From the 1909 release of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite through the highly controversial Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones in 1971 to the 360° VR gimmick of Trill Sammy’s No Sleep, Vol. 1. in present times the album artwork has definitely did its time as a functional yet attractive information carrier and it’s already accepted as an integral part of the popular culture and its manifestations. 

Moving from the iconic painted covers of Fifties’ jazz records to the photography-based ones used by the rock ’n’ roll bands during the 1960s and 1970s the record industry has established an unyielding know-how in terms of making a LP remarkable art object. Then, as with any other settled authoritarian regimes, comes a rebellious figure that acts ingeniously and wisely and manages to rewrite the DNA structure of the status quo from the inside. In this case the figure is embodied by a tall, skinny Mancunian that goes by the name of Peter Saville.

Photo by Wolfgang Stahr

Peter Saville was born on October 9th 1955 in Manchester, England. He attended St Ambrose College and then was accepted to Manchester Polytechnic in 1975 where he studied graphic design — a major he pursued after his school art teacher introduced him to. He states that during that period he was mostly influenced by the works of Herbert Bayer and Jan Tschichold. The neat, minimalist aesthetics of the latter strikingly stood out next to the chaotic expressionism of current era’s punk media and could be easily traced in the development of Saville’s own style.

Peter was so obsessed by Tschichold’s constructivist dogma that when he approached band manager and record label owner Tony Wilson during a Patti Smith’s concert in 1978 he quickly presented him the idea for a gig poster for his project The Factory based on the cover of Kraftwerk’s album Autobahn — one of Saville’s favorites. This is also the first time when the designer shows that he’s inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s objet trouvé ideology where an already existing item is modified for the purpose of the current art — in this case an industrial warning sign is shamelessly stolen from a college door and transformed into a quasi-public notice.

Saville’s appreciation for the popular music marked enormously his career in the world of graphic design. By befriending Mr. Wilson he was hired in 1979 as the art director of freshly created music label Factory Records — co-founded by Saville himself. Served with an exclusive artistic freedom (just like the signed band members themselves) Peter saw an incredible opportunity not just to show his works to the world but to transfigure the tired and self-important aura of the rock celebrity.

By shifting the focus from the ubiquitous ‘’either-face-or-body’’ option to supposedly insignificant visuals directly taken out of the daily life that should appear rather dull in a different context: Braille characters, user manuals, aerial photographs, old topographic maps, etc. Undoubtedly, his first great moment comes when he was assigned with the artwork for Unknown Pleasures — the debut album of a young Manchester-based quartet named Joy Division.

Although their guitar player Bernard Sumner chose the image for the front cover (a representation of radio waves from pulsar CP 1919 taken directly from The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy) it was Saville himself who did the magic by reversing the colors and juxtaposing them to a single, stark image of a door for the inlay in addition to the spartan usage of information. The design suits perfectly the unique cold and distant sound of the band and now is regarded as one of the most distinguishable artifacts of that or any other musical period.

Orchestral Manoeuvres Cover
Orchestral Manoeuvres

Along with his work for Factory Records Saville did a significant body of work for Virgin’s branch Dindisc where he created covers for such popular artists like Wham!, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Roxy Music and many more. In this field he managed to match his minimalist approach with more glamorous and crowd-pleasing perceptions and his success led him to his best paid creation of that era — Peter Gabriel’s album So in 1986.

However, he continued to cherish his Factory portfolio more passionately pointing out the now-infamous cover for New Order’s 12-inch single Blue Monday. In this case the designer’s idea was to make the artwork to resemble a 133 mm floppy disk made out of die-cut cover, cut outs and a thick silver inner sleeve with no text info anywhere except a cryptic series of coloured blocks. Due to the specific nature of its packaging and “the strange accounting system” the single cost losses to the record company in its early release days but that didn’t stop it to reach #9 in the UK Single charts and at #1 in the UK Indie Charts and to sell over 1 million copies worldwide.

New Order Album Cover Design
New Order - Get Ready

By creating over 200 other front covers for New Order and likewise artists in the 1980s and subsequent years Peter Saville established himself not only as a household name in the field of the popular graphic design but also as a trend of his own in terms of pop art tendencies. His method of using real-life objects by ripping them out of the dullness of their usual state and making them iconic. Speaking of his favorite cover for New Order’s second studio album he argues that “flowers suggested the means by which power, corruption and lies infiltrate our lives. They’re seductive.

Thus, an image of elegance and fragility could also evoke a buried subtext of sneaking disquietude no matter whether one associates it with specific sounds or words. In his later years Saville reached further success such as his appointment as the Manchester City’s Creative Director or designing the home shirts of the England football team but it is out of question that his peak was definitely during the untamed Factory era when he transformed the banality into something truly impeccable.