Peter Saville explains why he won hearts & minds with his record cover designs
You've probably already seen this:
...it seemed a good moment to share it again, though, because it's a meme that has legs. Check out the new video for R&B singer Erykah Badu. (Annoyingly it's is not embeddable but you can view it by clicking over to YouTube.)
Why do album covers stick with us so deep in memory, as indelible as old photos of family and friends, if not more so? Well, this phenomenon popped into my head as I was reading Designed by Peter Saville, a book about the British designer most renown for his work with the post-punk scene of the early 80s (Joy Division, Factory Records, and OMD). As his reputation grew he began to do more and more straight ahead pop projects -- including Wham! -- and this work remains somewhat less appreciated by the hipster cognesceti. But there's no good reason for that, really. Take, for example, the cover he designed for Peter Gabriel -- a piece which, to my mind, pioneers an entirely new sub-genre of graphics: erotic typography. (A detail of Saville's cover for Gabriel's So appears to the right of this text. Note the masterful use of two different fonts side-by-side, the "S" and the "o" caught in a push/pull relation as compelling & tense as a pair of foiled lovers.)
In the early 90s, Saville and one of his partners -- partnership & collaboration being a major part of his practice -- spent a few years in Los Angeles where he produced work like that pictured to the left of this text. While he was in LA, he worked for my uncle for a brief spell. Eventually, Saville was fire because of his disdain for corporate clients; his disinclination to work during banker's hours (or even a designer's more lax 11am-to-9pm schedule); and, finally, his gross inability to fit into any kind of standard workplace environment. (I believe he was caught fucking in his office.)
In any case, I guess we should be thankful for Saville's inability to grow up. Because he is a designer who remained young -- his imagination fired by desire and interest rather than pragmatism and professionalism -- his portfolio never went to shit. It's something most of us can only aspire to. This Q&A from the book gets at his philosophy & understanding of why record cover designs can be so unique, so memorable, so poweful.
Peter Saville: On a trip to London in the early seventies, I bought a pack of soap flakes from the Biba shop -- they were packaged in art deco dark brown and beige. I thought "Why don't supermarkets sell groovy-looking soap flakes?" It was about positioning the product in the context of lifestyle. The first opportunities that came to us were a Buzzcocks cover for Malcolm, and a clothes shop for me.
Christopher Wilson: Of all the badly designed products you saw around you, surely many of them -- such as soap flakes -- looked generally worse than the average record cover?
Peter Saville: Yes, they did. But you don't get much work to do when you're young, because you haven't learned how to do it yet. You certainly aren't given the soap flakes. You're given simple, disposable things to design for other young people
This is the most important point pertaining to my work: Malcolm and I, and to some extent Neville, were granted an autonomous zone within pop because it didn't matter. Records were not sold the way soap flakes were sold, so we were given opportunity.
But we got to do that work in service of another work -- the music inside. It was made by young people, on its way to other young people, and into their hearts and minds. That's the key thing. A soap flakes box was never addressed to hearts and minds. But pop music, and particularly subcultural pop music, is a delivery system which goes straight there. It's the single biggest influence on teenagers. Those covers could have been posters or postcards, and a few people might have quite liked them. But without the music it would not have gone to the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands people.
I don't know if I've ever read a better articulation of why records (covers & all) are so important to me, and why I hope they survive into the digital age. Wouldn't we all be a little bit less with images like these in our lives?
After the jump, a few more words from Mr. Saville...
...about why the power of his neo-classical take on album design has sustained its power in ways his punk influenced peers have not:
Christopher Wilson: Young people often grow out of their early influences, and this has doubtless been the case with some of the products you've packaged. What other clues are there to the longevity of the aesthetic?
Peter Saville: The bedroom walls of all young people are covered with pictures of hte pop stars and groups they love. Then they hit twenty, and all the ephemera of this thing that they loved is put away under the bed, and a year later they throw it out. By abstracting the record cover and bringing cultural references other than a picture of the artist to bear, what Malcolm and I did with covers, and Neville also with The Face, was create a visual influence which the recipient could take with them into their adult life. Here was a New Order cover, and there was no reason at all why their desk diary, their clothes packaging, or something else beyond music, and which they were now becoming interested in, couldn't look like it. It set new graphic standards for them. Designers before us had done exceptional work for museums, galleries, and other 'worthy' clients who appreciated design, and it was all terribly interesting. But it wasn't hearts-and-minds stuff, and its audience weren't young people in their formative years. People kept the Factory records because they were great works of writing and music. But around them was a vision of how things could be, and I can see now how the sensibility of that audience has been set by it. I meet them now, and now they run companies and are organising or curating. Nobody papers their bedroom with IBM posters. It's a different mindset; it's obsession.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.