Peter Saville on Capturing “Nowness” Through Design
Peter Saville is a man of the moment—and has been, again and again, throughout the past five decades. Raised as one of three boys in Manchester, England, in the sixties—in tandem with the growing prominence of counterculture, the rise of anti-war sentiments, and the birth of pop—Saville developed early on a keen eye and ear for the zeitgeist, or what he terms “nowness.” In his adolescence, fueled by the tectonic shifts in the music industry made by genre-defying artists such as David Bowie, Saville took up a fervent interest in music and in record covers in particular, and went on to art school to study graphic design. In his final year, he was commissioned to design the very first posters for the punk music venue The Factory, which would soon morph into the legendary independent record label Factory Records.
Across his prolific, nearly 50-year-long career in graphic design and art direction, he has created album covers for Joy Division and New Order, brand identities for Ferragamo and Burberry, and more recently, even Kvadrat fabric designs—each drawing inspiration from the spirit of their times—that can be called nothing short of era-defining. Perhaps most renowned are the record sleeves he went on to design for Factory Records, notably those for New Order’s album Power, Corruption & Lies and Joy Division’s debut studio album, Unknown Pleasures. Since then, he has created branding for clients including Selfridges, Pringle, and Aston Martin, and collaborated with a wide swath of high-fashion clients, from Christian Dior and Stella McCartney to Yohji Yamamoto and Calvin Klein. Most recently, Saville has partnered with the Danish textile firm Kvadrat to create the Technicolour collection of wool fabrics inspired by his childhood memories growing up on a sheep farm in pastoral North Wales. Woven across all of his work are provocative dialogues between past, present, and future.
On this episode, Saville speaks with Andrew about coming of age in the punk and post-punk worlds, the increasing impossibility of tracking “nowness,” and creating literal signs of the times.
Saville talks about his lifelong interest in tracking “nowness,” and why he’s become more selective about his projects with age.
Saville shares the farmland childhood memories that spurred the manufacturing process behind his new Technicolour wool collection from Danish textile maker Kvadrat.
Saville speaks about coming of age during the ’60s and ’70s, and how his obsession with album covers in his adolescence led to his study of graphic design later in life. He also recalls his role in the birth of the music venue The Factory, and in turn, the record label Factory Records.
Saville discusses the story behind creating his iconic cover art for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album.
Saville recalls the inspiration behind his design for New Order’s Power, Corruption, & Lies cover, as well as for the band’s “Blue Monday” die-cut sleeve.
Saville speaks about his time in the early nineties at the design company Pentagram; his recent collaborations with brands such as Raf Simons, Calvin Klein, and Aston Martin; and why only now, with “legendary status,” does he not have to argue so much for his value and worth.
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ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: So there’s a lot to talk about after a half century of work behind you.
PETER SAVILLE: Almost. It is almost a half century.
AZ: Which is amazing. And I’m going to need to be selective here. But I wanted to start with zeitgeist.
AZ: And the sort of mood of the moment. So, to you right now—I know you’re visiting New York; you live in England—what’s the mood, to you, of the moment?
PS: Right now—and actually, in recent years, I found that very difficult to ascertain—this notion of zeitgeist was really important to me. I remember, distinctly remember, how thrilled I was, probably round about the time that I started art school, which would be like ’74, I remember being really thrilled to discover this word, zeitgeist. It’s not a term that I’d grown up with in any sense. And in a book somewhere, one day, when I was quite young, I’d say 20 years of age, I saw this word, this German word, zeitgeist. And I was just like, “Hmmm. Cool.” It was a great sounding term, and what does it mean? And it was, like, “spirit of the times.”
I was so kind of moved, excited, pleased, reassured, to find that there was a term, a kind of cultural term for what mattered to me more than anything else. It was the one thing that, in my teens, I cared about. It was the kind of pulse beat that I was trying to connect with. And seeing this term for it made me appreciate that it was a serious issue, that it was a thing, that other people, that culture, society recognized this as a thing. This spirit of the moment. And so, that was a really, a momentous discovery, that there was a term for what mattered to me. All the way through that time—late seventies, eighties, across the kind of analog-digital divide, into the nineties—I felt like I was tracking something. It was about tracking something, this feeling of nowness, and I was able to track it.
PS: I would take the readings from across the sectors. Across the whole spectrum, which, I’d like to say my friend now, Jack Self, termed the “Big Flat Now.” A couple of years ago, 032C magazine. Jack described the new, converged landscape as the “Big Flat Now,” which I thought was a great way to put the cross-pollination that’s happened between all the disciplines. And I was tracking it until, probably until around about the millennium break, so into early 2000s. And over the last twenty years, it’s become increasingly impossible to track any sense of nowness. It’s pluralist to the point of atomization. The paths that you used to follow are now almost disconnected, almost atomized.
AZ: Which is maybe why it’s so hard to know what’s coming.
PS: Exactly. Because there’ll be something coming that you expect. There’ll be a hundred other things coming that you didn’t expect. It is now disconnected. So, everybody is doing something everywhere, all the time. The relevant concern is whether any of it matters. And as I’ve gotten older, and a kind of a sense of sociopolitical awareness has become part of my being, I’m really not that concerned about a lot of the things that I used to be concerned about.
AZ: But you are still massively intersectional. I mean, science, fashion, politics. Maybe not so much fashion anymore, but—
PS: Yeah, within reason. I mean, fashion, actually, is still like a cornerstone of things that I’m doing. This year, I’ve done another fashion identity. In fact, it went live this week, for Ferragamo. So, literally today, I got sent a post about, oh, the press release is out. Ferragamo.
AZ: Yeah. You’ve done more fashion in the last few years than you’ve done in a long time.
PS: Yeah. In identity, in what we might kind of call “graphic identity,” the fashion world has been very good to me. In a way that didn’t happen even in the nineties. It’s all happened in the last ten or fifteen years. So basically in my 50s and onwards is when the sort of work that I thought was due to me, it’s really only in the last decade or so that it has actually come. But it’s very nice that it has come, because, you know, I have to pay the rent.
PS: But this idea, this issue of trying to follow things is just really difficult now. And also, with a backdrop of fundamental sociopolitical change and disruption in our comfortable world, a lot of things seem not exactly that important to me anymore.
AZ: Yeah. You do have this instinctively reductive, serious way of doing design.
AZ: And it always seemed to be layered with reference, connection points from your own curiosities.
PS: Yes. Totally.
AZ: And so I guess in that way, what are you most curious about now?
PS: Well, I was very curious about the James Webb [Space] Telescope a few months ago, but now it’s almost like, just there now.
AZ: Just pretty pictures.
PS: I mean, I am 67 next month. There’s an enormous amount of work in my archival background. There’s a lot of things that have never been seen. A kind of a tip of the iceberg type scenario. So, this is actually work, to a great extent, actually done. So, not work to do yet. It’s not like ideas unrealized, though I have books, notes, full of unrealized ideas. But there’s a significant amount of, I’ve actually realized, but never seen. And that’s been a concern for a few years, because I want to address some of that whilst I still have the energy and the wits to do it. But the circumstances to make that possible are not easy to pull together. But there’s some progress on that.
PS: So, dealing with my own history is something that I would like to make some progress on, sooner rather than later. And maybe with a little bit of that out of the way, then I could think about, is there something I would like to do now? I mean, there was a project in the early 2000s that I did with my partner, Anna Blessmann, and we had a project called Swing. And that was another kind of prematurely curtailed project. We were not able to pursue it, and we’d talk about it sometimes, and there was a huge amount of undone things, within the kind of landscape of concepts we had around Swing. There’s a lot of things I would like to do. The thing is that, once you get into your mid-60s, you realize that the sand is running out.
AZ: You got a while to go.
PS: You do, but you don’t know how long you have to go.
PS: Which is not… That’s true at any point and any time for any person. Anything can happen. But once you begin to get older, you know that it is now a thing. That’s actually a thing. So it’s not going to be a chance accident that comes your way.
AZ: It’s coming.
PS: It’s just like, life is coming your way. So that makes at least me feel a little bit selective about what hasn’t been done yet. So, there is a lot that I would like to do, and there’s a lot of the already started, but not finished. In a way, that seems the most pressing, and from that, maybe move on to some of the other things. But there’s also a lot of things, Andrew, that… I mean, there’s a lot that I haven’t done, and on reflection, it’s a good job I didn’t do it. I mean, I procrastinate a lot. I’m still trying to decide what to do, whilst other people have finished. But then they also do a lot of stuff that maybe they should have thought a little bit more about before doing. So, at least I haven’t prematurely rushed into stuff that was not such a great idea.
PS: So, I take that as compensation.
AZ: Well, I do want to talk about some of your recent work. I mean, you use time in many, many ways, and when I looked at your work through the lens of time, you transpose elements across time and space, especially in your earlier work.
AZ: But it’s not often that there’s a kind of personal, childhood narrative to it. Which brings me to your recent work for Kvadrat.
PS: Oh yeah.
AZ: And Technicolour. So, I want to talk a little bit about how you came to the concept, a little bit about that project. And then I’m curious about some elements, personally for you, about this sort of integrated visit back, which seems to me, from what I can see, kind of the first where you’ve dealt with a deeply personal—
PS: Yeah. The Kvadrat thing is possibly the most knowingly biographic work. The New Order album cover, Power, Corruption & Lies, from 1980—
PS: … 1983, was perhaps my most biographic work, but I didn’t know it when I was doing it. It was only on reflection that I noticed. It was only one day, sitting in my mother’s living room some years later, I thought, Oh, it’s just my life story.
