Some jobs are never too big. Peter Saville, one of the artistic visionaries of Britain’s cultural artwork, Manchester creative stakeholder and English record holder reveals to Clash his latest, wide-ranging national aspiration.
Having designed some of the most iconic album artwork from the ’70s and ’80s, Peter Saville’s pencil has enjoyed serious influence. Whilst the head designer for Factory Records his tenure saw him deploy groundbreaking design ideas, but never more so than with New Order’s 12” vinyl of ‘Blue Monday’; a vinyl that sold over a million copies – eternally bestowing Saville with the illustrious statistic of having designed Britain’s most enjoyed EP cover ever.
So, what has this man of vision been up to recently? We caught up with the elusive fifty-year-old after he was asked to design the new England football kit. And rather than churn out some exhausted coloured piping for Wayne Rooney’s shoulders, Saville is attempting to galvanise the notion of our mixed up nation with his ‘Modern Fabric of England’; a concept that has abducted the tarnished St. George’s Cross and warped it into a multicultural manifesto with a design idea that’s actually a rather lovely looking Trojan Horse.
It’s a bit of an honour kitting out the England team. What were your first thoughts when you heard it was happening?
My job was one of detailing; detailing what is essentially a white shirt. When I went to see Umbro they said, ‘Peter, we’d like you to make a very colourful kit’. So that was the brief; a white shirt but could it be colourful? I am glad you are doing this piece though because the one thing I have found frustrating since the shirt debuted back in September 2010 is that the idea hasn’t been picked up and talked about in the popular media the way I had hoped or anticipated. I think that may be because there is a lot of uncertainty around English football after the World Cup. So I think my idea about modern ‘Englishness’ being represented in the shirt was rather over shadowed.
Imagine if we’d won though!
Well exactly! What has been great was that this provocative idea could progress all the way through to reality. That’s cultural progress. I knew Umbro liked it but I also knew there were a lot of gatekeepers further down the line who I would not encounter, the FA and so on, who would say ‘nice idea but no thanks!’
Did you feel the design then became a bit of a Trojan Horse?
I liked the idea that this symbol, the St. George’s Cross, could be really shared amongst the diverse society of the England that I live in. Once we started looking at different colours, and the implications of all the different colours and their meanings within a context of Englishness then I knew we were looking at a very big idea. The place I live in now is not represented by that red cross on a white background – some people identify with it strongly but to others it’s an anathema, an irritant. And yet the symbol itself is lovely and when you see it in black, purple, yellow, green and so on it’s very… inclusive.
But how different is it seeing your design on a football kit as it is to seeing it on the sleeve of a band you know?
Well, with music is was more…. (pauses) not necessarily people that you have grown up with, but contemporaries. My first record covers were made in Manchester in the late-’70s with other people who were just as hopeful as I. Particularly at that time, around punk, there was an air of change. There was a feeling with punk that the former pop establishment were no longer representing youth. The moment you start floating giant pigs over Battersea Power station you’ve probably lost the ear of kids on the street. So punk created the opportunity for the next generation to step up to the mic.
Do you miss the immediacy of music sleeves? It must have been addictive seeing their impact?
I do, yes, but it was hard work. For ten years I fashioned a very… (pauses) tough existence for myself. It’s difficult on anyone doing the graphics for the music industry but I managed to make it much harder on myself.
In what way?
Well, I was trying to do good work. But I was constantly upsetting people. Clients would be like, ‘Yeah, we like it. But we are all pissed off!’ And one does not make much money, especially at a critical point of your life when you are twenty-five to thirty-five years old. There’s no royalties. I managed to upset people by being neurotic and perfectionist and, because of that, being late with things. I was banned or vetoed as an option by a lot of music companies. Bands would ask if they could work with me and the labels would say no straight away. But in the ’70s the record sleeve was often the only access point you had as a young person in the UK to any kind of avant-garde visual material. So the record cover was where you saw the art that you might relate to. The record cover was it. Now it isn’t. You are lucky if you get a cover. And you don’t really want to be just designing record sleeves in your late thirties, so I got out.
Yes, but before you did you managed the distinction of designing the UK’s biggest ever selling 12” vinyl sleeve with New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’, a statistic that is certain never to be beaten. The die cut design meant that New Order lost money on every sale. Would you go back and change that?
Well, because of the way that Factory didn’t really function properly nobody costed the sleeve before allowing a wholesale price to be set. At Factory no-one really did costings. Often the artwork went directly from me to the printers. So the standard profit margin on a 12” single would not have covered the production of that design. However, most of the copies of ‘Blue Monday’ that were sold were NOT the sleeve I designed. When I first saw it – I had to go and buy it for myself – it was just a plain black sleeve with the four colour process down the side, no silver inner sleeve and no die cut – it was just the quickest sleeve you can do. The reason why that happened was that the record was selling so fast that the pressing plant didn’t have the time to fulfil the order. But I believe New Order and Factory probably lost money on covers that were never made. But people like the myth.
The significant thing about ‘Blue Monday’ was that it was a consumer product. Most packaging presumed that the customer needed to be guided to the product. Things needed to be clearly labelled, which to some extent is still true. But ‘Blue Monday’ appeared in shops twenty-seven years ago with nothing written on it. Now that was phenomenal twenty-seven years ago and because it didn’t just sell five hundred copies, but went on to sell hundreds of thousands – I think this affected the idea of what a product could be. It changed the idea for young kids about what a ‘thing’ could look like. Think of ‘Blue Monday’ then think of an iPod. ‘Blue Monday’ paved the way for such design evolution. It introduced a new generation to a wider design idea, but if I had gone and posted 500,000 copies through people’s doors they would have just binned it! But because it came wrapped around ‘Blue Monday’ they wanted to like it and understand it.
Words by Matthew Bennett