The last punk

Tara Brabazon on Peter Saville’s remarkable staying power at the edge of fashion

April 24, 2008

Graphic design is the new rock ’n’ roll. In the past 15 years, musicians, DJs, actors and journalists have been superseded in the fashion hierarchy. Graphic designers are the guerrilla fighters of capitalism, battling to align corporate objectives, stylistic innovation and interrogative creativity. Visual media have the potential for revealing, masking or solving social problems. White space is cut up, shredded and swamped with colour and punctuated with lines. Corporate types buy a design to sell goods, ensuring that visual creativity and freshness is tempered by a calm compliance with the capitalist order. Neoliberalism requires graphic designers to sell (out) – not slice up – their politics.

Where a pencil meets paper, and art meets commerce, graphic design is enacted. As the service industry for screen and sound, clothing and corporates, designers create the look of capitalism. How they shape the beautiful and grotesque through lines and shading determines the relationship between art and advertising.

Peter Saville has fought “the system” throughout his career. At his moments of greatest success and opportunity, he simply left the organisation. He attempted to work in the US but left after a year. Saville justified these failures by asserting that “I have a real problem with going to work for the sake of going to work”. He has moved from job to job, fight to fight, since he left Manchester Polytechnic with first-class honours in 1978. Through this defiance and diffidence to a working day, he has managed to hold jobs – at least temporarily – for Dior, Yohji Yamamoto and Givenchy.

The goal of graphic design is to reframe the familiar, to make it new, fresh, distinct and disturbing. One of the most influential images on Saville’s life and work was Kraftwerk’s Autobahn. A motorway transformed into a visual and musical collision of the industrial and the agrarian. But Saville has a gift that arches beyond the steel and chrome of Kraftwerk’s aloof and modernist Dusseldorf. He was born in the right place and time. Manchester, at the moment of a music revolution, provided the soundtrack for his vision. If he is known for two images, then it is his first album cover for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures and Closer, the last cover for the group released after Ian Curtis’s suicide. Manchester music was pivotal to him: it gave him an edge and a connection to popular culture.

Saville was the ideal visualiser for Factory Records, a job without a client, contract or clearly definable brief. It was a label inspired by punk, but fuelled by Dada irony. Punk cut up popular graphics through appropriation and pastiche. War-time imagery, Stalinist iconography and situationist scrawls were inscribed over the proto-Thatcherite wasteland. Most importantly, punk created space for change. While punk did not provide a fresh cultural language, it did create disturbing combinations. The border shifted between popular and unpopular culture, the compliant and the dangerous.

Punk offered more opportunities for musicians and fashion designers than for graphic designers. For Saville, it was Jan Tschichold’s Die Neue Typographie, when traced over David Bowie and Roxy Music, that created new layers of design. Besides Tschichold, Saville was also influenced by his former schoolmate Malcolm Garrett who started designing for the Buzzcocks in 1976. Inspired by this alliance, by 1978 Saville was commissioned by Tony Wilson to design the first Factory poster. What makes his work significant to the history of independent labels is that Saville destabilised the link between the sonic and visual, and the acceptable role of the single, album and 12-inch cover in relation to the music. He entwined design and popular music history, creating an edgy and unsettling dance.

Peter Saville remains the first and last design punk. He does not fit in. He does not produce goods on time and on budget. Working in the excessive egoism of the music and fashion industry, his shrill – but accurate – commentary was that “I’m more interesting than any of my clients”. His confidence (in himself) is contagious. He has publicised the contradictions within the creative arts and the creative industries.

In Sean O’Toole’s Design Indaba he says: “It seems Pentagram now values the work I did there, which in retrospect I find upsetting and ironic. David Hillman, in particular, takes a distinctly hypocritical position towards me. I was put forward to be a Royal Designer for Industry this year, and David had it stopped. He lodged a personal objection, which didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was when I then heard that Pentagram now includes my work in presentations. The value of those fashion projects with Nick Knight for Jill Sander and Yohji Yamamoto, and Nick’s own book were questioned when I was there. The work was resented because it wasn’t profitable. They doubted the value of it then, but it would seem they don’t now.”

There has never been a greater need for Saville to reveal the contradictions, pretence and inconsistencies of work, culture and life. His great gift was to put design – passionate, punchy and difficult design – on to record labels during a time when music mattered. For a generation of young people, Saville made design not only important but a necessary part of popular culture. He made music look important and gave music fandom credibility, unsettling clear determinations of cultural value.

When reminded that his designs must make money for his corporate clients, he replies – with edge – “Well, actually that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to make things better.” In the duel between creativity and commerce, he has defiantly chosen to live outside the capitalist order. Twenty-five years after he left the city of his greatest fame, Manchester City Council made him the creative director of the city. Between January and April 2004, his Peter Saville Show ran at Manchester’s Urbis, the museum of the city. A retrospective book, Designed by Peter Saville, was published. His value and credibility, built through decades of outsider status, is being recognised. But he is clear that his work is grounded in darkness, death and post-industrial decay. “The life of Ian Curtis was the investment that made Factory happen... Ian’s life created the platform from which Factory was able to survive and New Order were able to continue for the next decade. That was the investment in Factory Records. And actually in modern Manchester. I mean, the last three years I’ve been creative director to the city of Manchester, and I see it very, very clearly and plainly. Ian’s life was the sacrifice that made it all work.”

His coldness of style, masking a jaggedness of grief, has constructed what he terms an “original modern”. In an era of content – user-generated or corporate-delivered – he has affirmed the value of form. His visual vocabulary has rewritten the industrial past, but also transformed himself into a brand.

The irony is that now that he is famous – one of the most famous graphic designers in the world – he is (re)drawing himself and his history as sharply as sharp black lettering on brittle white card. His war against capitalism – through lateness and the endless talking and procrastination about details and alternatives – has been successful. He has punctured popular culture and slowed accelerated modernity, in a relentless search for visual solutions to social problems. He had to be difficult and defiant to do it. Saville infused punk with cool elegance and roughed up corporate sleekness. Although he actually produces few designs, he has transformed his body – let alone his body of work – into an early 21st-century art experiment.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies at the University of Brighton.

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