But that was not a knowing kind of work, at the time. I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t know how much it was actually quite reflective of me. The two, the front and the back, were the sort of two sides of the place where I’d grown up.
The Kvadrat project was kind of knowingly—I mean, I knew that it was about my early life. It’s a textile collection in wool, for Kvadrat, because wool is predominantly what Kvadrat do. And Kvadrat are a particularly lovely company that I’ve had a relationship with now for nearly twenty years, as an art director, consultant, friend of the company, etc., etc. Over the years, Anders Byriel, who runs Kvadrat, he’s asked me several times to do a collection, and actually a product collection for them. Respectfully, I procrastinated about that, but mainly because I kind of knew I didn’t know what I was doing.
AZ: Right. And you have respect for people who do.
PS: Absolutely. Textile design is one of those things that you kind of look at it and think there’s nothing going on, but actually, there is a lot going on, and working with Kvadrat made me appreciate it. It’s not easy doing that. Creating a fabric that somebody is going to live with for years is not that easy, actually. And it was not something that I had… I knew I didn’t know. So I didn’t rush into doing it, and then a year or so ago, their new head of design was quite insistent, and very supportive. She said, “Well, you do have a concept, don’t you?” And there was a concept I’d talked about all the time. She said, “Let’s make it real.” That concept was from childhood observations.
Every summer and Easter in my childhood, we would relocate from the Manchester area in the northwest of England, over to the coast in North Wales. So I spent every summer in North Wales, and a lot of time on a farm, with a friend. I made friends there. I was there every summer, made friends. And one of the families I made friends with had a farm, and I would go, just hang out on the farm, just 10, 11 years of age. The actual farm buildings, later they became the annex of a hotel. And I would stay at the hotel when I went to visit my late mother. My father had died. My mother was in a retirement apartment without spare rooms. So, I would stay at the hotel. And of course, I wanted to stay at this hotel, which is where I’d spent time as a child. It was like a deeply nostalgic feeling.
Even though the farm buildings had become a hotel, the land around it was still managed by the childhood friend’s family. So my childhood friend Justin was now the farmer who managed the land. I’d drive up through the parkland to the hotel, and look at the sheep, and think, they’re my friend’s sheep. [Laughs] And over the years, I noticed the markings on the sheep. And sometimes, I would just park the car, and look at them, and just kind of reflect on childhood, and how much life changes.
AZ: There’s a weird name to them.
PS: Well, there was a particular type called Swaledale, but these were regular Welsh Mountain sheep. But the thing that was interesting was the markings on them, which I kind of understood. They were like ownership markings. The flock is owned by a particular farmer, whatever, and he has a mark. But over the years, the markings just seemed to get kind of looser and more abstract. And I just sat there thinking, This is like graffiti. This is just like spray graffiti on these animals. And then other colors seemed to creep in as well. So it became like a sort of abstract, kind of graffiti project, in motion through the landscape. And it was just more pertinent to me because they were my friend’s sheep. I just sat there thinking, What is he spraying on them?
The relationship with Kvadrat made me a little bit more observant and thoughtful about wool. And of course, I couldn’t help thinking that I liked these abstract graffiti marks, and what if they made their way through the industrial process to a finished wool textile? Obviously, I realized that they were washed and bleached out along the way, but what if they weren’t? So this was the concept that I put to Kvadrat: Let’s imagine that these markings, which come from a very rigid set of colors—the six colors that they seem to use worldwide, the same six colors—what if these colors were indelible, and they were mixed in randomly with the natural wool, and then you wove a cloth? What would happen? You’d get this kind of, this sort of a memory of this color, and you would get these stray filaments, and perhaps that might be kind of interesting. A sort of subliminal presence of what I call “pop pastoral.”
And so Kvadrat took on the challenge to make that happen. Which of course, I couldn’t have done. I didn’t know. I mean, I had no idea how to go about this. But Kvadrat did, and it was actually, it was not easy. In the end, it involved them mixing up a ton.
AZ: One ton.
PS: One ton of natural wool was required for the colored strands to become equally distributed in the mass so as to be randomized. What we didn’t want to have was like, ungainly patches of blue or orange, and then nothing for another five meters. Basically, it needed to intermingle across the whole thing, so there was a constant presence, like a microcosm of color, woven into the neutral background, and that required a ton of wool to be mixed together. Anyway, they got there in the end, and started to produce these really beautiful results. And I was delighted.
AZ: All the way to sheer curtains, which kind of have this—
PS: Then there was like, “Oh, we can do this with it.” And there were these remarkable sheer curtains that started to sample through. Some with singular colors, but others, one in particular, with a spectrum fade, which kind of looks like a print, but it’s not a print. It’s individual strands of color, which are then—
AZ: Which pick up light.
PS: Which pick up the light, and then transition from color to color through the distribution of strands. So, there’s singular strands. There’s a lot of pink strands, and then they give way to yellow ones in the middle, and then there’s more yellow.
AZ: Very beautiful.
PS: So it’s actually, really, really beautiful. For me, it was like… I mean, it’s always quite exciting when you get a proof back from artwork that you’ve done, but this was more than that because this was a thing coming back, that I had no idea how it would come out. And so, the sort of design, industrial process at Kvadrat created these brilliant things. Then we moved on and did rugs, and they went another way. They were more evident. There’s one rug particularly that I like, which is kind of terrazzo in wool. And there’s another more kind of tactile one called Flock, which has got a kind of sixties wall hanging, sculptural feel. So there’s the curtain, there’s the textile fabric, and there’s the rugs, and they all explore exactly the same idea—this idea of six colors, which are used in the industry of agriculture, making their way through to something that we can live with on an everyday basis. And I like that. I like this idea that it’s kind of like from field to home—or space. Quite like that idea.
AZ: What struck me… Well, it definitely closes the divide of nature and home.
AZ: And sort of an anti kind of enlightenment idea of us and them. It’s more integration of nature and human. But what I was amazed by when I really thought about this was how it seemed to be the first project that you went all the way to your youth and childhood to draw from, but also integrated almost every theme throughout your work, in terms of coding through color, systems of industry, a pairing of nature and industry, of man and nature, a sort of husbandry.
PS: Yeah. I mean, Andrew, that’s nice of you to see it that way. There is a coding aspect, which I didn’t realize till, in fact, we made a film to support this, just to show people this, the process of the sheep being sprayed. And it was whilst that film was being made that I learnt that they used these extra bits of color to indicate the kind of wellness of the sheep, and whether they’ve been vaccinated for this and that, whether they’ve had Covid, or whatever.
PS: So, I realized, Oh, there’s a coding system. So, there’s the key ownership mark, but then there’s these other little bits of information about the animal, and in yellow, or green, or red, or something like that. Then I went, “Oh God, so basically it has a coding system again.” So, that aspect of the familiarity with my work was like, unexpected and chance.
The other thing is, you get to know at some point who you are. I mean I didn’t know who I was when I was young. I knew what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t necessarily have explained that, or accounted for it. But then… I was not called upon to account for it. And I think that’s one of the differences between experience in the applied arts and in fine art. With a fine art education, it is necessary to account for yourself.
AZ: Oftentimes earlier than you might know.
PS: Yeah. Maybe before you’ve even done anything, or even had a chance to do anything. And we do see a number of very smart people in fine art, who are very good at accounting for themselves. Sometimes they’re better at accounting for themselves than perhaps even producing. And oddly, in the applied arts, really nobody ever asked why. They want to know what you’re going to do, but they’re not really interested in why. And particularly with the communications design and graphics, it’s very about what, because it’s for them. Predominately, it is for them. It’s not for you. I mean, in my case, I am an exception to that, which is very unusual. That’s the work with Factory [Records]. But nobody even asked why then. I mean, Tony Wilson sometimes would ask me why, but simply out of interest. So I never had to explain myself in the early decades, even. For twenty years, I never had to explain myself. It was not until I began to reflect on what I had done, and ask myself, “Why did I do that?” And increasingly have to do interviews, or be questioned about the work, that I began to think about what I was doing. And then you begin to see who you are. And you’re right. The transposition of ideas from sector to sector, from like you said, the industrial to the cultural, that interests me. The transposition across time. These are all things that I did do.
AZ: But they’re in aggregate.
PS: Yeah. I did them instinctively because I wanted to. I never was able to sit down and say that, but now I see it.
AZ: Which might be why there’s a certain authenticity to it, which resonated with people.
PS: Possibly, yes. Yeah.
AZ: I mean, they say this idea of vision, like, what’s the… Well, it’s an aggregate of your responses. Like, how consistently have you responded over time?
PS: I mean, it’s nice, and reassuring to me, if somebody who has had time to observe or think about work that I’ve done, more than just one work, and to see that. It’s great. It’s actually great when somebody says, “You do this, you know.” And sometimes you are familiar with what they say, and you say, “Thank you. That’s nice.” And sometimes they say something which actually you hadn’t thought of at all, and that’s fascinating, and you add that a little bit to your kind of palette, or this repertoire, of understanding yourself. All of that happens. That’s who you are. So, I know what I’m like now.
