THE GRAPHIC DESIGN OF PETER SAVILLE


 

THE DARK PRINCE Alice Twemlow



ARTWORK Yohji Yamamoto advertisment 1990

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An incisive cultural commentator. A design superstar. An international playboy with a London Mayfair apartment to match. A consistently unconventional, nomadic intellectual. A renaissance man with bad work habits. Descriptions like these precede Peter Saville like clouds before a storm.

I meet him in the afternoon, which is fortunate because, true to form, the notoriously nocturnal Saville greets me in a silk dressing gown after a hard night's work on the latest Hugo Boss campaign. His glamorous lifestyle/workstyle and his immaculately renovated 1970's mansion block apartment have been the subject of almost as much media interest as his creative output. This would not be a surprise if Saville were a film star (as the somewhat autobiographical cover he designed for the Suede single of the same name--featuring a photo of Saville himself dressed as a clubgirl--suggests). But the graphic design profession is rarely thought of in such glamorous terms. Still, Saville is not likely to be hindered by convention.

"I've no interest in graphic design"

Once he is dressed for the day--what is left of it, anyway--in a distinctly Saville-esque uniform of white jeans and black turtleneck sweater, and we are seated in a high-ceilinged room that looks like the set for a luxurious fashion shoot, the loquacious Saville begins to talk. "I've no interest in graphic design," he says, head in hand, with a world-weary sigh--the first of many that will punctuate descriptions of his spiritual and vocational journey from Manchester to Mayfair. His conversational style is urbane, considered and multilinear. He keeps several lines of thought spinning simultaneously and manages to respond to urgent telephone inquiries (one requests his presence at Pulp's This Is Hardcore album launch party that very night), while providing an informed running commentary on the England v. Switzerland football match that is unfolding silently on a television screen. All the while, like a holdover from an Antonioni move, he elegantly chain-smokes French cigarettes. "The cultural significance of a graphic problem is interesting--whether it's about the state of the world that's created the issue in the first place or about how the issue is going to affect the state of the world--but the actual craft of graphic design doesn't interest me," Saville says, relaxing both into the interview and into his expansive, L-shaped black leather sofa.

Saville's cool, jaded attitude toward the profession in which he participates and its institutions is reinforced by his position in that profession: he dwells somewhere along the margins making only occasional forays into the establishment's midst to pick up the odd British design award, sample a partnership with a large firm (he's attended ill-fated stints at both Pentagram and Frankfurt Balkind) or give a lecture at a conference. But Saville's role as maverick outsider, in addition to his fluid negotiation between the traditionally separate fields of art, design, moving image, styling and direction, allows him a unique vantage point from which to critically observe contemporary visual culture, both in the worlds of fashion and music, and in the corporate arena.

Although the graphic design industry may not hold much appeal for Saville, its context and the ideas that underlie it certainly do. The late-90s phenomenon of visual overload, for example, seems equally to fascinate and repel him.

"Fashion is all about seasonal replenishment and disposability."

"We are in a very alarming cultural predicament of overheated, arbitrary, rapid consumption," Saville pronounces, glancing at what appears to be a comprehensive collection of this month's style magazines arranged in a grid on his white carpeting. "Fashion is all about seasonal replenishment and disposability. And, in the image-making business, every year newcomers arrive and throw in new stuff, very little of which stands the test of time." As an image-maker himselfand, having contributed so significantly to visual culture since graduating 20 years ago from Manchester Polytechnic, this crisis of graphic saturation seems intensely personal to Saville.

"The graphic and typographic fashion obsession actually speeds up the moment of your demise," he observes, with acute self-awareness. "The bigger [a graphic idiom] gets, the wider it's communicated, the quicker it's copied and the sooner everyone's sick of it."

While Saville was a strong proponent of self-expression--often to the detriment of commercial concerns--during the mid-80s, when he designed the identity and album covers for Manchester's Factory Records and the English band New Order (the latter of which never gave him explicit project briefs and printed anything he came up with), Saville now believes that "using a client's communication project as a canvas for your own ideas is inappropriate.

It's not art and it's not communication design, it's just graphic wallpaper."

