Manchester International Festival is styled by you. Branding a city sounds very international jet-set-ish
I’m creative consultant to the perception and evolution of the city. The issue was the brand of Manchester in terms of its potential being optimised, and whether it’s working towards the ambitions of the city. I go about things in the way that I do, which is to dream of a possible future. MIF was on the agenda when I started, but we didn’t have a clear strategy of what it should be. One piece of cultural credibility that Manchester has, from the Halle to Happy Mondays, is music. The original objective was to make it original and modern, and that’s exactly what it’s become.
Growing up in public?
One of the problems of being around too long is that you’re often regarded as some kind of godfather. Half my time is taken up with being Peter Saville. I don’t have a product to sell. There’s no record, no perfume or book, but I get asked to do all these things, and I don’t know what to talk to people about any more. Some want to know what I’m up to now, some want to know about Joy Division.
When Tony Wilson and Rob Gretton gave me the autonomy to make pop product something better, it wasn’t done to train people into buying something. It was just done to make it better. There’s been this socio-cultural democratisation since the post-war period, and my work at Factory became part of this grand tour for the masses. But after a while you get this sense of mission accomplished, because there’s only so much of the canon you can take from. I suppose I’m partly responsible for a state of how visual culture interfaces with the business world. It was never meant to be this way.
Paul Morley said the first art he ever had on his walls was your posters for Factory. What art is on your walls?
I have none. Not through choice, because I don’t have a home now. We live in what was my studio, and all my possessions are in storage. If I had some, they would be things from the family, typically English middle-class Victorian antiquity, like a picture of a sheep on a hillside. I would also love to have a Martin Creed.
Getting down with the kids?
I’m slightly puzzled by this permanent loop of youth culture. I don’t have an opinion on Coldplay, and I don’t do record covers any more. I’m 51 years old now. Why would I want to do a Franz Ferdinand cover? They’re great and everything, but if they’re in their 20s they should get a 20-year-old to do it. They don’t want their dad doing it.
Bryan Ferry was a big influence. M&S suits him—re-make/re-model?
I feel sorry for M&S, that they have such a predicament, and that they really don’t know how to evolve a position for themselves in a constantly changing backdrop. It’s a temporary success, but it is only business. As for Bryan, it’s a bit of a sorry day for him to have to do it, but, you know, he probably needs the money.
Manchester, so much to answer for?
There’s something particular and unique to the Manchester character. Like when Ben Kelly designed the Hacienda, they said: ‘We’re not sure about you, but go and do it anyway.’ If it was New York or London, you know you’d have some committee picking through every decision before anything could happen. It was the same with doing the cover for Blue Monday. It wasn’t about trying to sell things to people. I made the record cover how I wanted the record cover to be, and we made it by our own standards.
A design for life?
I genuinely care about the socio-cultural world around me, where it is and where it’s going, and is there anything I can do to steer it in a more creative way. How we see the world matters. What buildings look like, what art looks like, and all of that’s to do with the relationship between the look of things and the meaning of things. I increasingly don’t believe what I see. I hate what I see in fashion, and in this obsession with shopping, where people are drowning in debt. I don’t want to help Louis Vuitton sell handbags that nobody needs. It’s like working for drug dealers. I always say that the pop culture I grew up with was like LSD. It was mind-expanding and it was eye-opening. Now it’s like crack.
Work in progress?
I just had a meeting to do with Kate Moss, who’s one of my clients. I’m the brand creative consultant to the New Independent State of Kate. Something like that might appear very different from the branding of Manchester, but the principles are very similar.
Interview by Neil Cooper