With this Technicolour collection, yes, it resonates with my childhood, but that’s then been expressed in the ways that I normally express things. But it does have that, and that’s not very often that I have a piece of work like that. So I can sit on a chair that’s got this fabric on it, and my feet on a rug that’s coming from the same concept, and it’ll take me back to being 10 years old in a field in North Wales, and that’s actually quite nice. Not much of my work does that.
AZ: Now that we’ve already gone back there, what was your family like? I mean, I knew you grew up north of England in the sixties. You weren’t exposed to a ton of creative careers.
PS: No. It was a middle class, north of England kind of middle class. My father was very good to us. I had two brothers. I was the youngest of three boys. And he was very good to us, better than we realized. Well, let’s say, I won’t speak for my brothers, but better than I realized until much later. It was not until dad died, and my mother and I realized that he’d spent all of the money. He’d spent the money that he’d made, setting up the family as well as he could. So not on himself. He always wanted a sailing boat, and he never had one. But I know where the money went. It went on me and my brothers. We lived in a good house, in a good neighborhood. I had a good family life, but it was not… I mean, it was cultured to a limited extent. It was a kind of classic British bourgeois, middle class kind of background. There was what you call brown furniture in the house, antique furniture that was reasonably good. There were reasonably good 19th century oil paintings and watercolors around, but nothing modern. It was decidedly not modern. I was very envious of friends who had younger parents with a more modern, sort of sixties way of life. I would go sometimes to a friend’s house and think, Wow, it’s so exciting here. So again, it was not until later that I was able to appreciate the things that I was brought up with. I was considered the smarter one of the three boys, and so the usual middle class pressure was there to go be a lawyer, or a doctor, or an accountant, or something like that. And of course, willfully, I didn’t want to do that. I often think there was something very important about being born in 1955.
AZ: In tandem with pop music.
PS: It’s in tandem with pop. It’s almost like the birth of pop. Obviously, the first few years don’t matter that much, but my mother used to remind me that as an infant I liked Elvis. I mean, I don’t how I liked it, but she said, “You would always respond if Elvis was on the radio.” But the key thing is that through the sixties, between the age of 5 and 15, I didn’t take part, but I witnessed them. You don’t notice much at 5, but 7, 8, 9, 10 towards that. And between 5 and 15, you do notice the world. And I had two older brothers who were also access points.
So I witnessed the sixties, and I was not part of it, but I had a bit of a formative reading of what it was. That was a very important decade, an astonishing important decade in so many ways. And so I noticed it. The irony was that at the age of 15, just as I was old enough to go to the party, it was all over. [Laughs] There was a decidedly morning-after feeling in the early seventies. So there was a kind of malaise in the early seventies.
AZ: What was the first concert you saw?
PS: It’s really interesting conflation, the first concert I went to. I was 14, and the headline act were Blind Faith, the first of the super groups. I think [Peter] “Ginger” Baker from Cream was in Blind Faith. But I went to see the support act, and that was a guy called David Bowie, who had a single in the chart. I was 14. He had a single in the charts called “Space Oddity.” And my friend, Mike Nichols, and I, we went to see David Bowie. I knew who Blind Faith were. My older brother, Nicholas, was a big fan. I don’t think we stayed for Blind Faith. We went to see David Bowie. At that time, David Bowie was there as a fundamental, formative influence for anybody who wanted to pay attention. What we were to learn from David Bowie in the coming years was that you could create yourself, that you could create a persona. We saw him do it. And we also saw that in the fast moving culture of pop, you might have to reinvent that persona. That one thing would not be enough anymore, and that life might be in process, so permanently in process to the changing circumstances around you. And David Bowie was, in a way, my first professor in how one might go forward into this next decade, this decade of the seventies and—
AZ: Dystopian, morning-after vibe.
PS: Yeah, which was still in morning-after vibe. So what then comes, I actually see the seventies as a rather premature or early, what they call, fin de siècle for the 20th century. There’s always this rather melancholic period towards the end of a century that they refer to as fin de siècle, where there’s an uncertainty about the future. And obviously in the seventies, there was an uncertainty about the future because there’d been this remarkably future-facing decade, the sixties, some of which had been successful, but a lot of which hadn’t. There were a lot of casualties from the wonderful drugs that were around. There were a lot of problems from the sexuality that was around. A lot of the plastic furniture broke and the waterbed leaked. So, so much of it in a way that a lot of the promise and the hope of the sixties, a lot of it, the wheels came off a little bit.
AZ: Similar to what we’re experiencing right now.
PS: Well, indeed you can see these things are cyclical. And of course, what occurs at that time is, in a way, the first iteration of postmodernism, which is a reflection on before. A kind of, in this headlong rush forward, did we maybe leave a few things behind? And that is one way of reading the initial phase of postmodernism, which is fundamentally an architectural context. [Charles] Jencks coined the phrase “postmodernism.” The weird thing is, and this is the odd thing about time, I felt that. I felt a curiosity about before and a relevance to things that I didn’t know about. But without having a philosophical context in which to place that, I would never have said at the age of 20, “I am a postmodern individual.” But I was interested if I saw a text about postmodernism, or if I saw an example of postmodernism. I was curious and fascinated.
One of the most important influences in me in the mid, late seventies was Philip Johnson’s AT&T building down the road in this city. I was profoundly taken by the AT&T building, because I was beginning to look at classical references, uncertain about their pertinence to the now. And suddenly the godfather of American modernism, Philip Johnson, is proposing—because I saw a book of the proposals for the eighties—proposing a New York skyscraper with a broken pediment on top. And this is a radical proposition in the city of New York. I saw that, and that reassured me that my own interest in classicism was not misplaced. Backing up a little bit, the group, or in the context of music, the people who mattered to me ultimately more than David Bowie, was Roxy Music. And Roxy can be understood as a postmodern group, first postmodern group, whether as a collage of history recontextualized in the then, now.
PS: And all of that was new to me.
AZ: And this is post art school. When were you finding this—
PS: ’72. It’s as I’m entering art school. I go to art school in ’74 and Roxy starts in ’72. I probably buy the second Roxy album in ’73 or ’74. So I’m kind of instinctively immersed in an interest in things that came before that I was not familiar with and how they might be pertinent to the now, how these things might be recontextualized in the now. I mean, it’s just retro. I mean, some of it’s not that clever. There was a lot of retro. I mean, it was going on in fashion. It was just a point of how much further you take it.
AZ: Yeah. People were dressing like Victorian….
AZ: But you once said, “I should have never studied graphic design.”
PS: Yeah, I know. Well, okay.
AZ: You’ve said that a lot. And the reason I bring it up is because I’m curious, a level further on that is, was the education in a way from the academic system kind of counter to the idea of the new? Because on one hand, you’re interested in learning about the past, but you don’t really want to learn the craft of it.
PS: No, I was interested in signals, not necessarily the in-depth of being immersed in it. I mean, the big word after zeitgeist that I learned much, much later was semiotics. and that was even more profound. When I learnt that there was a word for this thing that I felt, did, what I spoke in—the language of signs, and the meaning of those signs, and how you might communicate through visual signifiers of semiotics. So I was massively taken by that. I was signposting what I felt mattered. The graphic thing was just that the contemporary visual art that I experienced was on a record sleeve. Not in a gallery. Not in a museum. Not in a newspaper or a magazine.
The north of England in the seventies was pretty much devoid of any contemporary art evidence. London was. I mean, once I started art school, I would go to London two or three times a year because I loved being in London. And I would go to Cork Street, which was predominantly the contemporary gallery street. And there was nothing there except some echoes of the sixties. It was nice to see some of the sixties pop art, but we’re already more than a decade afterwards. So—
AZ: Wasn’t relevant. Yeah.
PS: And interesting, but not like now. There was really no contemporary scene in the U.K. of art. So there was nothing to actually tangibly relate to. I never met an artist in my life. In fact, Robert Longo was the first active artist that I ever met in my life. And that was in the early eighties, I met Robert. I never met an artist. Imagining to be an artist, I mean, it was more likely to say I’m going to be an astronaut than to be an artist. But the art that I did see that mattered to me that I could read that seemed relevant to me, it was delivered on a record sleeve. Sometimes it was related to the music, but more often than not, it was like an independent stream of visual thought of its own. And myself and some close friends, we were interested in covers as an end in themself.
We talked about covers. They may or may not be related to an interesting album, but we were aware of record covers. So we talked about covers. We talked about covers the way people would talk about art movements. And as I got into my mid and late teens and still at high school, that’s kind of what I wanted to do and those were the signals that I was giving off. Myself and a good friend who I was at school with called Malcolm Garrett. We were spending all of our time in the art room, drawing, painting things that looked like record covers.
AZ: And then you meet Tony Wilson.
PS: Yeah, it was just before. Fortunately, we had a very smart, young art teacher who saw what we were doing, realized what we were interested in, and said, “You boys should study graphic design.”
AZ: Oh, so you weren’t already studying design?
PS: Still at high school. We didn’t know what graphic design was, but it seemed to be becoming a degree course in what we like doing, better than law or medicine or accountancy. So I was able to go home and say, “I want to go to uni. I want to do a degree.” “Oh, thank God. What in?” “Art.” So anyway, my father was very tolerant and said, “Okay,” hoping that I would like grow out of it.
