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Interview: Peter Saville

published on 29 May 2003

Following the opening of his exhibition Peter Saville Show at the Design Museum, London and the publication of his book Designed by Peter Saville, in May 2003 legendary art director and graphic design icon Peter Saville responded to questions in a live In Camera interview, the third in the series.

This interview was showcased online with a series of live stills updated throughout the course of the interview, and a real-time transcript typed and edited live.

Following the opening of his exhibition Peter Saville Show at the Design Museum, London and the publication of his book Designed by Peter Saville, in May 2003 legendary art director and graphic design icon Peter Saville responded to questions in a live In Camera interview, the third in the series.

41 Q&A Posts

  • Q. Peter, out of all of the bands whose sleeves you have designed, who has been your least favourite musically? Brett Anderson, London
    Hot Gossip.
  • Q. Does Brett Anderson have good taste? Malin, Sweden
    I don't know, I haven't tried. Do you?
  • Q. What was your first collaboration with Roxy Music? Hollister Lowe, New York City
    Flesh & Blood, 24 hours before the deadline.
  • Q. Are you still or were you ever a music fan? David Jones, London
    Yes. I'm a fan of some music. I was a Roxy Music fan, I'm still a Kraftwerk fan and more recently, I've been a Belle and Sebastian fan.
  • Q. What are your 5 favourite album sleeves? Kylie McKenzie, New Zealand
    All time: Autobahn, Andy Warhol's Velvet Underground, Talking Heads' Fear of Music, The Beatles' The White Album Bryan Ferry's Another Time Another Place.
  • Q. What is your favourite Factory artefact? David Sultan, Miami
    Tony Wilson.
  • Q. Do you lament the deficiencies in size and tactility of CDs as a medium for graphic design? David Costelloe, Manchester
    Yes and no. Yes because I developed a sensibility for the structure of the 12 inch and its inner sleeve and no because they look so old fashioned now.
  • Q. Did the advent of CDs radically change your approach to designing record sleeves and/or posters? John McGuire, London
    Yes. It was interesting to learn that imagery envisioned for a 12 inch cover did not reduce successfully to CD size. Similarly, imagery envisioned for a CD did not enlarge successfully to 12 inch. From a design point of view, the design approach has to be quite different because the user's relationship with the object is quite different. Posters are a really particular design problem. It is difficult to create successful posters. There was a great poster culture through probably until the 70s, when the poster itself was the prime form. Posters as an adjunct to cover design are a hit and miss affair. Poster design on screen is almost impossible...
  • Q. Hello, Peter...congratulations on the expo and book...you can relax now! I was wondering how you cope mentally when shops perform a type of aesthetic sabotage and plaster promotional and price stickers haphazardly over your record sleeves? Does this upset or bother you? How do you react? Julie Verhoeven, London
    It really upsets me. I'm very happy about removability in stickers. More upsetting are the overseas licensees or distributors' interpretations of artworks. The changes are unremovable. I see my name credited to things I barely recognise. I hope I can relax one day.
  • Q. When you designed sleeves for Suede, what was the input from the band? Who chose the final version? Do you feel honoured to appear in the one from 'Filmstar'? Jose, Croydon
    I approached The Suede project as Art Director. I asked Brett to be executive creative director. I felt that he knew his generation better than I did. My brief was to realise the cover HE had always wanted for Suede. Final decisions were made collectively. Hence, the credits 'cover by: Brett Anderson, Nick Knight, Peter Saville...' I was press-ganged into Filmstar by both Brett and Nick, who thought it would be amusing. I disagreed. I felt it would look egotistical. Also, the character description was 'washed up, failed filmstar'. The lack of budget for a suitable model sealed my fate.
  • Q. Which recording artist/s have you been most impressed by in terms of their input into your work? Richard Berry, London
    Bryan Ferry & Jarvis Cocker.
  • Q. How did you end up working with Autechre on 'Lilac'? Was the story you were telling an idea you were trying to generate for a client? Landon, Vancouver
    I don't know how we ended up with Autechre. Someone suggested it; it might have been Nick... It was just an observation one day in Los Angeles. I told Nick the story and he felt that my description could be the piece itself. I wish I could do all my work that way.
  • Q. Do you really believe in fashion? Alpay Gumrukcu, London
    I did, but then that raises the question 'what do we understand by fashion?'. I am interested in those moments when the visual aspects of life express how we feel about our times. Clothing is perhaps our most instant personal expression of individuality and sense of place. It can be an indicator of zeitgeist. I object to the commodification of spirit in the business of fashion.
  • Q. Being a designer, where do you find your inspiration and on what level does society affect you and your designs? Stephen Chin Pang Li, Brighton
    I did find it in history. In the late 1970s, I felt there was so much that we'd left behind. I've always crossed boundaries in my references. For example, in front of me are clothes on a runway. I see a gothic cathedral or a beach, perhaps. I listen to music and see fields. Now, everyday life influences me the most. I find the Uxbridge Road in Shepherd's Bush inspiring, as i travel along it day and night.
