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Peter Savile
Art Director

Peter Saville began his career as a graphic designer, but has since
reinvented himself countless times, negotiating a path between the
traditionally separate fields of art, design, moving image, styling,
branding and art direction. Indeed, it is probably easier to describe
him as a brand in himself, occupying a completely unique position
in the cultural world, equally at home distilling the spirit of a city
into a few words or deconstructing trainers for Adidas. Born in
Manchester in 1955, he studied at Manchester Polytechnic from
1975 to 1978 and went on to become a founding member of
Factory Records, where he produced era-defining covers for, among
others, Joy Divison and New Order. While his work with the music
industry has continued sporadically, notably for Pulp and Suede,
he has constantly sought new outlets for his creative energy.
Perhaps above all Saville is a professional collaborator, most
famously with Factory Records’ impresario Tony Wilson, architect
Ben Kelly, British photographers Trevor Key and Nick Knight,
fashion art director Marc Ascoli and designers Brett Wickens and
Howard Wakefield.

Who are you and what do you do for a living?
I am Peter Saville, and for a living I am Peter Saville.
I should expand: frustratingly, I don’t have a single job
description. People seem to have different perceptions
of what I do based on how they met me in the first
place. Some people think I am a typographer, which I
am not. Some people now seem to think of me as a ‘pop
philosopher’, which is a lot closer from my own point of
view. I see myself as somebody who thinks about the
time and place in which I exist. Occasionally people still
ask me to design a record cover, and can’t imagine that
I would have no interest whatsoever in doing such a thing.
I earn my living now where I can find it, and where it can
find me, and it is very, very diverse: this time last year
I was making a statement through the medium of a
sports shoe for Adidas and at the same time I was
working with Manchester City Council on the perception
of Manchester and its future. People expected that I
would produce a graphic solution in response to the
given question, or challenge, but this was not my
response. Instead, I did what I always do: I sat down
and thought what does it mean to me? That activity
was really no different to what I did in Manchester 25
years earlier, when I thought what could a record label
be? What should a record label be in the late 20th-
century postmodern era? What might a record label be?
I think about things in the context of time and place.
Unfortunately not enough people realise this and it’s
only later they notice that perhaps something bigger
was in mind. Maybe even then they didn’t get it, but their
audience did. This is unfortunately my biggest burden.
The only people who actually book me to do what I do
are people who know me really well, and I end up doing
it in this ‘friends’ category. I’m not a commercially or
professionally perceived brand guru or something like
that, and of course I don’t really want to be so anyway,
but sometimes I think it would be helpful because I am
tired of being insolvent. As you get older having no
money is less edgy and more scary, darker and less
playful. Being insolvent at 50 is worrying and, for me
at least, a little bit ironic

Do you trust yourself?
I trust that I will still do some stupid things that I
shouldn’t do. Quite harmless things — for instance I sat
here till three o’clock last night knowing that the builders
would turn up by 7.30 am, and at eight they would turn
on a pneumatic drill. I should have gone to bed an hour
earlier at least. I trust myself to do the same stupid thing
tonight. I can trust myself to buy things that I don’t really
need — luckily Anna [Saville’s partner] stops me quite
often. I am getting a bit better at not doing things that
I don’t want to do, I’ve always been a bit anxious about
not pleasing other people, so I’ve often said I’d do things
that I can’t do. I have two older brothers, and when you
have older brothers you kind of don’t speak your mind,
and find other ways to get what you want. I have learnt
over the years that not being clear, and not speaking out,
is a bad thing, so I am trusting myself now to be a little
bit clearer, a little more frank and a little less concerned
about offending people. And I trust my values, which I
didn’t know I had. My old friend Ben Kelly [architect and
designer of the Haçienda], who always considered me as
some spoilt bourgeois boy, said recently that I sounded
like a socialist and he couldn’t believe it. So I trust that
I do have some values, and they’re not easily manipulated
and I’ve realised they’re not for sale

Were you a popular child?
I tried to be. Being the youngest requires some strategies

Is there one particular work that best describes you?
There is a piece of work that I did 20 years ago that sums
it up perfectly, and I know that it is the signature work to
my personality, and that’s Power Corruption & Lies. It’s
the juxtaposition of two values in balance, and I realise
that partly comes from where I grew up, the landscape
and culture I grew up in

Do you scare easily?
On my own yes — if someone else is with me I am ok.
Anna and I got trapped in the lift the other day and there
was nobody else in the building and it freaked Anna out
and I was quite calm. But I can’t watch a horror film on
my own, they really unsettle me — the same applies to
science fiction, I do that terrible childlike thing of channel
swapping. We are strangely drawn to these scary things
knowing that it’s not a good thing to watch them. When I
was in Los Angeles [while working for Frankfurt Balkind],
I had a house up in the Hollywood Hills and for a good
six months I didn’t even have a phone, let alone armed
response as all my neighbours did. I’d go back there
alone at one in the morning, and I was scared, I was
very nervous. Los Angeles at night, driving at night alone,
requires that you have your wits about you, and just
going into an empty house at night in the hills with the
neighbours a good fifty yards or so away…. So I took to
not going to sleep until dawn, I’d stay up watching
films instead

If you could have put a stop to any one thing in the
last fifty years what would it be?

Possibly the smugness of capitalism. I’d quite like to
say market forces, but market forces are market forces,
you can’t put a stop to them. But one of the things that
has given free rein to market forces is the smugness of
capitalism, that attitude of ‘well it’s the only way isn’t it?’.
Capitalism covers such a multitude of sins and abuses.
To a large extent it is the only way, but it needs
enormous levels moderation and management

If you could make one thing free for all what
would it be?