So Malcolm Garrett and I both went off to art school to study graphic design. We didn’t know what graphic design was, but we were intelligent enough to realize, quite quickly, that it’s a profession and it’s a service industry. And we both thought, Okay, well the service side of it can wait. We both were certain that when we were, like, 40, that doing an airline identity would probably be great when you’re a grown-up. But right here, right now, we want to make record sleeves. Now in the period that Malcolm and I were at art school between ’74 and ’78, there was a coup d’état in pop culture called “punk.”
PS: ’76, punk happened. So the entire order of our culture was turned upside down and handed back to young people. Punk was literally a coup d’état. Punk was a point when young people took back youth culture, which had become overly, kind of corporatized and in a place that really no longer related to you if you were like 15, 16 or 17 years of age. And so young people took it back. The incumbent establishment were totally thrown by that for a little while. And in the post-punk moment, certain people decided to do it themselves. And the independent label started. Boys realized that they could form a group without really knowing anything and other people realized that they could release a record without knowing anything.
In Manchester [England], a significant individual was Tony Wilson. He was actually a broadcaster. He was a current-affairs broadcaster, but who cared a lot about pop culture, and who cared a lot about punk. Tony was of the late sixties generation. He was a little bit older than us. He saw a kind of sociopolitical voice of expression in punk, and he felt it was important. He actually did not relate to the kind of style era of music that was formative for me, so that Bowie, Roxy, Kraftwerk thing was lost on Tony. He was not interested in that. He was more interested in disruption, rather than polishing. [Laughs]
So in Manchester in ’76, ’77, Manchester had been a fundamental city location for venues. There were venues everywhere: bars, clubs, halls, where punk bands were playing.
AZ: Kind of postindustrial.
PS: Yeah. There was an openness. But punk really did disrupt the status quo, and there was establishment’s concerns about it. And just over time, between the Greater Manchester police and the city council, they shut down every venue where punk and then the new wave bands were playing. It was as unsettling as rave culture then became in the early nineties, possibly even more so. Suddenly, there were no venues. And so this kind of grownup guy from the TV, Tony Wilson, was concerned about that and took it upon himself to find a venue, a simple venue.
I was at art school, heard he was doing this, went along to Granada TV and sat in the lobby until he came in one day and I said, “Mr. Wilson, can I do something please?” I hadn’t done any work, but I took a book with me. That was my copy book at the time, the work of Jan Tschichold, this famous [German-born] Swiss typographer. Tony thought the things I showed him in the Tschichold book looked cool. So he said, “Yeah, do a poster.” So that was the beginning of The Factory, so that was in ’78. It was my final year at art school. I did the first posters for The Factory. I didn’t rush off to London immediately. Just out of time, just out of procrastination, just out of knowing that I would have to give up the comforts of my home city. It would be tough in London. I mean, I knew I would go because I wanted to go, wanted to go to the world, but I put it off a month or so.
AZ: But this first poster, which I spent a lot of time looking at before this, I mean, it’s incredible when you look at it in the context of what we’ve seen in the last sort of fifteen years. I mean, this was the first time, I think, that industry and the sort of hazard street signs, the things that we never considered beyond a signal of warning—
AZ: Yeah, were used as an aesthetic.
PS: Yeah. I mean, the core influence for it is Tschichold’s manifesto about type from 1928 called the Die Neue Typographie. Tschichold makes a statement about the new visual language of the Industrial Age. So that’s in a way, the core of fact one, the first post sort of stuff. But then there’s also this symbol, a “use hearing protection” symbol, which came off a workshop door. I mean, I met Tony and he said, “We’re going to call it The Factory,” which was nothing more than what kids these days call a night. It was every other Friday for two months. So that was it, four nights. He said the place, the West Indian Centre in Moss Side in Manchester, but we’re going to call it The Factory. He and his friend, Alan Erasmus were just putting, they were just booking some bands to play. I thought The Factory, I thought it was a bit lame, because I kind of thought of [Andy] Warhol and stuff like that. It was like, Ehhh. Even though I loved Warhol and the idea of The Factory, we’re only a few years later, this is like ’78.
PS: But actually, it was Alan Erasmus, Tony’s friend, who’d said, “Let’s call it The Factory,” because apparently Alan had just constantly seen signs around Manchester saying, “Factory closing.” So the de-industrialization of the city. And Alan said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to see something saying, ‘Factory opening,’ for once?” So they called it The Factory. But it was a gift visually for me. I went back into art school that afternoon that I’d seen Tony and heard about The Factory. There was a sign on a workshop door that I’d admired. One of the 3-D workshop doors had this amazing “Use Hearing Protection,” that basically, put on earplugs before you come in this workshop. That was it.
And I’m sitting there thinking, The Factory, music venue, sound, use hearing protection. So I stayed until 8 o’clock that evening because the sign had to come off the door. So I took the sign. That converged with this aesthetic of Tschichold’s. This ranged left linear organization of information that was then juxtaposed with this industrial warning sign. And that was the beginning of the look of The Factory. But if you’re going to have a music venue that’s called The Factory, and if you’re going to have a record label called Factory, I mean, you are dealing with an industrial aesthetic.
Manchester was the world’s first city of industry. It actually is the beginning of industry. The first factories in history were in Manchester. Manchester was the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century.
AZ: Despite not being on the water.
PS: Ah, well, that’s a very—
AZ: That’s another story.
PS: That’s a very perceptive comment, Andrew. They were not. They were forty miles from the sea. A characteristic of the city of Manchester, a social characteristic from research, is willfulness. It is a very willful place. And a great act of willfulness of the city of Manchester was that as industry developed in the city, they were subservient to their neighboring city Liverpool, which was the port. And they did not like being subservient to Liverpool. So they brought the North Sea, they brought the ocean to Manchester. They built, in the late 18th century, early 19th century, they built the Manchester Ship Canal, a forty-mile canal connecting Manchester, creating the Port of Manchester forty miles inland. That’s the willfulness of the city of Manchester. And it is just the place. It’s a bloody-minded place where people get things done.
And it’s interesting, small cities are kind of interesting. Small cities can be quite empowering. Big cities can be really overwhelming to the individual—London, New York. You have an idea, but you just know there’s a hundred, a thousand other people who have the same idea. But in a small city, if anyone’s doing something, you know. You know if there’s a great coffee bar, you know if there’s a good club, you know if….
AZ: So many scenes are built out of small places.
PS: Yeah, you know if there’s a hat shop. You know, right? Is there a hat shop in
New York? Yeah. How many? I have no idea. But in a smaller city, is there a hat shop? Yes, there’s a good one on Central Street. That’s it.
AZ: So Manchester is the place where this scene is born makes a whole lot of sense.
PS: Yeah, because you know it’s worth doing. You’d know If someone is doing this thing that you are thinking of. You just know if they are. And If they’re not, then do it. So in that sense, it’s very empowering. And I think that Factory Records could only have happened in a smaller city like Manchester, and possibly only in Manchester.
AZ: You have this rented space with FAC 1, and then you do Haçienda.
PS: Well, yeah. They booked this venue, a very kind of marginal place, called the West Indian Centre, in a difficult part of the city, Moss Side. It was called The Factory, and I did the poster, and… It was a venue. It was an altruistic gesture from Tony to help nascent bands get an audience. That was the start of it. For me, it was an opportunity to be part of the reality of a scene that I felt was important. In contributing the poster for it, I was entirely free to do as I wished. There was no brief. These people are playing these dates. Do us a poster. I think I got paid twenty pounds. I mean, as I said, basically just do something. That kind of collective spirit that when you get together with friends and say, “Let’s have a party.” I mean, no one bosses anyone around because you just join in together, just to make something happen. If we just come back to time for a minute, I graduated from college [at Manchester Polytechnic, now Manchester Metropolitan University] in June 1978. And as I mentioned earlier, I procrastinated. I should have left immediately to find a job in London. I should have done that to pursue graphic design, even in the context of music. I mean, to get a job I would have to go to London. That’s where the record labels were.
AZ: What a mistake that would have been. [Laughs]
PS: I procrastinated, just out of like, ugh. And in the period that I procrastinated between June ’78 and December ’78, in that period, we founded Factory Records. And had I gone dutifully to get on with my life, I would not have been there when Tony sat with his friend, Alan Erasmus, and said, “We need a label.” But I was there. And I remember sitting with Alan and Tony in Alan Erasmus’ apartment in Manchester in December ’78. And Tony said, “Some of the bands that have played at The Factory do not yet have a record deal.” “Really? Who?” “Well, Cabaret Voltaire from Sheffield.” “Really, but they’re great.” “No record deal.” He said, “Joy Division, no record deal.” And it was unbelievable to Alan and I that Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire had not yet been offered or taken a record deal. So Tony said, “Why don’t we do a record from the club?” It wasn’t a club, it was a fucking name. “Why don’t we do a record? And that might help them get a record deal because if you have something on vinyl, then maybe that will help.” So Alan said, “Yes. Okay.” He said, “How are you going to pay for it?” Tony said, “I’ve got five thousand pounds my mother has left me.” “Five thousand pounds. Can you do it for that?” “Yes, you can.” And of course I said, “Yes.” Just selfishly. I said yes because it would be a record sleeve rather than a poster, and a record sleeve would go all around the U.K., rather than just up in Manchester. So very selfishly, pure self-interest, I said, “Oh, it’s a great idea.”