  • Q. Do you currently have a muse? If so is it a man or a woman? Gemma O'Brien, Communication and Promotion, Saint Martins, London
    People working closely with me help enormously. Particularly, Anna Blessman, Chris Wilson and Paul Hetherington.
  • Q. Which industry do you prefer working for, the music industry or the fashion industry and why? Jackie Norbury, Pricewaterhousecoopers, London
    Neither really anymore, but the music industry look after me quite kindly, fashion is quite stressful these days.
  • Q. Who is your favourite designer? Who is your favourite Artist (Painter)? Who is your favourite Photographer? Samuele Or, Hong Kong
    If it's clothes, I'd have to say Martin Margiela. Recently, I visited the Mies pavilion in Barcelona and what can we say? I'd be happy living in his sensibility. As a teenager, my first favourite was Peter Phillips. Subsequently, Allen Jones... Universally, Andy Warhol. Intellectually, Richard Hamilton. I find photography too broad to have a favourite.
  • Q. There's always pieces of work which you will hold a lot of affection towards. Name one of your sleeves that still makes your eyes smile and why? Tom Hingston, London
    The ptych of Blue Monday and Power Corruption and Lies. Blue Monday is the most important single work I've ever done and Power Corruption and Lies is Classicism and Romanticism. I am always somewhere, on a sliding scale, between those two points.
  • Q. Do you think your clients would take offence to your quote 'I'm more interesting than any of my clients.' If so, is that why you said it? Brian Pemberton, Bexhill
    I thought that might come back to haunt me. It was a little bit of an outburst one day, brought upon by the frustration of a service industry. I used to have opportunity for my own feelings in my work. Obviously, these days, such opportunities are non-existent. It would seem at present that I do have an audience for what I would like to do, rather than for what someone feels I ought to do.
  • Q. You were recently quoted as saying: 'I haven't burdened myself with a successful design company.' Should we conclude from this that you don't believe it possible to combine commercial and creative success? Alice Rawsthorn, Design Museum, London
    I think this applies quite particularly to the graphic sector. Commercial success within the communications industry is contingent upon corporate commissions. Corporations are not in the business of truth. Creativity needs to be true. Design needs to be true, as the new advertising it is losing its integrity. Integrity is sacrificed to profitability in contemporary business. I don't like it anymore.
  • Q. Your work seems driven by approach rather than style. I was wondering, with each project, do you essentially 'start from zero' - do you go through a process of creating criteria based on the objectives of the project that you design to - or, is it a more intuitive methodology? Greg Lindy, Los Angeles
    Design is a custom process. One should start from zero. The routes you outline are part of a symbiotic process, there are the formal objectives which one must identify and there is one's intuitive understanding. The two should not be separated. It is good to keep saying to oneself throughout the design process 'do I like it?' and wherever possible, to appreciate the mindset of the audience you are addressing. If we part company with our own standards, what criteria can we use to judge our work? Certainly, within the communications industry, a broad awareness of life, culture and business is necessary. In every new client situation, we have to fast-track to know how best to speak with and for our client.
  • Q. I have the utmost respect for you, but when you say you don't care about graphic design why then, do you do talks for AIGA? I find it puzzling. Thanh X. Tran, Unknown
    I will give a talk for the AIGA or any similar organisation because I care about graphic designers. I care about design generally. I'm just not so fascinated by 'graphic design' as an end in itself.
  • Q. You have a distinctive style, is 'style as signature' important to you? David Bennewith, Auckland
    I can see that there is an identifiable style in how I put things together. But that's something I can't help. Signature as self is unavoidable. As a graphic designer, it is nearly always 'my work for X'. It's important to remember that.
  • Q. How tricky was it to preserve the 'True Faith' leaves for over 15 years? Any tips on leaf preservation? Mark Hopper, i-D, London
    Actually, Trevor (Key) looked after them. Trevor never threw anything away, telling me, it would always come in useful another day. The True Faith leaf passed its sell-by date into legend. I think we have to thank Trevor for its place in a museum now.
  • Q. Define what a modern day art director versus a creative director does and how do these roles differ from magazine to record company? Alex, Unknown
    When you've done a lot of art directing, you can become a Creative Director. In truth, these are quite arbitrary titles that have no particular professional distinctions. These titles have a lot to do with social and organisational politics. Directors tend to make decisions rather than do things. The decisions made in the creation of a magazine obviously differ to the decisions at a record company. Experience/wisdom are required in both scenarios. The art director/creative director role can vary enormously from merely commissioning a particular team to realise a project, to carrying out almost every stage of the process personally. I see such variation in different organisations that there doesn't seem to be any standard.
