Back on the beat

Peter Saville was among the brightest stars of the Eighties and is back this year as one of the ‘star turns’ at the Creative Show. Michael Johnson looks back at his bumpy past and hears about the experiences that have shaped him.

So far, this hasn’t been Peter Saville’s decade. In comparison to the Eighties, which kicked off with a pencil case full of D&AD silvers and countless ground-breaking projects, the Nineties have been a bit stop-start, to say the least.

The decade started with a spell as a Pentagram partner, an ill-fated year in Los Angeles, followed by a year of doing little, followed by a few months in the corner of Tomato’s office. Only recently has he established a secure London base and anything like the regularity of projects that we associate with his Eighties reign.

But many designers and art directors who studied in the Eighties cite him as a seminal figure, the third prong of the Brody – Garrett triumvirate which dared to question all. If Saville felt that neon was the way to go, then off he went. If he felt it was time to appropriate De Chirico, then why not. If he felt that obscure Sixties Dutch Modernist typefaces were worthy of a comeback, come on down. And his choice of influence or element always seemed just one step ahead of the pack.

So it was with this in mind that I spent a couple of hours in his “homage to shag-pile and tinted glass” Mayfair apartment a few weeks ago, trying to find out a bit more about what’s been going on.

You have to put this decade into context first by going back to the last. The demise of Peter Saville Associates at the end of the Eighties and the experience of heading a company that runs out of financial steam has clearly left quite a mark. “You get on a wheel, like a hamster in a cage, and it’s impractical to get off, unless you fall off like I did,” he comments, ruefully.

The lifeline out of debt and tax fines was a remarkable one – the offer of a partnership at Pentagram. The “establishment” had finally called, and Saville was ready to talk. While he, Neville Brody and Malcolm Garrett had discussed a “Pentagram” of their own not long previously (vetoed by Brody), the offer of help, friendship and, indeed, an open chequebook from Notting Hill proved irresistible as his studio became one of the recession’s first victims.

But Saville’s views on how the organisation could and should adapt to the changing world seemed to fall on deaf ears, and he found his clientele unable to meet the fees that the “rules” of the partnership applied at that time.

“I thought I was there as an emissary of change, but they chose to see me as reassurance that everything was OK,” says Saville, as if Pentagram was saying “if this guy was prepared to join us then we were right all along”. It wasn’t a huge surprise, but a disappointment to many when he and Brett Wickens (his long-time associate at that time) found themselves looking for something new after two years.

They thought they had found the solution by going to Hollywood. Saville found a good listener in Aubrey Balkind at Frankfurt Balkind, who was willing to fund an adventure into Saville’s “Hollywood/multimedia dream” which never really explained itself to anyone. After a year, this too became a dead-end for all parties.

On his return to Europe in the mid-Nineties, Saville spent a whole year doing practically nothing, which he now views as strangely cathartic. “There were some nice moments in that period, but it also meant having no studio, no equipment, no money, no home, no bank account, no anything really,” he says. ©

Then, in 1996, following the pattern of two- and three-year cycles that this decade has taken for him, he met one of the founders of Meiré and Meiré, the German-based ad agency which was willing to sponsor him to set up a studio in Mayfair in return for his help on some joint projects.

So that’s the whistle stop history tour. The question is, what has he been up to for the last two years? Well, his past continues to follow him around. Work for old music business friends like New Order and Monaco has continued throughout the decade, and last year saw a boxed set of re-released work by Joy Division (his original sleeves for that band first put his name on the design map). And a new generation of stars like Brett Anderson of Suede, Jarvis Cocker of Pulp and Goldie have tracked him down and involved him in their projects.

Did he think he would still be doing record sleeves in his forties? “I said to myself when I was 28 that this is not a job to be doing in your thirties, and certainly not in your forties. They’re tricky, they’re very demanding and if you already have a reputation you have absolutely nothing to gain by doing another one, unless you happen to do it really well.”

And what about Mark Farrow, who has often cited Saville as a major influence and who, in many people’s eyes, has picked up with record sleeves where Saville left off? Saville is diplomatic: “I admire the commitment and thoroughness with which he has continued a genre of work, channelled exterior influences and used them consistently.” But he cannot resist another jab at the whole process of design-for-music “…it is an activity which in itself is a waste of time, a pointless and inappropriate activity, which is why nobody is interested in doing it for more than ten years”.

As regards the rest at the “cutting edge” of Nineties design, Saville obviously has strong feelings: “What I have seen going on in the field of communications is an awful lot of ‘play-art’ from people such as Tomato. My feeling is that if you’re going to make art, then make art. You can’t masquerade as a kind of part-time artist through the crutch of your commercial work. The whole point of art is that you’re going to do it anyway. You don’t need a client’s brief.”

Art, of course, is closer to Saville’s heart than most, ever since a series of American painters revealed ten years ago how much his New Order sleeves had influenced them. Indeed, people tried to persuade him to become a “proper” artist full time and this thought has clearly gnawed away at him ever since.

Away from music, another source of income for Saville has been fashion, where his work with Yohji Yamamoto in the Eighties and long-time photographic collaborator Nick Knight has led to art direction commissions from Jil Sander and Christian Dior. Throw in occasional contracts from the likes of ABC television and Mandarina Duck and things do sound a lot rosier.

His increasing role as a project art director has helped him reappraise his Pentagram time, and he is the first to admit that he learned a great deal. “Almost every day my experiences at Pentagram are useful. Without them I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now, I wouldn’t have any direction and I’m very grateful. I actually got an awful lot from them.”

Pentagram itself seems to have learned from the “Saville experience” by adjusting the financial commitments to younger partners. Not surprisingly, Saville is quite critical of the more recent appointments as partner by the London office, feeling that a designer should have a clear approach, body of work and philosophy before becoming a Pentagram partner, not after.

As he involves himself more in consultancy and art direction and refuses to load himself up with the baggage of studios, employees and rent, he is moving himself into a new design “consultant” role. Just someone who is there. Again he recalls Pentagram. “Throughout my time there, John McConnell was by far the most profitable partner, with just two designers and a secretary, billing a huge amount by building a portfolio of clients who just paid him to be him,” he says.

He has to get over the financial hurdle first – a few record sleeves and a spot of art direction don’t pay the bills and, by a mixture of unwillingness to pursue them and lack of historical contacts, Saville doesn’t have many corporate contacts. He needs some sort of filter for his work – “I haven’t published a book, I don’t have an agent, I don’t have a manager. I always need interfaces, I need somebody to say ‘you should speak to Peter about that’.”

Clearly, after PSA’s insolvency, Saville’s departure from both Pentagram and Frankfurt Balkind and his admitted difficulty in keeping his current venture afloat, something needs to change. With the lease on his studio up for review this year, we may see him moving on again, who knows. I get the sense that he rather enjoys his newly found nomadic role. Let’s hope he can pay the bills on the next caravan.

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