So in December 1978, Alan, Tony and I founded what would become Factory Records. We had no intention of finding a label. We were just trying to be helpful, but we made the first record, which was a double seven-inch EP with Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire and others on it, pressed five thousand copies. It was shocking to listen to, but in the supportive spirit of independence and the new wave, it sold out. I understand that because I would buy independent records at that. You just buy them, just to be supportive of somebody being different, somebody being outside of the industry. And FAC 2, as it was known, sold out. And so Tony got the money back, plus a bit. But most importantly, because I’d put “86 Palestine Road,” an address on the back of it, Alan’s apartment was inundated with demo tapes. The post office were delivering them in sacks.
PS: It was a new place to send your tape to. And by ’79, we had Factory Records. It was not a company. It was really never a company. Tony never gave up his day job. We didn’t get premises until the end. And that was was the end of it. It was an altruistic, not-for-profit venture. There were no contracts. The company would pay to make a record, and if there were any sales, it would recoup its outlay and then split any profit. If there was a profit, it would split it fifty-fifty with the group. Just the same way that you would just sit down with friends and just do a deal.
PS: The phenomenal moment was that Joy Division were inundated with offers to sign to labels. And the man who called himself their manager—he’s their friend, Rob Gretton—felt that there was something fragile about Joy Division, and that they would not be able to sustain the brutality of a record deal and a record company. And when they had enough material to make an album, Rob suggested to Tony that it could be a Factory album. I mean, this was a shocking idea to us, an album. I mean, okay, a couple of singles, something to help a group move on, but to actually make an album, wow, that’s very developed. But we did, and they made, for a very modest amount of money, Joy Division made Unknown Pleasures. Rob became a partner with Alan, Tony, and I, and [James] Martin Hannett produced it, so he became a partner. And everybody did what they wanted to do. Factory became something that I’ve called the autonomous opportunity. It became a collective of free will.
AZ: Which produced not only some of the greatest production, but one of the greatest record covers, which we should stop and talk about for a minute.
AZ: We’re talking about a record cover that’s probably been replicated—
PS: I know.
AZ: It’s insane.
PS: I know I can barely count how many iterations there are.
AZ: Bath towel. It’s just unreal.
PS: Oven gloves.
AZ: Yeah, unbelievable.
AZ: Yeah, someone got a full tattoo on their back.
PS: Yeah. At least one person.
AZ: Why do you think that image has resonated so strongly?
PS: First and foremost, it’s an extraordinary image. And earlier this year I finally, can’t say I met, but I met with the originators of that image.
PS: Stephen Morris of Joy Division and I braved up to take part in a… What should we call it? An astrophysics lecture seminar with Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the astrophysicist who actually discovered the pulsar, the first pulsar ever discovered. And a gentleman called Dr. Harold Craft from Cornell [University], whose post-graduate experiments in the early seventies rendered the image itself. It was very intimidating for Steven and I to meet them. It was like, definitely was like meeting the grownups. And the image, which is the pattern of repeat signals from a pulsar, I mean it’s a very enigmatic sci-fi image. There’s something very sci-fi about it. It’s over fifty years old now, but it’s still strangely modern. And sci-fi is like that, data is like that. Data doesn’t actually date. If you actually look at a graph, a graph is a graph. And it could be a graph from 1890, but I mean it’s a graph. A graph is a graph. And so, somehow data just doesn’t date. There’s an enigmatic mystery to the meaning of that data. You look at it and you presume it’s something—you think it’s a heartbeat, or a sound wave, or something, or a landscape.
AZ: But not a black hole.
PS: Well no, no one realizes this.
AZ: And you didn’t explain it. There’s no context on the record.
PS: No. Well there wasn’t a need. I mean, Bernard Sumner from Joy Division had found the image in The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy, second edition. He found it in Manchester Public Library one day and thought it looked great. And he showed the members of Joy Division. This is a cool image, and they all agreed it was a cool image. So when they came to be doing this album, they gave me the image with a kind of a brief—they’d like it black on the inside, white on the outside. And that was about it. And a track listing. But, we all worked entirely autonomously at Factory, because it was like not a job for anybody. Nobody was employed.
PS: And most importantly, nobody had done any of it before. Tony was a news, current affairs broadcaster, Robert worked with an insurance company and was a D.J. Obviously the young men in the groups, they had day jobs. Nobody had ever done it before. I had never designed a record sleeve before or a poster. We were all entirely novices. And Martin Hannett had produced one single. So no one presumed to tell anyone else how to do it because they recognized that they didn’t know, and no one was being paid. So, there was nobody in charge. Joy Division had their material, they went in the studio, and they recorded, Martin Hannett recorded it. And then, legend goes, he told them to fuck off and he’d make it a record. And Martin made Unknown Pleasures. And what I’ve seen in documentaries recently, both Bernard Sumner and Peter [Hook], they didn’t like it. They thought they were making a punk record. We didn’t really like Unknown Pleasures.
AZ: He made it coherent.
PS: Yeah, Martin made Unknown Pleasures, and I was given the visual material, and I made the cover.
AZ: And you hadn’t heard the record?
PS: No, of course not. You never really do when you do record covers. It’s a sort of fantasy that people think you listen to the record. You never get to listen to the record until it’s come out. You listen at the same time the audience does.
AZ: What was it like to hear that record for the first time?
PS: Oh, it was bizarre. They gave me the material. I went to a studio where I was being allowed to use the equipment. To say that I was doing what I want, was a little bit misleading, or doing what I wanted. I realized on reflection now, I realize that I was doing what I wanted to have. That’s what I did with Unknown Pleasures, and it’s what I always do. I make a thing that I want to have. So, I did it the way I wanted to have it. And also, within the limitations of my capability at the time, which were very, my capabilities were very limited. So, with very limited capability, I tried to make something that I would like to have.
And, I couldn’t figure out how to put the title on the front. The enigmatic wave pattern was great. I was using reversal paper in the dark room just to see what it looked like, white out or black, and it was, like, amazing. So I thought, Fuck it, I’m making it white out of black. I’m going to do this the way I think it would look good, so I decided to make it black, and I thought, Well, it’s space anyway. And lost in space. There’s a lot of black space around the image. And I couldn’t figure out how to put the type on, Andrew. I couldn’t put “Joy Division” on it. It kind of made it look like a record sleeve, and I didn’t want it to look like a record sleeve. I wanted it to be a thing.
AZ: Yeah, a piece of art.
PS: Yeah, and anybody who was interested would know what it was. Young people never fail to find a record. You don’t need to have a title on the front. I mean, no one has ever gone to a record store and said, “I couldn’t find it.” They might not have it, but if it’s there, you find it.
AZ: And if they want the record, they’re not buying it for the cover.
PS: No. No, that’s true, which is also very important. But you would never give up and say, “Oh, I couldn’t find it in the store.” Come on. So, I didn’t put any type on it because I just couldn’t figure out how to, and every time I tried it just made it look like a record sleeve, so forget that. So I put all the type on the inside. And so, it was done and it was late. Time again, I should have probably done it days before, but then it was like midnight and somebody was probably saying, “Where the fuck is it?” And I took it the next day to Rob the manager’s house, as a piece of artwork, mechanical artwork. And he said, “Oh, good timing Peter. I just got a test presser.” I was like, “Oh shit.” He said, “Do you want to hear it?” Well, I knew Joy Division. I’d seen them a few times, and I thought it was forty minutes, it’s going to be quite a difficult forty minutes. But obviously, I couldn’t say no. So I said, “Yes, of course.”
So tentatively I sat down in a comfy chair in Rob Gretton’s living room and he put on Unknown Pleasures.
PS: What Martin Hannett had done was just fucking transformative. It was phenomenal. It started brilliantly, and it continued. I mean, it started, and I just thought, This record, this album, can’t keep this up. But it did. It’s an amazing record. I mean, it’s a masterwork, Unknown Pleasures. It’s phenomenal. And I just sat there thinking, Wow. And looking across at the table where the artwork was. This is early ’79, and I was still 23.
I was buying music then and listening, and I knew that this is one of the greatest records of the moment. And thinking that you’ve done the cover of what is going to be one of the great records of the moment, it was quite an extraordinary feeling. And I left Rob’s that day just thinking, I hope that it does become it. I mean, it deserves to become a, let’s see what happens. And it did. People are still talking about it, forty-three, forty years—
AZ: Do you think that feeling of knowing that it’s a hit happens for you visually as well?
PS: Well with albums it’s difficult because they’re not as such a hit. But songs, songs I’ve actively witnessed it a couple of times. So, I think possibly the last ever performance of Joy Division that I was at, at the University of London in the early eighties, something like that. They played a song, Ian [Curtis] suddenly had this white Vox Phantom guitar around his neck. He stepped out and they played a song that nobody in the hall had heard, and I’d never heard it. It was called “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” And like, you just know, you know immediately. You have, there’s like progressive bands and the music is interesting and sometimes it’s difficult, but if you stick with it, you get to like it, etc., etc. But, hits are hits.
AZ: The first phrase of that song, it’s perfect.
PS: Within thirty seconds, you think, This is a hit.
I experienced it again around about a similar time with Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Andy, who I was in a ways closer to at the time than the members of Joy Division. Andy McCluskey and I were always friends from the very beginning. And he said, “There’s this melody that Paul and I keep whistling and it’s really irritating us. We hate it.” And he said, “But we’ll try to make it into something.” And that was “Enola Gay.” First time I heard him play “Enola Gay,” again, same thing, I though, that’s a hit. So, it doesn’t matter who they are. It doesn’t matter how obscure, difficult, or alternative they are. If they chance upon a… It’s just a song, it’s a melody, it’s a riff, it’s a hook. And they’re hits.
