Design: The Changing Face of the Aesthetic Environment

The renowned graphic designer talks records, civilisation and the democratisation of design.

Speaking with Peter Saville is both a mind-expanding and an engaging experience. He is a wealth of contradictions – a name that has become synonymous with Manchester, who hasn’t lived in the city for 30 years; a self-confessed connoisseur of design, who has become hugely weary of the proliferation of aesthetics in the media; and an icon of popular culture with a penchant for strict formalism and high-minded philosophising. He opens by noting that the multitude of media “is all just a bit like soup,” in a manner which makes the prospect of an interview intimidating. But Saville is a natural and engaging speaker, and he profusely urges us to stop and consider our state of play. There is a sense, when interviewing him that he has been over the same ground before, but is still open to all possibilities and contemplating his opinions to an extensive degree. When asked whether design is a part of the everyday, he comments that it is “a part of our civilisation.” This distinction is Saville’s thoughtfulness manifest – careful and precise. “I think it’s a mess at the moment but that mess is part of the multitude of possibilities, it will sort itself out. It’s a learning curve, so that’s why I use the word civilisation.”

Saville achieved notoriety working as the art director of Factory Records in the late 1970s, with album sleeves for independent Manchester acts, most notably Joy Division and New Order. Given an unprecedented degree of creative freedom on these works, one resulting product was Blue Monday, an oversized replication of a floppy disc, requiring meticulous cutting processes that caused financial losses for every copy sold. Saville’s designs captured the zeitgeist by fusing the worlds of aesthetics and pop to create the precedent for future album covers, magazine designs, fashion followings and music television. Saville summarises that the album cover was the catalyst for attracting the attention of teenagers to an artistic world beyond their own confines. “My contact point to a world beyond the one I grew up was the record covers of Kraftwerk, David Bowie and Roxy Music, where I was introduced to other possibilities, other apparent realities, which fascinated and intrigued me and then led me on to make new discoveries which I applied to my work and passed onto other people.”

Yohji Yamamoto, Suede, CNN and Kate Moss illustrate the diversity of brands that have enjoyed the Saville treatment after the Factory years, with his status cemented by the Design Museum’s 2003 The Peter Saville Show. The differences between today’s design sphere and the 1970s culture into which Saville emerged are marked as “a common awareness and interest, a fascination, an affection and then unfortunately an obsession with design.” In his tirade against consumerism, it’s difficult to define Saville’s position, he fluctuates between a bounding enthusiasm for the democratisation of aesthetics, “we can see Primark is brilliant, Ikea is brilliant, Tate Modern is brilliant,” to a frustrated amusement, “I’m weary of the design overload now. I have fashion fatigue, commodity fatigue. Without a doubt all of those positive things are transitioning through the obsessive phase, the gratuitous phase, and the over-commodified phase.” The proliferation of digital media, and Saville’s rooting in an analogue time, ensures a certain degree of detachment for the designer who, at the age of 53, recognises with the security of age, that over-commoditisation is an issue that needs to be addressed by the next generation, “it’s their world.” While acknowledging that “people are functioning in a mind-boggling multi-channel system,” Saville expertly steers clear of moralising in a manner that makes it seem foolish to ask: “Whether it’s good or bad? It’s how it is and there’s no point dwelling on whether it’s good or bad, you have to decide how you live with it.”

Saville’s lament echoes those of many in the design world today, including Stephen Bayley and Vivienne Westwood. It is a denunciation of purposeless design, of “an enormous amount of designer objets d’art being commoditised and commercialised.” The initiation of this obsession returns us to the formative years of the record cover: “Art as a way of life began to be referenced in 1970s pop, this was basically the audience being taken on a journey of awareness. Pop provides these stepping-stones into both visual and literary culture. That is one of the interesting ways of reading the last quarter century.”

Juxtaposition lies at the heart of Saville’s work. Fac 1, the first Factory poster (Use Hearing Protection) references the found object movement of fine art, but with Saville’s meticulous positioning, it came to encapsulate the post-industrial new wave culture later epitomised by the Haçienda; Closer depicts a neo-classical opulence bathed in dusty light, but placed on a stark minimalist background; Power, Corruption and Lies famously displays a Fantin-Latour oil painting, alongside a graphic technical coding; classic American cowboys ride into a russet sunset, while a cold blue condensation edges into the image on Regret. He is a pioneer of clean neo-modernism but with additions of oil paintings, found objects, industrial warnings, Italian Futurism and technical codes, Saville takes the designs beyond his early inspirations from Jan Tschichold. As such, he himself has become part of the canon that he venerates and Factory designs have emblazoned the autumn-winter 2003/2004 collection of Belgian fashion designer, Raf Simons. Saville recognises how his process of discovery has been instrumental in leading others along the same lines: “I am fully aware in the context of Joy Division and New Order that the information carried in that medium went to the heart and mind of the audience because it was delivered by the music. The actual visual material, which was a big step for people, would not have been so openly received had it not been in the context of pop affiliation. If I’d stood up in a room of young people and given them a talk about formalism and post modernism, they probably would have left the room.”

Evidence of such cultural crossroads, and especially considering Saville’s fashion associations throughout the 1990s and 2000s, begs the question, beyond functionality, where does the line lie between art and design? “A work of art is about itself whereas design is about something other than itself.” The fact that the early Yohji Yamamoto campaigns neglected to feature any of the clothes they were commissioned to sell further confuses this distinction. Typically embarking upon a subsequent chain of questions, that innate curiosity continues to muse over the distinction, outwardly culminating with the damning announcement, “much art is rather sad, and in a way almost desperate. It’s a terribly revealing attempt by somebody to express themselves, and they perhaps shouldn’t be bothering us with it.” Refreshingly for the art world, we also have an honest critique of the hierarchies of the establishment, outside of the amateur artist: “Who is the jury for good art? Art is out there in its own universe and what the hierarchies of art declare to be good art is actually arguable by everybody.”

On the one hand, the democratisation of culture or “the culturalisation of pop,” is a welcome improvement of awareness. “It is in essence a good process, a learning curve, it’s a broader sweep now and it’s taking in many more people.” But Saville also raises some issues of distinction, highlighting the collapsed values for our fractured society. “We’re reaching a saturation point where it’s very difficult to understand what anything means. There’s a question of how values will come back into our way of life.” A more individualistic approach to identity, something that has flourished from the ashes of financial instability, is evidence that these alterations are underway. With consumers rejecting instructions from above “we’re becoming more cultured, more civilised, and understanding and ultimately demanding an appropriateness with design”, giving us all something to think about.

Peter Saville was a judge for the 2009’s design category at the Best of Manchester Awards.

Pauline Bache