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Art director Peter Saville first made his mark designing record sleeves in the 1970s and 1980s as co-founder of Manchester-based label Factory Records, home to Joy Division and New Order. He went on to work on a prodigious range of projects, from football kits for England’s national team to logos for fashion houses, such as Burberry. Now he is making his foray into the world of textiles with Danish brand Kvadrat. We caught up with Saville to talk about late-career learning curves, the importance of stepping back from your work and why his design sensibilities today are influenced by his music tastes as a teenager. 

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How have you found a balance between artistic direction and design?
It baffles me but I understand how it happened. I had 10 years at the beginning of my career when I was doing something I wanted to do. I went to art school at 18 to learn how to make record covers, not to be a graphic designer. The record cover was almost the only medium of contemporary visual culture that I saw as a middle-class teenager in the north of England in the 1960s and 1970s. It connected me to people in other towns, cities and countries. We saw it as a medium and an art in its own right. I wanted to be part of the art that I knew.

So you went to art college to study it?
Yes. And I understood quite quickly the profession of graphic design but I didn’t go to art college to be a graphic designer. I went to be part of something and hopefully to make a contribution. And record design allowed me opportunities to make that contribution and gave me a very high degree of autonomy, particularly at Factory Records. So in the first five to 10 years of my career I was very happy. I was saying what I wanted to say to an audience that was there because of the music. I branched out from music to working with cultural institutions and then with fashion.

But the next 20 years, from about 1990 to 2010, were very difficult. By that time, in the 1990s, the discipline of graphics had blended into branding in an unholy hybrid of design and advertising. I learned how to do it, because needs must, but it was not something that I wanted to do. I realised that it really wasn’t the job I wanted anymore.

“The record cover connected me to people in other towns, cities and countries. We saw it as a medium and an art in its own right”

But now it seems that you have far more freedom and you’re making the contributions that you want to make. Can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?
I’ve done a textile collection for the first time in my life – I’m 40 years into my career. It’s with Kvadrat, a company that I’ve worked with for more than 15 years as a kind of consultant. We had talked over the years about doing some fabrics but it had never happened; I wouldn’t have known what I was doing. And one of the things that I’ve learned over my career is to know when you don’t know and to be respectful of other disciplines. It is always very easy to be critical about fashion, film or architecture. But then if you put yourself on the spot and challenge yourself to do something in one of those disciplines, you’ll find that it’s a steep learning curve.

It was the sight of colourful sheep with their spray-painted markings that inspired you to do this collection with Kvadrat. You mention a steep learning curve – what gave you the courage to throw yourself into textile design? And how can outsiders approach a new medium?
Young people often innovate because they don’t actually know the rules. One of the worst things is that by the time you have learned the rules, you can feel as though you’re in a straitjacket created by them. So it’s good to break them. Equally, it’s also good to learn to have some respect for the rules and to know why they exist in the first place. We see a lot of products, clothes, furniture and architecture these days that are different and break rules but don’t quite work. And you think, “Who let somebody do that?”

There is a fine line between progress and simply challenging convention. Genuine progress happens when innovation actually takes things further and creates something different or better. But just as often we see something that is hailed as “progress” but that takes us backwards.

So is balancing what you want to make as a designer with what a client wants and needs a good approach to design?
That is applicable to every discipline. There’s a strong desire to be artistic and to be creative but occasionally people seem not to step back and look at what they’ve done. I do try to make a little time to step back. But graphics is a very fast profession and I’m not particularly suited to it. Most graphic design has to be done while I’m still thinking about it and I have never wanted to make disposable work. Record covers were not disposable. You didn’t just listen to a record and then throw it away; you kept it. And that attitude is what my sensibility was shaped by. Records were things to keep. They were not fast-paced communications. It was a nightmare in the music industry, however, because as soon as the record was finished, somebody wanted the cover done overnight. And I was often holding up the process. And the only justification is that people still cherish those covers. After all, we’re still talking about them today.

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