AZ: Do you find that visually when you look at something, do you know that visually something is going to work or not?
PS: Sometimes, sometimes. [pauses] Sometimes.
AZ: In the case of Power, Corruption & Lies?
PS: With Power, Corruption & Lies, that started as a postcard, and I liked the postcard. I went looking for a Machiavellian character, gave up, and bought a postcard of flowers. And I liked them. No, there was sometimes… I mean, I have worked with some great people. And Trevor Key, the photographer who I worked with, occasionally you peel a Polaroid and you think, Wow.
I remember when we photographed Peter Gabriel in 1987 for the cover of So, and we did that on Polaroid Rollfilm. I don’t know if you ever experienced it, but Polaroid Rollfilm was really exciting, it was great material. I remember seeing a frame of Peter, we’d started the day on Hasselblad, and it was not good. We’d experimented with the Polaroid Rollfilm with New Order a few months earlier for Low-Life, and it had been really helpful and productive. And I just said, “Trevor, put the Hassleblad away. Can we get the Rollfilm out?” And he was like….You know what photographers are like, larger format, larger format, larger format.
AZ: And sometimes it doesn’t work.
PS: I said, “Trevor just look, this is difficult for Peter, he doesn’t really want to—”
AZ: You still have to get the camera in the right place.
PS: Yeah, Peter Gabriel never wanted to be photographed. He always wanted to, like, stand behind a tree or something.
PS: And the wonderful woman who was managing it at the time, Gail Colson, she said, “Peter’s made a great album. You’ve got to bring him out. You’ve got to, don’t let him stand behind a tree.” And he had. So is an extraordinary record. And so we got the Polaroid roll from our… And I remember looking at it, it would wind it through and you’d look, I saw that picture of Peter Gabriel that is the cover of So, and I thought, Okay, we got it.
So, you do sometimes see an image and you know you’ve got it. And the great things with digital and Polaroid: You don’t need to carry on. That’s the wonderful thing—you’ve got it, you’ve got it. I mean, you’re, Okay, we’ll do a couple more rolls. But we really don’t need to. So, you do with images, but you also have to be careful. When it’s someone else’s work, it’s easier. When it’s your own work, you do have to be careful to not just be self-convincing. There’s things I’ve done that I’ve thought people will like and they didn’t work, and other stuff that you’re not so fond of and they really love it. So, I mean, who knows.
AZ: But this idea of belief in self and belief in one’s ideas, how conviction can be kind of misunderstood. And one of the things I was very curious about talking about is, this possibly, what you’ve learned over the years about how misunderstood creative people are. I mean, it gets misconstrued as arrogance, when really it’s a requirement to have a conviction in the idea.
PS: Yes. You do have to strongly hold onto a thread of why and what you’re doing. I mean, sometimes it’s like green lights all the way. You meet somebody who commissions a piece of work and they understand. But more often than not, it’s not like that at all. There’ll be a green light, and then there’ll be a few red lights, and you have to either persevere following your own conviction, or be open-minded and realistic enough to know that somebody else’s point of view is relevant and that you are not necessarily right. I remember Trevor Key, the photographer, he said to me one day, he said, “Have you noticed we only really learn when we make mistakes?” And I was like, “Totally.” And I thought about it for a moment, and you’re right.
It’s actually when something goes wrong that you sit down and say, “What did we miss there? What did we do wrong?” And when you establish what went wrong, you’ve learned. You don’t do it again. So, all the time you have your own way, it’s not necessarily good for you. It is good to be—to stop. Either stop yourself and think, or as we know in commissioned work, someone else often stops you. And sometimes they’re right. You have to accept the fact that sometimes they’re right, but if they’re not, then you have to have the conviction to press on. And if you’re lucky, you will be proved right, ultimately.
AZ: I want to get back to ’83 when you made New Order’s, Power, Corruption & Lies because I don’t want to graze over that. I think the story is well known, I mean you saw the image, you applied it. But what maybe is not as well known is this idea of codes, which is really when it was starting. And there’s a relationship to computers at that time, this was the beginnings of coding.
PS: Yes, but it was not a relationship to which I personally had. I mean, it was about time, that cover. And the kind of juxtaposition of the industrial and the cultural again. I knew I wanted to use a historic work, but I wanted somehow to make it relevant. So, the past, present, future, I quite like. I still have a kind of a holistic sensibility about culture. The idea of abandoning a period, wholesale, when you move on to the next one, which was perhaps a little bit of a twentieth-century trade, maybe it was a kind of modern history, I don’t know. But it somehow seemed wrong to me. That actually, there were some things that you could move on from, but there were also some wonderful things. Perhaps it was desirable to have, what you might call a collage or a melange of things. There’s the now, and there’s the last week, and there’s the last century, and there’s the, you know, actually…
AZ: There’s a stability there.
PS: Yeah, this is a holistic sense about civilization and it always impressed me the most when I would go somewhere that recognized that there was history as well as today.
AZ: The opening of 2001 [A Space Odyssey].
PS: Yes, totally. And that’s normal now, we take this for granted. Whereas actually in the sixties and seventies, there were some aspects of our culture that were, in a way, just abandoning the previous, in a headlong rush into the next.
AZ: A response to World War II, a sort of trauma.
PS: Yes, there’s probably a lot of reason behind the way things were. But certainly as we just go back to the beginning, to that post sixties moment in the early seventies, there were a lot of things that I began to discover through the sort of cannon of art and design that just were not around anymore, and I felt frustrated by that and thought they ought to be around. So, in ’83, I was still interested in the idea of the relevance of the previous to the now, but I was interested in the juxtaposition of the two. And there was an awareness of a computer, but I did not have a computer. The Macintosh design computer was not going to arrive until 1989 in my studio. So, I had a fantasy about computers in the same way that I had a fantasy about the industrial city. It was a kind of romance about it.
And one of the things I began to think about was archival retrieval systems, and that in museums these days then, they probably had a computer archive. And I had no idea what that would be, but there would be a screen, and stuff would come up on the screen. So whether it was a Greek artifact or an impressionist painting or whatever, it would come up on a screen. And I was just curious about that, because I thought, This piece of Greek antiquity has never been on a screen before. This twelfth-century wood icon has never been on a screen before. It’s been in a photo, and it’s been printed on a page, and it’s never been on a screen before. And on that screen, there will be some computer stuff. There will be some of the hieroglyphics and information—you know, we’d all seen science-fiction films.
So I kind of fantasized about historic works in this entirely new context of a computer screen, even though I didn’t really know what computer screen was beyond a movie. And I was curious about that. And I was looking for a historic painting for Power, Corruption & Lies. I was looking for the wrong thing. As I said, I was looking for a portrait at Machiavelli. In the end, I ended up with a bunch of flowers. But I knew that I wanted to juxtapose it with some kind of code, some kind of computer code. Well, I didn’t have any computer code and that was kind of, because it wasn’t on a computer screen, it was going to be printed. And I thought, Well, I don’t really want to litter this with gratuitous hieroglyphics or information. What have I got? Okay, well it’s by New Order, and it’s called Power, Corruption & Lies. So I thought, Okay, so I had to take the actual information that existed that was pertinent to the thing, so the reality of the thing, and turn that somehow into a code.
So I had to turn words into a code, which meant I have to turn the alphabet into a code. I sat down with some colored pencils and a piece of graph paper, squared graph paper, and tried to come up with a code for the alphabet. And I thought, Can I have, like, twenty-six colors? And I thought, Hmm, limitations of four-color process printing, twenty-six colors, is going to be a little bit difficult to distinguish. I could come up with ten colors. I could, you know, white’s white, I could come up with maybe nine distinctly different colors within the limitations of printing, and numbers are numbers, and A’s number one and Z is twenty-six, so I could use numbers to be letters and blah blah blah. So I kind of worked out a color code for the information that was pertinent to the thing. And that was really fun, Andrew, because then, having decided the color code for A to Z, I then started to try out words. So, like, “New Order,” “power,” “corruption,” and “Blue Monday.”
AZ: And turn them around..
PS: Well, it was nice first of all to see this—what can we call it?—random sequence colorfield painter.
AZ: They’re beautiful.
PS: And the colors, the juxtaposition and the sequence of colors would come up as per the nature of the word. So the word would become a color composition, and not a color composition that I determined; it was the fact they were determined by the formula. Because that’s nice. If you have to try and decide “should I put pink next to blue or should I put the yellow in between?” you could spend the rest of your life trying to decide about that. So, this was determined per the formula. So once I had the formula, I didn’t need to have to question the composition. So it just was what it was. And that was really satisfying. It was great to see it. And when that got juxtaposed with the Fantin-Latour, the juxtaposition was fascinating.
PS: Neither of the two things were the same anymore. They were both different by virtue of being in context with each other.
AZ: And this idea of appropriation only works when something sort of respected is brought to it.
PS: Yeah, I had to see it a different way, and without a doubt, the Fantin-Latour became different when it had this subtle coding down the edge of it. But then, it’s so long ago now and I’ve seen it so many times, that it almost doesn’t look right without it.
PS: I mean next month I’ve been invited to the National Gallery, where the painting is to give a little brief talk about the relationship with the painting. And when I see the painting without the color code on, it looks unfinished to me.