  • Q. Compared to the North of England, what effects did living and working in LA have on you, and how were these manifest in your approach to your work, and the results? Gary Ellis, Art Director from the North of England, Working in Southern California
    Similar amounts of driving. I never came to terms with working in Los Angeles. Too much air conditioning. Los Angeles is a lovely place for meetings and I'd quite like to have a studio there, by a beach, but I'd have to be doing my own work. I found the business of LA quite unattractive. From a point of view of living there, it's nice to know you have a ticket out, rather like the North of England.
  • Q. To a large extent, Peter Saville is defined by the women he surrounds himself with, yet you seldom chose to employ any. Why is this? Penny Martin, Editor in Chief, SHOWstudio, London
    First of all, any that surround me are friends rather than placements. Traditionally, there were not so many girls in graphic design. These days there are. If I was in a position to employ people at present, I would be delighted to have some of the new generation of female designers. I think it's easier for the boys to put up with the unsociable demands of working with me. Whenever my assistants have been single, they found time for me. That's how we work. My work and relationships have never gone together. For me or for the people I work with. If you have nobody to go home to, staying with me until midnight is tolerable.
  • Q. What would you rather be, a fashion photographer or a pop star? Nick Knight, Director, SHOWstudio, London
    Twenty to thirty, pop star. Thirty onwards, fashion photographer.
  • Q. What is the importance of being a designer apart from discovering aesthetic possibilities and being so-called 'creative'? Ada Fung, London
    First of all, you be a designer because you want to be. There is no importance other than self-fulfilment unless we endeavour to contribute something to our world.
  • Q. Do you think of yourself as having some sort of ethos? Kate Sennert, New York
    I didn't know it, but I have an instinctive one. My conscious motivations have shifted over twenty years. Actually, I am surprised by what I feel strongly about these days. I wonder: am I a different person or did I just not know who I was? As professional, commissioned work has increasingly lost its appeal for me, I've had to think a lot about what matters most to me in order to find somewhere to go and something to do. I haven't quite got the answer to that.
  • Q. How many women have you slept with? Richard Harrington, Amsterdam
    Actually, I don't know. I thought I was looking for someone particular, but then I stopped when I realised that I was just looking. Unexpectedly, then, I think I found her.
  • Q. How much of your time is devoted to pornography? Do you spend more time obtaining it, organising it or enjoying it? A.J. Wells, San Francisco
    It's only like video rental. It's always better in the imagination. Generally, it gets me away from issues of aesthetics, but recently, I've found myself seeing ideas and art in it and it takes me back to work. Football is safer.
  • Q. Who is the sexiest women alive? Nick Knight, Director, SHOWstudio London
    Someone I mustn't embarrass online. She knows who she is.
  • Q. What makes you laugh? Nick Knight, Director, SHOWstudio, London
    Whenever I stop worrying about things. I am instinctively happy but life makes me quite sad.
  • Q. Nick Knight's got a super swanky house in the country. What's your place like? Mark Wagner, New York City
    I don't have a place. A nice studio space where I should live, but don't because it's the studio and a handsome storeroom on the City Road in London.
  • Q. What colour underpants are you wearing? Production Department, Unknown
    No colour.
  • Q. What are you having for dinner tonight - prawn cocktail at 1135? Steve Mackey, London
    I think I'd like to go to Carluccios in Smithfield tonight. Would you like to book a table, Steve for around 10.30? You can order for me if you'd like to invite me.
  • Q. Worth it? http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=3202166657&category=2328 Michael C. Place, London
    Definitely. I can't imagine what value that piece will ultimately realise. It's a moment in history.
  • Q. When were you happiest? Paul, London
    Actually, when I was at school. Before I really discovered girls.
  • Q. Do you ever consider giving in to COMFORT? If so, why don't you? Scott King, London
    At present, I don't have any to give in to and haven't had for some time. I don't know where it's going to come from as it would have to be mental as well as physical.
  • Q. If you were to strip away the appearance and stylish trappings of Peter Saville. What kind of human being would remain? Penny Martin, Editor in Chief, SHOWstudio, London
    There has been rather a lot of emphasis on this of late. It was interesting to overhear at the Design Museum opening (of The Peter Saville Show), comments such as 'what a lot of work', as if I didn't really do anything other than be me. In a service industry, you've got to do a hell of a lot for anybody to ever notice YOU. I am not a public figure. My work has come before me. Personally, I am very self-conscious and in some ways insecure. Attempts at personal image have been to compensate for this. Obviously, I've overdone it. Now, I feel happy within myself. I know that I have done something useful that can't be taken away and luckily, I've found that stylish trappings are recyclable. As a person, I'm both selfish and generous at the same time. I think a lot about myself but try to remember that there are other people around me.
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