A roof over their heads. Obviously healthcare and
education are vital, but if you have nowhere to go the
other things don’t even come into play. It is not difficult
to get into that situation at all, and it’s really scary
not having anywhere to just safely be whilst you try
to get it together to move to the next stage in life

Is life serious?

It is to me. I am a bit serious, I’m probably very
serious about superficial things, and I can be quite
superficial about serious things, but ultimately,
yes, it is serious.

What one thing would improve the quality of
your existence?

Capital. Because I am actually quite happy with the
quality of my existence, and I have quite sufficient
cultural capital, but some security in the way of
bankable capital would be nice. There are a lot of
things that I used to want, which I don’t particularly
need anymore, but I am very, very insecure in today’s
London, and some capital would help me in that

What is the first thing you participated in that you
are particularly proud of?

I won a trophy for show jumping when I was about 11,
and I was very proud of that. When I was a bit older
I also won some trophies for model car racing. I
guess the first thing on the public stage was Factory
Records — that step into the unknown. For me the
seminal moment in Factory was when I’d done the
cover for Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division’s first
album. I completed the cover without hearing the
record, and when I took the artwork over to Rob
Gretton [Joy Division’s manager] to show it to him,
he’d just received the test pressing of the album.
I didn’t know whether I wanted to listen to it — to be
honest I wasn’t sure I could sit through 40 minutes
of Joy Division, which at that time was a raw, less-
formed thing, but I’d just done the cover so I couldn’t
really say no. So I sat down with Rob in his front room
and he put Unknown Pleasures on, and within seconds
I knew that I’d had the fortune to be part of what
would be the best album of the New Wave. What
Martin Hannett [the producer] did with Joy Division
was astonishing, just utterly, utterly astonishing,
and to feel that I was involved in that, associated
with something that I knew was going to be very,
very important, that was an amazing moment

Who do you most like to talk shop with?
Which shop?

What is sexy?
Very tricky one that, very tricky indeed. We all have
things we find sexy that are idiosyncratic, completely
customised to the individual. I remember one night
at dinner with my best friend Trevor [Key] and Brett
[Wickens], my assistant at the time, we entered into
this silly conversation about what was sexy — I won’t
incriminate myself here with what I said. Trevor,
who was a sort of older brother figure to me in London,
just sat there and shook his head, really disapproving,
and he said ‘do you wanna know what the sexist thing
on earth is?’ and we were both like ‘yeah, go on then
what?’, and he said ‘being in love’ — and we were
silenced. And he’s right. And if we want to talk about
surfaces and situations then there are endless choices,
but they’re idiosyncrasies. As a totally, totally reliable
quality: being in love, and all the other things won’t
work if that common ground, common wavelength,
isn’t there

What is your favourite word?
Boulevard: I love the word boulevard

Which work of art do you most covet for your home?
I will tell you a story. One day in the late eighties I was
visiting the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands with
Trevor to photograph a kinetic work by Jan van Munster
for the cover of Joy Division’s Substance. We were there
when the museum was closed — it was just us and the
cleaners, and while Trevor was setting up I wandered
off around the building. It was nice to be there alone,
to enjoy the space, and I had no idea what was in the
collection. I remember wandering down one corridor
with work by Picasso and Juan Gris, when I took a turn
into a room and it was full of Van Goghs. I found myself
surrounded, completely unexpectedly, by paintings by
Van Gogh. I knew the work from books, but I’d never
seen one before in reality. Something happened to me
that day that had never happened before or since in
a museum: I had to touch one of the paintings, and
there was one in particular, of a field — I felt kind of
compelled. In fact I wanted to put my arms around it,
but I thought that was going too far, and I wasn’t sure
whether there were any cameras around. So I touched
it and there was a undeniable physical presence of the
maker in that work, in fact it was astonishing, there was
a personality – a person, even. It was as if the energy
of the person was there in the surface of that painting.
And I stood there looking at all these works and coming
back to this particular one, and looking around again,
and suddenly — ‘oh, now I get it’. At that moment I
understood why somebody would steal a famous work
of art, which I could never understand before — I mean,
you can’t sell it, you can’t show it to anyone, why do
they do it? But I realised when confronted with these
Van Goghs that just to have one of these in a cupboard
that you could go and sit with it would be astonishing.
So a Van Gogh would probably be the thing to have

Which piece of music would you like played at
your funeral?

On Some Faraway Beach, by Brian Eno, from Here
Come the Warm Jets. Or perhaps the theme from

Which historical figure would you like to meet, and what
would you like to show them?

I don’t have any particular characters I am obsessed with,
though I have gone through phases of passing interest in
different people over the years. I’ve had a Warhol phase,
an Yves Klein phase, a Napoleon phase, all people I’ve
realised I could learn something from. It would be interesting
to take Leonardo on a airplane, or see what he made of
modern technology. Or to hear Warhol’s thoughts on our
celebrity culture, it’s only 15 or so years since he died,
but I am sure he would have some quite astute comments
to make about what’s happening now

What do you like most about fame and success?
There are a lot of things about it that are not so fab…
people tend to think that it must be all fun, but being
famous does not bring security or piece of mind. You
become a target, for good and bad. You get publicly
critcised, and you get all sorts of hearsay. I was out
one evening when somebody came up to me and asked
‘Is it true that you go to sex parties in Italy every month?’.
I couldn’t even begin to work out where that had come
from. I think ultimately the best thing about fame is
that it shows you’ve made some step into the uncharted.
Very few people become celebrated without some step
into the uncharted. You believed, and you were right —
you took a chance and it worked. I know a good person
to bring back — we’ll take Vincent van Gogh to Sotheby’s.
Mind you, I think it would probably break his heart.


Q&A index