AZ: Yeah. It just looks wrong. [Laughs]
PS: Anyway, I mean, the kind of weird sort of phenomenon about it is, there was nothing really to… I didn’t give the code away, but I did create this color wheel on the back. There’s a sort of Apollonian and Dionysian in front, there’s the cover romantic flurry front, and then there’s this strict, kind of almost technical back. And when I said earlier about it being biographical, the Fantin-Latour is this sort of chintz-covered living room that, you know, in my parents’ home. The technical back is the industrial landscape of the northwest where that comfortable home was. It’s this juxtaposition of the two.
And I like them both. I like both of those dimensions. With Power Corruption & Lies, they’re not blended, they’re just juxtaposed against one another. And I like that juxtaposition. And on the back, I did a color wheel of the painting and of the printing inks used to create the work. And around the outside, I did a subdivision of twenty-six parts, the A to Z of the code, but without saying anything. And I kind of thought that that was sort of adequately enigmatic, and maybe, one day, somebody might figure it out. Within a week of release, so immediately, there were two letters to the music press pointing out the spelling mistake on the album.
AZ: [Laughs] Spelling mistake, within color?
PS: In the laying of tints for the color code, there was a spelling mistake. And ironically, it was the word corruption—there were two Ps and one R, rather than two Rs and one P. I hadn’t noticed because the proof came back, it just looked great. But the New Order, Factory, Joy Division, the fans, were so curious, and so inquisitive that they had decoded the twenty-six part key immediately. And observed that there was a spelling mistake in the colors, which I then had to correct on the next run of the print. After which I never underestimated the potential of New Order fans from that point. They are forensic in their inquiry around the content of the work.
But the color code, I loved that color code and it’s one of the things that I get frustrated about. There was a lot of things I could have done with that color code. I mean, if I was a painter, I probably would’ve spent the rest of my life just doing color-field paintings based on language. And it was one of the frustrating things of the nature of the work. I had this entirely autonomous medium at Factory, which is unprecedented in communications design. I mean, that never happens. If you work in graphics, it’s not your work. You’re not the author of the work. It is a service. It is incumbent upon you to successfully deliver the information that is required by others, to the audience, specified by others. It is not your work. Unfortunately, this is something of an illusion, that students who go to study graphics, because graphics is so entry level, visual arts. All teenagers love graphic things because it’s easy to get. And over the last few decades, more and more kids have gone to do graphics, imagining that it’s about them. And it’s not about you.
AZ: Which you learned in 1990.
PS: Yeah, I learned. Well, I learned the hard way a few times. But I mean it was evident to Malcolm Garrett, and I before we left art school that, that’s actually what it was. And that’s why we kind of—
AZ: Found a way around it.
PS: Right. We said, “Well, it doesn’t matter at the moment, because we’re going to do record covers, where there was more freedom.” And there’s a degree of freedom with record covers, but you are conventionally with a group, being the art director of the decision maker in that group or that performance artist. It’s still a service. So all of the covers that I’ve done, except Joy Division and New Order, have been for the person whose record it was. Because it’s their record, and actually, you do have to accept, ultimately it’s their cover. Whereas the situation, it started with Joy Division, after Unknown Pleasures, and they made their second album, but they got busy.
And whereas they’d had time to find that amazing wave diagram for Unknown Pleasures, bands get busy and they don’t have time anymore. So next time around they came to me to say, “What have you got?” and from that came Closer. And then Ian Curtis died, leaving a permanent democracy in New Order. Now, had Joy Division continued, unwillingly and not by his choice, Ian would have become the kind of default leader of Joy Division, because it’s just what happens. There’s a hierarchy that forms around an individual in a group, and whether they want to be the main man or not, they become the main man. The press, management, the audience, the fans make that person. And that would’ve happened with Joy Division, but Ian died and it didn’t, so it never happened. And New Order continued without, reinvented themselves, without Ian, as a democracy. And throughout the eighties there was no single member of Joy Division, of New Order, who was more important than another member of Joy Division.
AZ: Which is a pain in the ass for you.
PS: Well it was a pain in the ass for them a lot of the time because it was difficult to get anything decided, but it was also very beautiful. It was very beautiful that they were a group and not just one person’s outfit. But when and something had to be decided then that could sometimes be difficult. Because there was three or four, then Gillian [Gilbert] joined the group, and there were four points of view. So for me, I soon witnessed a culture of disagreement develop between the four of them, just on principle. So, not meaningful disagreement, but just bloody minded, “In principle, I will disagree with him because I feel like it.” So it meant that even though I would try to get their consensus on something, sometimes it was impossible. And so it defaulted to me to make the decision.
What happened with New Order was that they would make their records and I would do the covers. And there was no one for me to show the work to, to approve it. So on certain occasions, it went from me to the printer without anyone seeing it. “Blue Monday” is a perfect example of that. And they didn’t necessarily like it, but there was always someone who liked it, and someone who didn’t like it, and somebody who didn’t mind it. And they were tolerant and it was kind of like family, so it was like family. You might not like the way your auntie does the Christmas tree, but she does the Christmas tree so you live with it. It was a bit like that. So for a graphic artist designer, to have mass production at their disposal without any gatekeeper—
AZ: It’s amazing.
PS: Doesn’t happen, does it? It never happens. It never happens.
AZ: Yeah, ever.
PS: So even if you ask me today to do a logo for Time Sensitive, you’re still going to want to see it before it goes live, before it goes on. You’re still going to want to like it. It’s a service. That’s the nature of graphic design. So throughout the eighties I had this unprecedented situation where I was able to create work, and in the case of things like “Blue Monday,” it actually went to millions. And “Blue Monday” is a phenomenal one because it is actually a commercial product in that people bought it, but it has nothing written on it. There’s nothing written on it at all. It is devoid almost of information. And I’ve seen figures as big as two million for “Blue Monday.” And the idea that two million things were transacted without any information or branding or any kind of concession.
AZ: Incredible. So, that period ends, 1990 shows up. The economy is terrible. Your own studio, The Factory, not in great condition. And you make this sort of unlikely decision to move to L.A. and join Pentagram.
PS: No, it’s slightly the other way around. So, the facts are correct. In the latter parts of the eighties, I was running the studio like an art project and imagining that, any day now, it would somehow magically become art, and that somehow art would save me.
AZ: Because it had, why would you think any different?
PS: There was some encouragements as well. My friend Robert Longo was very supportive, particularly of some work that I’d done. I had a meeting here in New York with his gallery Metro [Pictures]. I kind of thought at any moment I will magically make some transition into art, and I will be able to make the workers’ art rather than as print, and it’ll all be fine. And it wasn’t that. That magic moment didn’t happen. And by 1990, my so-called studio was insolvent. I mean, I was doing work as if there was no tomorrow. There was no accountability between the time we spent and what we were being paid. So we ran out of money, and the rest of the world ran out of money around about that time as well. The easy credit of the eighties came to a standstill, the way it was to happen again in the 2000s and owing money in 1990 was a very bad place to be.
And the esteemed design partnership Pentagram—who had been founded in London in 1972, and then it expanded to New York and also to San Francisco—I went and talked to a man, one of the partners of Pentagram, about the predicament. He proposed that perhaps I could become a partner of Pentagram and start to learn something. So it came to pass that in 1990 I became a partner of Pentagram in London, and became the eighth partner in London. And there were fifteen partners all together around the world. And actually, for the two years,it was a probationary two-year period as a partner of Pentagram. In the two years, I learned a lot. For the first time, I learned from some grown-ups how you run a design firm and the accountability of time.
And I kind of learned enough to know that I didn’t really want to do that. But I did learn how to, well, I got insight, how-to. I didn’t really acquire the know-how how-to, but I could see how you are supposed to do it. And I learned a lot from those guys. There were, all together, fifteen highly experienced partners of Pentagram, and they were all independent. That’s how Pentagram works. It’s a sort of partnership, like a law firm. There’s a lot to learn from experienced others. I was 35. The average age of the partners was like 55. So I was learning from people who had been doing it for a lot longer than I had. And some things are timeless. Some professional practice is timeless. But after two years, it was quite clear that I was not really going to conform, and I didn’t really like the idea of converting a fee into time. So there was a ten thousand dollar budget for this, and that equates to three days. And so whatever you do will be done in three days. And if possible, do it in two because there’s nothing wrong with a profit.
AZ: But everything you’ve done up to that point just kind of occurred when it needed to occur?
PS: It didn’t really fit in working that way. So Pentagram and I were not destined comfortably to continue. So in ’93, Brett Wickens, who worked with me as my kind of senior assistant, even in a way my kind of partner in the work we were doing, Brett and I left Pentagram and we went to Los Angeles.
We’d been in L.A. for like a month in ’92, working on a television channel ident, for a youth education program called Channel One. It was a youth news program initiated by Whittle Communications. And a very kind of progressive man called David Neuman who was the producer, director of it and he was a Factory fan. He thought it would be kind of interesting to have Factory graphics for this youth news network idea.
