Hero Worshipping

The forthcoming Peter Saville Show celebrates the designer’s 25 years of work. Adrian Shaughnessy looks at his legacy

Peter Saville is the polo-necked prince of graphic design. Seemingly ageless, seemingly immune to the backdraught of fashion, he remains, as he has done for the past 20-odd years, the most totemistic figure in modern graphic design.

Of course, the Saville mythology is particularly attractive to idealistic designers. His undeniably brilliant catalogue of work combined with his legendary insouciance and foppish disregard for the rules of professional practice, make him an especially compelling figure. But it’s not just designers who find Saville irresistible. I’ve spoken to former clients who, despite being victims of the famous Saville-late-delivery-syndrome, smile benignly and say, ‘Ah yes, but Peter’s a genius’. It’s hard to find detractors. We all love Saville, or so it seems.

And the love affair shows no signs of cooling. Saville continues to win design polls; he is the subject of frequent profiles in the media; his latest works are reverentially hymned in the design press; he has even been portrayed in a film (he can be seen in 24 Hour Party People, played by actor Enzo Cilenti, delivering the celebrated Fac 1 poster – late). And as if this wasn’t enough, there’s more hagiography to come with the arrival of the long awaited Saville monograph Designed by Peter Saville (published by Frieze), and a retrospective at the Design Museum called The Peter Saville Show.

But hang on: this is supposed to be the era of debunking. I thought we liked to put the boot in to our heroes. Apparently not in Saville’s case. He seems to be beyond criticism. His media profile is carefully tended by a group of writers, usually female, who regularly produce eulogising articles with titles like The Dark Prince, and describe in lingering detail his clothing and his taste in interior decor (the Mayfair shag-pad where he lived excited acres of heated prose). His forthcoming book is nicely fattened with essays by a gang of writers who are all fully paid-up members of the Saville fan club. The Design Museum, since the arrival of Alice Rawsthorn, has elevated Saville to the position of patron saint. And standby for the flood of adoring profiles in the press, written by journos weaned on the album covers of New Order, Roxy Music and Pulp.

It’s easy to see why 30to 40-year-old media types might be in awe of the Saville mythos – his Factory album covers alone guarantee him a place in the contemporary style canon. But is he still worthy of all this attention? And what does he mean to today’s generation of designers?

Jon Forss is one half of the design duo Non-Format. With his partner Kjel Ekhorn, he produces remarkable covers for a small coterie of ultra-hip labels (labels which might be said to be the inheritors of the Factory tradition, but mercifully without the handicap of the Happy Mondays’ drug bill). Forss unhesitatingly cites Saville as a formative influence.

But it was Saville’s sleeve for New Order’s Low Life, with its tracing paper cover, that opened his eyes: ‘It was one of the reasons I wanted to go to art school and become a graphic designer,’ notes Forss. ‘When Suede’s Coming Up album came out I loved the sleeve design. But it’s only now that I realise just how many elements of what was to come in fashion, illustration, photography and design were captured in that cover: handwriting; silhouetted figures; linear blends; late-1970s chic; sleazy chic, it’s all there. It is Saville’s influence that informs much of my current cover work.’

Jon Jeffrey, senior designer at Farrow, a group with more than a few Saville connections (founder Mark Farrow is on record as saying that Saville’s first Factory sleeve, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, had a ‘massive impact’ on him), takes a similar tack. For Jeffrey, a designer who has designed record covers for Kylie Minogue, Manic Street Preachers and Spiritualized, Saville is still an important designer. ‘I don’t think his relevance can be denied.’ says Jeffrey. ‘Even if current designers are unaware of him, it was Saville who opened the door to a more design-led approach to sleeves. Every time I see a new piece of his work it still stands out even if I don’t particularly like it.’

Saville’s lofty status within design, his longevity and the seemingly perpetual freshness of his output is attributable to three factors. The first of these is his archive of unsurpassed work amassed over the past 25 years. His work in music, fashion, media and the arts is imbued with intelligence, visual felicity and, most compellingly of all, diversity: almost alone among the great figures of recent years, Saville avoids the trap of repetition in his work.

The second factor that accounts for his durability is his own considerable self-mythologising skills (learnt, you imagine, at the feet of that master mythologiser, Tony Wilson, Saville’s first and greatest patron and the founder of Factory Records). Saville is a brilliant interviewee and a stylish raconteur who knows how to sell himself. Indeed, ‘Peter Saville’, is perhaps Saville’s finest creation. You can hear him going about his craft in an audio discussion with Wilson on the 24 Hour Party People DVD.

But the most important reason for his elevated position today is the simple and unavoidable fact that he is not a graphic designer. Nothing new in that you might say. After all, Saville has often been likened to a fine artist. But Saville himself is in no doubt as to what he really is.

During a memorable 1995 interview with Rick Poynor he revealed that; ‘I had – and to some extent still have – more of a fashion designer’s or stylist’s sensibility than a graphic designer’s’. This simple statement explains the Saville phenomenon: it explains why his work is non-repetitive and stylistically diverse; it explains his epicurean approach to typography; and it explains why he is so deservedly popular.

When Saville went to his first meeting with Wilson in the late 1970s, he didn’t have a portfolio. Instead, he took along some examples of the work of Jan Tschichold. A few years later he was to famously appropriate a bowl of roses by the French painter Henri Fantin-Latour for a New Order cover.

Tschichold to Fantin-Latour was an unthinkable journey for a graphic designer to make back then, yet Saville leapt the divide effortlessly. He was able to do this because then, as now, he approaches graphic design like a fashion designer approaches next season’s collection. He does not have the dogged, monotheistic approach of the typical graphic designer. Nor, despite his undoubted articulacy, does he have a ‘design philosophy’, like a Paul Rand or a Tschichold. Instead, he has a magpie-like genius for appropriation, which has enabled him to stay mercurial and perpetually fresh.

But, of course, Saville’s greatest act of appropriation is that of graphic design as his vehicle of expression. He is no more a graphic designer (despite his felicity with typography) than Gucci creative director Tom Ford or, for that matter, Vinnie Jones.

Adrian Shaughnessy is creative director of design consultancy Intro

The Peter Saville Show runs from 23 May until 14 September at the Design Museum, 28 Shad Thames, London SE1

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