"I see an awful lot of graphic design going on at the moment that is terribly self-indulgent," he says. "It's not art and it's not communication design, it's just graphic wallpaper." Such sentiments will surely come as something of a shock to his former employer, Audrey Balkind. "Peter's an extraordinarily talented guy," Balkind, the CEO of New York-based Frankfurt Balkind, says, recalling the period when Saville joined the firm as a creative director in its L.A. office. "But he's had some difficulty bridging where artistic self-expression ends and addressing a client's problem begins."

Now Saville has found a way to produce political commentary about the "wallpaper" he so abhors, while addressing the rapid turnover of styles symptomatic of what he refers to as "the unfeasible speed of existence." A new and vital body of self-commissioned art entitled "Waste Paintings" is the result of a process by which Saville digitally and deliberately "shreds" twp decades' worth of his own work. The fodder for these startling "pixel paintings," manipulated by Photoshop, is a body of work that has been influential both in and beyond the graphic design fraternity: the enigmatic 1980s LP art for Factory Records and the British pop bands New Order, Joy Division and, more recently, Suede and Pulp; his fashion advertising campaigns for Jil Sander, Martine Sitbon, Yohji Yamamoto and Christian Dior; and the institutional identities he's designed for London's Whitechapel art gallery and US Channel I.

Saville's dense and varied portfolio is testament both to his reputation for brilliant design and less-than-brilliant business sense. Relationships with clients have been turbulent and often embarrassingly short. "Peter's really his own worst enemy," Balkind reflects of their yearlong collaboration. "He could be a lot more influential, but he hasn't managed to form the right long-term relationships. In a sense, he has put himself on the fringe." But Saville's portfolio still stands, and Balkind is the first to acknowledge it. "He certainly understands that communicating with people using cultural icons is a successful way to communicate. And some of his own work has indeed become culturally iconic within specific niche areas," Balkind says.

"Saville is cribbing from his own creative output."

In one sense, Saville's "Waste Paintings" are an extension of the controversial gesture of appropriation, for which he himself was well known in the 1980s, when he would directly and irreverently "lift" an image from one genre--art history for example--and recontextualize it in another. A Fantin-Latour "Roses" painting in combination with a color-coded alphabet became the seminal album cover for New Order's Power, Corruption and Lies (1983), for example. Now, in a post-postmodern kind of way, Saville is cribbing from his own creative output, offering him a means of accomplishing several goals at once: criticizing a practice of appropriation he's outgrown and is pissed off about now that everyone else is doing it; providing him with an opportunity to continue doing it without repeating himself; offering him a new source of artistic satisfaction; and, potentially, creating some revenue for the designer on his own terms.

Having provided packaging for so much music during his career (packaging that, in many cases, surpassed the music it sought to represent) and self-referentially (and -reverentially) acknowledging the fact that "the Peter Saville brand is probably collectible," Saville now intends to produce his own digital "label" that the creative community will be able to buy directly from him and use as they please, like stock photography. "It's as close to the heart as it gets," says Saville, describing this intensely personal project. It seems only fitting that Saville--who describes himself in his youth as a "chronically groovy wannabe"--should have his own album of "greatest hits," stretched, saturated, blended and morphed beyond recognition, like so much sampling.

While the potential of his "Waste Paintings" seems to genuinely excite him, in many other respects Saville appears cynical and self-critical. He is especially disillusioned by the corporate world and the role he has played in it--particularly the fact that, "very little hard-edged conceptual thinking makes its way through to the global scene"--and about the advertising industry, which he charges with "strategically cherry-picking new trends."

His low mood is understandable. For a man who has spent most of his career tapping into the zeitgeist of the young through images related to the music scene, Saville--now in his 40s--is moving further away from the demographic he was once so good at communicating with, and is dubious about his ability to continue intuiting and encapsulating the cultural preoccupations of consumers half his age. He voiced this concern when he was first approached last year by Brett Anderson, lead singer of Suede, to design the band's Coming Up album and, when it came to casting and styling the photo shoot, Saville deferred to the younger man's biases.

"A professional collaborator, he has also stubbornly maintained his independence."