So it was whilst we’d been still at Pentagram, Brad and I spent a month in Los Angeles doing a TV network ident. And like all visitors and particularly Europeans, Brett was Canadian, but I was European, who kind of spend a few weeks working in L.A., you think this is great. You stay in the Sunset Marquis hotel, there’s a car downstairs in the parking lot, and there’s a pool, and you have eggs benedict before you go to work, and you come back, and you have a swim, and you think, This is life in L.A. You think, This is great. We ought to move to L.A. Of course, it’s not like that, but you kind of mistakenly think, If I live in L.A. it would be like a holiday job. So we thought if things go wrong in London, we might come back. And there was a lot of like, “You guys should stick around.” Anyway, things did go wrong in London. We left Pentagram. And we had a concept about what was called “new media” at the time. So this is ’93, and Brett and I witnessed it in L.A. What we witnessed was the pool of talent.
Brett was very computer orientated and we talked about how much, what was being called new media, might change the practice of communications design. We thought, Okay, well photographers are going to give way to cameramen. Typography is going to give way to a voiceover. Models will give way to actors. Communications design is heading towards becoming a motion-image experience. And if that is the case, there is an enormous pool of talent in Hollywood that is not working all of the time, and that Hollywood could be a very smart place to have a communications agency, if communications are going screen-based. It’s actually quite observant.
AZ: Very projective, yeah.
PS: We knew that the guys at Pentagram were not interested in that at all. They were still waiting for us to give up even our computers. But we knew there was a company here in New York that might be interested, and it was a company called Frankfurt Balkind, who were technically very progressive. So in the last days of Pentagram or when we left Pentagram, we came to New York and had a meeting with a man called Aubrey Balkind, who ran Frankfurt Balkind. He was very technically savvy and interesting, and we put this idea to him, and he said, “You may have something there. I have a studio in L.A., why don’t you go there and try it out?” So Frankfurt Balkind wonderfully supported Brett and I to relocate from London to L.A.
Unfortunately, Aubrey didn’t really get time to brief the L.A. office who were predominantly doing movie posters, so Brett and I found ourselves a little bit like fish out of water in a studio that didn’t really know why we were there. Brett was ultimately able to make himself very useful because he was technically proficient, and he sat down and just got on and helped Frankfurt Balkind produce movie posters. And I was just utterly irresponsible. I was like a loose cannon. I just went and drove around L.A. every day looking for furniture and working out how you live in L.A., waiting for my AOOA visa to come through, given a credit card from the company, because I could not be officially employed. And basically appeared to be completely out of control, according to Aubrey. And in some ways, on reflection, I was a bit out of control. But I learned a lot about L.A. and—
AZ: You got back to London?
PS: Yeah, I mean, It was kind of clear that I was not going to conform to fit in with the company. Brett stayed and I didn’t. I was down and out for six months in Beverly Hills, which was interesting. I’d stayed another six months with no money, as in no money. No checking account, no credit card, no money. The first time ever in my life with no money and no immediate family to turn to. And it’s quite interesting, when you have no money, very quickly you have no friends to turn to. People lend you twenty dollars. They say, “But what are you going to do tomorrow?” And that was good for me, but it was not exactly enjoyable. So I had a difficult few months down and out in Beverly Hills. That was a really important moment.
And in Beverly Hills, one afternoon, I looked at the houses on the way to Rodeo Drive, and I looked at the stores, and I was like 38, 39 years of age. And I thought, Actually, this is not really what I want. If I stay here and I’m successful, actually it’s not really what I want. These are not the stores I want to go to and these are not the homes that I want if I’m ever successful enough to be able to buy one. So at that point I realized that my long-term sense of self did not belong in Los Angeles. And I realized that I should leave before it was too late. If you stay there too long, you will never cut it.
AZ: And what’s interesting is the next home you make becomes this iconic, very important space.
PS: Oh, “The Apartment” are you thinking of?
AZ: In Mayfair [London].
PS: Okay. So I went back to London. I was sort of homeless in London for a few months. Eventually made friends with a wonderful young German art director called Mike Meiré, who had a very successful company in Cologne [Germany]. Mike was very supportive, and he came to London frequently to buy art, and we decided that we could do a place together. So Mike’s company provided the capital for what became known as “The Apartment,” which was like a two-thousand-square-foot Mayfair salon, where I had the benefit of living and Mike would visit.
We were supposed to work there together, and his brother, who was the financial director of the company, hoped that we would. But we would just go shopping or talk about art. So it worked beautifully for two or three years, but it didn’t really go anywhere. So ultimately, we had to pull the plug on that. But it was great. And after the 1990 recession, there was a phenomenal transformation that happened in the culture of London. The YBAs appeared, the Young British Art movement happened. And it happened in a kind of lull after the recession. That New York as the established center of contemporary art was somewhat disrupted by the ’91-’92 recession and a little bit almost in freeze frame. And actually, in London, the young artists in London were the first ones out from that.
PS: And partly because they didn’t have anything anyway. So they were used to not having anything. There was something very vital and urgent about that work they did. And it was kind of life and death. Damien [Hirst]’s work in particular, Marc Quinn did this remarkable—
AZ: The blood heads.
PS: Yeah, of his own blood and froze it.
AZ: Tracey Emin was doing all that work.
PS: Tracey Emin. This is my life, for better or worse, this is my life. It was really about life and death. It was about their life. It was not about anything other than that. And it was phenomenal.
And this was all happening in London. I remember distinctly, it was like the summer of ’94, there was a show at the Serpentine in Hyde Park [London], and it was called “Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away.” Damien’s sheep in formaldehyde was there, and I remember leaving that thinking, Thank God. Thank God I have got back here in time to know and connect with this thing that was happening. In the mid-nineties, London seemed to be the most vital place and urgent place to be. It was really important to be in London in the mid-nineties—to feel, to understand this, be part of it. And then, what I began to realize was that many of this new generation of artists were the teenagers who had—
AZ: Grown up on your work. But there’s a period from then to now with an enormous amount of work. Your collaborations with Raf Simons, your work on redoing the Burberry logo, all these things that have come out of this period of the middle. And so as a final thing, I’d love to hear from you what that period, that fallow period in the middle, where you did feel untethered, gave you.
PS: Well, I didn’t know what to do with myself because I was in this fascinating position. People say, “Oh, you’re a designer, you’re an artist. Oh, it’s really interesting, you’re between art and design.” Well, it is very interesting being between things, but you’re like everything—you’re everywhere and nowhere. It’s not easy being between things because you are neither one thing nor another. Are you a pop star or an actor? Well, maybe you’re neither. It can be a non-place. As well as being very interesting and very rich, it’s also a non-place. And in that kind of nascent period of having a professional career as a designer, it was a bit of a non-place. I didn’t really want to do it, and I was not clearly identifiable. You could take the signals from my work and apply it to the world and many were doing that, if you felt inclined to do it. It’s just that I didn’t really feel inclined to do it.
I did the work because I thought that I needed to, and I thought that the world needed to see it. I didn’t do it because it needed to sell more jeans. And I’m actually not very good at doing work for that reason. Between ’90 and 2010, so there’s a twentyyear period where I explore different things and I’m like looking for a way to be me. I mean, during that period, Nick Knight and I founded Show Studio. It seemed to me towards the end of the late nineties that fashion was becoming a motion image issue. And I sat with Nick one day and I said, “We should create a website because we will escape the tyranny of clients and publishers’ websites, just do the things we want to do.” And Nick was just brilliant and totally supportive of it and made it possible and has continued with Show Studio—
AZ: To this day, it’s incredible.
PS: And we were right, fashion was going to become a motion-image thing. It’s just that I was interested in it theoretically. I don’t really want to make films of handbags, though, so that’s the problem. So it was difficult for me.
The interesting thing that has happened in the last ten years is that the generations who were informed and inspired or motivated—whatever I can modestly say—by the work that I had the opportunity to do, they have become now decisionmakers in their respective places and professions. So, Raf Simons was, like, probably inspired by me when he was young, when he was on the way. But when he finally got here as the new creative director of Calvin Klein, he was then in a position to call me and say, “The Calvin Klein identity needs updating. You come and do it.” And it was Raf’s decision. Raf did not have to convince some old guy who couldn’t give a fuck who I was, to get some Brit to do it. Raf made the decision, and this has been the case for the last few years. It was Riccardo Tisci, he said, “I want Peter Saville to do Burberry.” And in each case—Marek Reichman at Aston Martin asked me to redo the Aston Martin badge last year.
The creative individuals who kindly have a regard for me, they are now able to make the decision in their organization or their context and ask me to do the work without me having to validate myself in some of the kind of conventional metrics of communications design. And that’s been great because it has meant that I have been able to choose things that I wanted to do and that I didn’t mind doing.
AZ: Very validating towards the choices you made to get here.
PS: Yeah, exactly. And I’m not running a studio, so I do not have the overhead of a studio. I live in what was my studio. It’s important for me to have a significant project each year. I have companies like Kvadrat who are incredibly supportive and modestly retain me, which is really helpful. And I can pick and choose what I do. But when I do do something now, it’s somehow now legendary status. So I don’t have to argue now about a value. I don’t have to sit and have a hard-nose talk about the price for something. More often than not, there is a degree of respect to me. When I go in to do a job, I go in as the famous Peter Saville and clients are respectful of that. And it’s very difficult to get to that point.
AZ: Of course. Well, the only way it happens, I think, is laid out in the last hour people have listened.
PS: Okay, thank you.
AZ: So on that, thank you for coming in today, Peter.
PS: Andrew, it was a true pleasure.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on September 22, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by Jennifer Grant. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Ramon Broza, and Johnny Simon.