ARTWORK Yohji Yamamoto advertisment 1990
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
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.