At the Design Museum

Andrew O’Hagan

I think it likely – or slightly more than likely – that Peter Saville is the only English graphic artist to have had an actor play him in a major motion picture. The film, 24 Hour Party People, was entertaining in the way that films full of intense people with good accents and daft haircuts always are, and Saville comes off quite well, the genius of the piece in fact, which is probably saying quite a lot, since the Manchester music scene of the late 1970s and 1980s (the setting for the movie) bred self-proclaimed geniuses in the way Sheffield used to produce knives and forks.

Manchester – as opposed to ‘Madchester’, that later, Kangol-hatted, dungareed, spliff-wielding horror-show, c.1986, which gave the world such neanderthal hedonists as the Stone Roses and, eventually, those terrifying knuckle-draggers Oasis – was, in the afterglow of punk, the most interesting spot on the planet for anyone interested in rock music. Tony Wilson, a rock show host and frenetic gadabout who ran club nights in the city for unsigned bands, established Factory Records, which then released the work of Joy Division, New Order, A Certain Ratio, The Durutti Column and other new-wave upstarts with big attitudes and small machines. The bands were the coolest of their period: Peter Saville invented their visual identity and seemed to consolidate the atmosphere around them. He is, you might say, the Iain Sinclair of album covers, a small-town Corbusier of layouts and logos, and anyone attentive to the development of British design since then will see his influence just about everywhere.

Saville has worked for all sorts of client – fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, handbag specialist Mandarina Duck, Givenchy, the Fruitmarket Gallery – but it is the album covers that make him loved, and it is these which dominate The Peter Saville Show, at the Design Museum until 14 September. When it comes to the world of Factory Records, Saville is a central fact, the ultimate seen that, done that, designed the T-shirt, and the museum shows this early work in its many tangled stages of development. If you care for all this, then walking around the gallery is a rather beautifully nostalgic experience, a meaningful escapade, inspecting the hieroglyphics of your own pop-cultural generation.

‘It may seem strange to anyone who is not a graphic designer,’ Rick Poynor writes in the book accompanying the show, ‘but album cover design has never been highly regarded within the design profession. General histories of the subject never show many of them. There was always a feeling among the more hard-nosed kind of design professional that music graphics were not entirely serious.’[*] But serious is as serious does, and Peter Saville went about those covers like somebody on a mission: as period-sensitive as Andy Warhol designing adverts for shoes, as deadpan iconoclastic as Christo wrapping the Reichstag, Saville brings a bit of class to the class-conscious; all his album work seems to give out to the future, with perfect lines, choice lettering, images that strike the ideal contemporary note, offering, as he says himself, ‘a visual influence which the recipient could take with them into their adult life’.

At the Design Museum, many of the people walking from case to case are in their early forties. Most of them, I’d wager, have lived for twenty-odd years with this artwork sunk deep in their record collections. They have each owned their own Peter Savilles, and the trip here is a bit like setting out on an archaeological dig, keen to identify the foundations of what they know. The gallery space is filled with the sound of New Order’s music, which makes it, perhaps, the only art show in London this year that will make you want to throw some shapes as you move through it. Luckily, I had a bad knee the day I bought my ticket.

Saville has never been much of a one for the photo library; most of his designs seem to arrive out of the drift of his particular consciousness, his kind of reading, his manner of looking; his signs seem invoked as much as invented. The gallery cabinets tell a detailed story of how this worked over time – the journeys through notepads and heavy foreign books; the testing of colours, fabrics, metals, patterns.

Most of the people I grew up with had never worn designer clothes, but they could tell a Peter Saville album cover at a hundred yards. What is his style? Somewhat bare in feel, uncluttered, classic-seeming, post-industrial, but also filled with a mood of watchfulness, a tremendous atmosphere of despondency or of suddenly awakened energy. Above all – after the fanzine riotousness and cut-up of punk – those Joy Division covers seem to sit at the still centre of a morbid orderliness. They are cold, and the development of Saville’s design, from Factory to the world, is a trip into warmth and colour, targets and stripes. But there can be no doubt about it: just looking at the sketches and plans for the Joy Division stuff takes me back in seconds to a world of box-bedrooms and passed-round cigarettes.