And herein lies one of Peter Saville's most paradoxical qualities. While he is a professional collaborator, most famously with Factory Records' impresario Tony Wilson, architect Ben Kelly, British photographers Trevor Key and Nick Knight, fashion art director Marc Ascoli and designers Brett Wickens and Howard Wakefield, he has also stubbornly maintained his independence, whether it was during the seven years that he and Wickens ran Peter Saville Associates (1983-90) or as a freelancer playing the various roles of stylist, typographer, design consultant or art director. When, in 1995, Saville was courted by the then-avant-garde design collective Tomato during a brief sojourn at the group's studio, he declined the offer. "Becoming part of Tomato is an end in itself, an all encompassing experience. Because I already had a lot of equity in my own history, there wasn't a lot to be gained from sacrificing that equity for a new one, which I admired but didn't feel wholly committed to."

Being a partner at one of London's oldest and more "establishment" design consultancies, on the other hand, was another scenario altogether: "At Pentagram I was still Peter Saville." In 1990 the alliance between a style guru of the 1980s and a multidisciplinary design practice like Pentagram, with its emphasis firmly on content, sounded unlikely, and indeed the partnership ended unhappily (and unprofitably) after only three years. At the time, though, Saville was compelled by the prospect of the partnership. "At the end of the gamut of styles that had been worked through in the 1980s, I was more than ready to embrace some clear, solution-based thinking," he recalls. Even now, he enthuses about aspects of the experience: "The concept of Pentagram is brilliant and is just as brilliant now as it was in the seventies. Bringing together creative individuals and amassing their potential and turnover capabilities, thereby being able to afford for them a fantastic management system and a building and all the other services you need to appear to be a big company when the big clients come along, well that's a fantastic concept." It was an organizational structure and a creed that, at the start of the 1990s, Saville and his like-minded contemporaries, Malcolm Garrett and Neville Brody, had considered putting into practice for themselves.

"I learned a lot about mature thinking and the interaction between design and business" while at Pentagram, Saville says. "Almost every day, the things I learned at Pentagram help me now."

"I would like to find one home"

"The Apartment" where Peter Saville now works with colleagues Michaela Eischeid and Howard Wakefield is the U.K. office, or "competence center," for the young, innovative German advertising agency MeirÈ and MeirÈ, which provided Saville with the means to become operational in London again after returning penniless from his unhappy stint at Frankfurt Balkind in L.A. Though the logistics of the international collaboration with the agency have proven less straightforward than either party anticipated, the relationship remains ongoing. But it has not provided Saville with the kind of stability he wishes he had at this stage in his career. "Finally, I would like to find one home, one person or organization I could click with and have a genuine usefulness to as an art director, whether it's a fashion house or a photographic agency," he says. "I need that in order to have my career resolve into something appropriate and rewarding."

Still, new offers keep rolling in with every ring of his many telephones, a situation that, although flattering, is in danger of losing its appeal. "I've ended up in probably what is a unique, unheard of and completely unmanageable position," he ventures. "In a time of increasing specialization, I seem to have a bit of a presence in many different camps."

During one particularly "unmanageable" week last year, Saville remembers, "I had a Suede single cover on the go as part of my second coming as a record-cover designer, I was art-directing John Galliano's first campaign at Dior and I was making a proposal to review the identity of ABC-TV in the U.S. Of course, not one of those clients would dream that you had anything else on your mind at that moment." Saville admits that his lack of a specialization and the attendant "melee of different demands" that confronts him each day "is not conducive to clear thinking.

"I have had a game plan and then something arrives to throw it out of kilter," he complains. For a large part of last year, for example, Saville was hoping to become the creative communications director at Dior. But, after art-directing campaigns for both John Galliano's Autumn/Winter 1997 and Spring/Summer 1998 collections, a difference of opinion with Dior's owner, Bernard Arnaud, meant that, just like the player of the computer car race in Saville's 1991 Yamamoto press ad, it was "game over" for yet another working relationship.

Well into the evening, before getting up to get dressed for his next engagement--a late night on the town at that Pulp party, no doubt--Saville draws a deep drag off his final cigarette of the interview. "You know, you have to have the ear and the confidence of the person making the decisions in a company in order to really get anywhere," he says, admitting that he envies the special reltionship that fuses art director Oliviero Toscani and Luciano Benetton. "Somewhere in the world I might find my Luciano Benetton," he says, only half-jokingly, as he stubs out his cigarette and glances at the clock.

This article originally appeard in I.D. magazine and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.


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