has made a name for himself as a giant in graphic design and a mainstay of British pop culture. His record jacket for the legendary post-punk band Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures is internationally recognized and celebrated. The album is essential listening, but even if you haven’t heard the music, chances are you’ve seen the cover.
How exactly did this boy from Manchester who was “unhappy with the way that the outside world was” develop such an intimate connection with culture?
“I think the most relevant thing was that I started to be interested in the look of things when I was a teenager,” Saville says “It was a really interesting time because my early teens were in the 1960s, but the world around me was still kind of old fashioned, in black and white. And the home that we had was kind of old fashioned with antique furniture. But there were James Bond movies, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Carnaby Street, some people called the ‘jet set’—all of these things were happening somewhere just a little bit outside of my life. But in the 60s, even as a young middle-class person, you began to find out about those things. I went to see Goldfinger three times in a week. I was a teenager interested in this new thing that had a new name: pop culture.”
Saville says his desire to be part of this world became his life’s motivation. “I wanted to find the jet set,” he said. “I wanted to see a life that was in another place. It was in a way a fiction or a fantasy, but I wanted to get there.
“At that time, music was the entry point. At the age of 15 or 16, you’re not going to get a job in the movies, you’re not really into fashion. You don’t even have the money. But you can buy a record. So, music is the first real engagement. It starts with buying a record. Then, when you go to a concert, you actually go to see someone. I never saw James Bond on stage! The first concert I went to was in 1969—I was 13 or 14. I went to see somebody called David Bowie, and he was the support act for the first rock supergroup, Blind Faith. A few years later in 1972, Bowie was going to be very important for showing people like me that they could ‘invent’ themselves. In British culture, there’s a very famous TV episode of Bowie performing a song called ‘Starman’. Tens of thousands of teenagers exactly the same as me—15, 16, 17 years of age—saw somebody that Bowie had invented. He had invented [Ziggy Stardust]. A lot of young people thought, ‘If he can do that, then maybe I can too.’”
Bowie had introduced Saville to the power of identity—an approach that was vastly different from the more overtly political statements that were espoused by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones.
“Bowie was the first one to show you something about identity and the creation of self,” Saville continues. “In pop culture, you could create self. And then, within less than two years, Bowie retired [Ziggy Stardust] and created another persona. This was like an advanced lesson in pop culture: that it is fast moving, and you have to be fast moving too. That you are a product. If you create yourself as a product, you may have to design a new product. You may have to be in permanent evolution to exist in the new culture. These are important things to learn when you're a teenager.”
The Factory Records era
“Factory Records was like a solar system—conceptually, creatively, and practically,” Saville says. “It was a collection of bodies that moved independently but were contained in a system around a center of gravitational energy. Tony Wilson was in the middle: the sun, the source of energy and magnetism, the gravity. And individual groups and little groups of individuals got caught in the orbit. Everybody involved with Factory Records just did what they wanted to do. There was no company. There were no salaries, no office, no job, no contracts, and no advances. I did not have a job at Factory Records. There were no jobs at Factory Records. There was no Factory Records! For 10 years, the address was somebody’s apartment: 86 Palatine Road. It was the apartment of a man called Alan Erasmus. Tony Wilson, Alan Erasmus, and Peter Saville—we founded Factory Records in December 1978.”
Wilson and Erasmus had spent the previous months organizing a club night called “The Factory,” which is where the label’s moniker came from. Saville was tasked with creating posters for the featured bands. (“I was just finishing art school,” he explains.)
It was around this time that independent releases started to fill the shelves of more progressive record shops. As record-producing was expensive, only about 1,000 copies of each record were available. This limited availability in turn gave rise to the concept of the limited edition—and of the record owner as collector.
“Our first record, the Factory Sample, was produced for £5,000,” Saville says. “It was all very quick, very amateur, and very low budget. We were able to press 5,000 copies—and it sold out! Not because it was good, but because around the U.K., there was a spirit of support. I would do it myself: I would go to a record shop. I would see something different—it looked like something outside of the music industry. It’s about one pound, but you buy it because it means something. You can see somebody else's hope and truth. The truth had gone from pop culture. Youth culture had become part of the entertainment industry, and the avatars and heroes of pop culture had become too rich and too complacent and irrelevant. By 1975, there was a new generation of young people who were not represented by the establishment of pop. There was a coup d'état, there was a revolution, and that was punk.”
Then, along came Joy Division
Factory Records had listed their name and address on the back of each record, so it wasn’t long before hundreds of young people assumed they were a record company and started sending in demo tapes. One band featured on the Factory Sample was Joy Division, whose Unknown Pleasures was destined to be one of the most important records in the post-punk, new wave era.
“Bernard Sumner [of Joy Division] found this image in an astronomy book and showed it to the other members,” Saville says. “They thought it would be good for a cover, and so they gave it to me. It’s a diagram of the energy pulses coming from the first discovered pulsar. I’d never done an album cover, but it was understood that it would be black and white. And that was good, because I didn’t know how to do anything in color. I liked the image.
“They wanted it to be white, and I thought ‘better black.’ So, it was surrounded by black space, as I thought: the diagram is from space.” As for why the design features no title, Saville explains: “I didn’t want it to look like a record cover. Young people do not need things labeled. So, I did the cover of Unknown Pleasures the way that I would have wanted to find it as a collector, as a consumer.”
Records, says Saville, are the first art that young people purchase in their lives. To him, they were his art collection, and that mentality resonated.Saville hadn’t heard Unknown Pleasures before designing the record, but he never forgot the moment the manager first played it for him. “I sat there, kind of slowly realizing what it meant. It was definitely the best album of the New Wave, perhaps the best album of the post-punk period. And I had just done the cover! So that was the beginning.”
What Culture Means to Saville
“When I was starting my own work, I was unhappy with the way that the outside world was,” Saville says. “There were some things I discovered that were great, but then a bus was pretty disappointing. The bus ticket was disappointing. In Manchester, where I grew up, everyday life was dull and mediocre, and because I’d been in an art college for three or four years, I’d seen that things could be better. So, I had an opportunity to express that. Someone asked me to do a poster, and so I tried to make the poster more intelligent than the other posters. People trying to do things better—as a footballer, a musician, an architect, a lawyer—for centuries has added up to create our culture. It’s the product of individuals caring and having a vocation and a belief that something can be better.
© Peter Saville and Joy Division
© Peter Saville and New Order