Unknown Pleasures – Joy Division’s first album, 1979 – ‘is an underpass with iodine streetlights through Manchester at night’, Saville said. Closer and ‘Atmosphere’ – later Joy Division covers – ‘are the city’s gothic revival cathedral and the moors around the Pennines. Manchester was the first industrial city, and even if you don’t know that as a kid, you grow up with a certain sensibility.’ And that is what the Design Museum is showing: a sensibility. In one cabinet you come across the metal plates for Joy Division’s most famous single, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ – rusted, scratched iron plates, with the words punched out on them. In some way difficult to express without resorting to Postmodern wankology, this design seemed absolutely perfect for the Thatcherite Britain of the time, and becoming familiar with the style at an impressionable age seemed, in some non-specific way, to raise one’s standards.

Every generation, of course, has its invigorating progenitors of taste, its moment-capturing image-makers: Aubrey Beardsley’s dark-nippled Europeans, Mark Boxer’s economical line-drawings, Nan Goldin’s bruised, droopy-eyed victims, Art Spiegelman’s morality cartoons (currently appearing in the LRB). Walking in the Design Museum, you get the impression that Peter Saville never closes his eyes, that he is never quite asleep. As Joy Division’s singer, Ian Curtis, dies and the group becomes New Order, as the 1980s and then the 1990s encroach, you see the covers of the records change as the music changes. The work moves from minimalism to advertising: by the time you get to 1993, and the album coverwork for Republic, you are aware of an artist keyed-in suddenly to the glaring colours and motifs of American commerce. But Saville is always alive to the ironic backward glance: there’s a lot of the 1970s in the later record-sleeve work. ‘If the early 1970s are your mood board,’ Saville has said, ‘the West Coast becomes your destination. It’s Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye – that was the movie that I was living in my head, when I initially went to Los Angeles to work for Channel One. Film noir meets yellow Daytona. Republic comes straight out of that.’

The pursuit of Saville’s work can feel like a proper journey into the world of now: because he’s so adept at not sleeping, so good at thinking between the lines of fashion and communications, Saville’s great impulse seems more surprisingly descriptive, more searching, and prettier, too, than much of the work of the blood-and-formaldehyde British artists who have been spurned into fame in recent years by the Daily Mail.

Along the way, as the exhibition shows, Saville designed five seasons of catalogues for Yamamoto, and the latter’s ‘wooden dress’ is hanging in the second gallery. I’m not sure about Yamamoto: Saville wanted to ‘lionise the work’, as he said at the time, but I think there’s something too familiar at the heart of these layouts, which often seem to depend on stock images. For somebody so interested in refinement and Modernism, Saville never seems desexualised, and never emotionless. The best parts of this exhibition show a commitment to the adventure, to sensing modern things, mixing moods, feeling alive and solving problems.

‘True Faith’ cover art

It all comes down, though, for me, to the record sleeves. The sleeves are the thing. Against a background of Yves Klein blue, a golden leaf floats down, or is suspended, on the cover for the 1987 New Order single ‘True Faith’. It was the great song of that year, and the artwork seemed even at the time to distil the moment’s optimism, yet it also slowed everything down to let Saville-style contemplation sneak over the noise of everything that was happening that summer. And what was happening, really, was drugs, the new drugs soon to be taken up by young people in every corner of Britain. Saville has always been an interlocutor, not a preacher, and his designs of this period underscore and eventually describe a new mood in the country’s towns and fields and underpasses.

The actual leaves used for the ‘True Faith’ shoot are in a cardboard box in the Design Museum. In other parts of the gallery are artworks that set the tone for later bands, the leatherette glamour of Pulp and Suede, but it is the leaf that stays in my mind. It’s amazing, the continuing, personal-seeming drama of pop culture. The golden leaf is now under glass, and you feel certain that if you touched it, it would crumble away to nothing.

[*] Designed by Peter Saville (Frieze, 192 pp., £19.95, May, 0 9527414 2 3).