Selectism Q&A | Designer Peter Saville on Joy Division & Distorting The Lacoste Croc

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No. 01 / 05
Browse Gallery

To call Peter Saville a design legend may seem a bit of a hackneyed choice of phrase, but, it’s a correct one. He’s best known as the guy who created the famous/infamous pulsar pattern for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures or to a younger generation, the reason Supreme stuck roses on everything for Spring Summer.

Saville’s work has included consultation and design for the likes of Ultravox, Roxy Music, Yohji Yamamoto, SHOWstudio, Dior, Whitechapel Art Gallery, Barbican, Givenchy, Pringle, Selfridges and soon to be added to that list, Kanye West. His latest project has seen him take one of the most iconic symbols in fashion and give it a right old makeover – 80 of them in fact. In celebration of Lacoste‘s 80th anniversary, the graphic designer took the crocodile and, in his words, “distorted” it. Two Lacoste lines – diffusion and limited edition (available at select retailers worldwide) –  are available with the latter offering the opportunity of purchasing a signed, numbered shirt with its own completely unique croc.

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Peter Saville who talked us through the collaboration as well as offering some revealing insights into his career past and present. Read on for more.

How did you first get involved with Lacoste?

Well, it was a company I knew, obviously, but didn’t have any particular relationship with. In 2012 the new creative director Felipe Oliveira Baptista arrived. He’d trained at Kingston College so he was into British pop culture, design etc and knew my work. The anniversary was coming up which was the 80th year mark, he thought it would be interesting to get someone to introduce something different into the Lacoste world. So, he invited me to work on the 80 logo. Then the idea that maybe I should do the anniversary collector’s shirt popped up and that got talked about a lot before it was even officially proposed. I thought, ok, it could be interesting but it depends on what the obligations are. Well, it turned out there weren’t any. Here’s a 12.12 shirt, do what you want with it. And so then the only questions is why? There’s lots of designers and artists working with mainstream brands and it’s relatively superficial, arbitrary objects that nobody really needs, brief marriages of convenience. Somebody who has some credibility trading it for a large company who need to keep looking cool. Those come up a lot these days for me. Generally I don’t want to do them. If it’s someone I like or am interested in or if there’s an opportunity to use it to say something then fine. With Lacoste, by the time we seriously got around to looking at this project we’d become friendly, I knew the brand by then.

Were you set on altering the logo right from the start?

The brief was, do whatever you want but don’t touch the logo. So, of course, straight away I’m thinking ‘Why not?’ Seeing as my background is graphic design, identity consultant blah blah, brand identity annuals are very tempting to me. I remember, I was working with the Barbican years ago, and someone said you can’t do that with the logo, the brand manual says so. I said F*** that – it’s not very good anyway and what I’m suggesting is better which caused gasps. So, I couldn’t help thinking about the crocodile. You have this shirt and this brand which is weirdly egalitarian and instantly recognisable. It’s like coca-cola, you can take it anywhere. You can go find some kids playing football barefoot in Brazil wearing a Lacoste shirt and equally you can go to Harry’s bar in Venice in one. Is it a luxury product? Well no, it’s certainly not an exclusive product. And that’s kind of nice because you know I don’t really like “Exclusive.” If something’s expensive because it’s good then that’s one thing, but just this arbitrary exclusivity, it excludes people and that’s wrong, and, in a way it’s against the principles of culture. You don’t make things that exclude people. You might make something that’s too silly or too complex or too clever for some but you don’t do that deliberately. The tenets of the twentieth century, of modernism, are about recognising a value for all.

How did Lacoste react to you changing such an iconic symbol?

This weird brand obsession and people’s identification with brands is something I find a bit irritating. Brand should only mean reputation. The neurosis around logos that comes because of business and counterfeiting annoys me. That in mind it seemed fun to do something with the mark. I presented a few things. I knew that the disrupted logo alone would be really challenging. Basically the logo is a set of paths, you put it through filters, change the code and see what comes out. It’s random. So I started with an easier proposal that played with the croc, did crazy things with it but it could still be understood. They liked that and so I then said “I’ve got something else I want you to see.” The thing that made it work was that the head of every department was there that day. The printouts went down on the table, these digitally disturbed crocodiles. Of course there were gasps, “what has he done?!” But the images were funny, they had a wit to them, so after this sharp intake of breath eventually followed some smiles, a sense of ‘why not?’ went around the table. They were the gatekeepers, the decision-makers. It gave some life back, some humour. It’s a crocodile. It’s not the red cross, it’s not the church, the military, it was someone’s nickname woven in for fun. Afterwards I had to go to Sophie Lacoste, Rene’s granddaughter, to show her what I had done to “grandpa’s logo.” I said everyone’s afraid to touch the crocodile, tippy-toeing around it and she agreed that’s not right. I was worried that the legal department might find some legitimate reason why we couldn’t do this but no, they all got behind it and it happened.

So you saw the project as an opportunity?

Designer’s are asked to find solutions, resolve problems. Artists have the liberty to ask questions. My early factory record covers sort of said, why can’t every day things be much better? Why can’t a record cover address its audience as if it knows something? Why can’t an album cover really be your art collection? Why can’t it quote the cultural canon? There was an opportunity with the Lacoste project to ask a question. Why can’t you play with a brand mark and at what point is it no longer that brand mark? And, does it enhance and flatter your perception of that house if they have the courage and confidence to play with it?

Can you tell us a little about the finished product?

Paul Hetherington, who worked with me in the ’80s, came onboard. The challenge was to make 80 different marks for the anniversary and also make this object truly collectable.  Yes, there’s a diffusion range, that’s more readily available but the collector’s limited edition needed to mean something. What does that even mean anymore “limited edition.” The other day I saw limited edition Magnum ice cream bars, I mean come on. With the shirts there’ll be just 80 men’s and 80 women’s, all unique, signed and numbered. That’s actually quite cool, quite special. So I was happy with it. They did it really well, they let me challenge all the conventions. It actually merits the word collectable.

You must get asked to do these sorts of projects a lot?

If I do these things they have to have meaning. I’m not running a studio, no agent, it’s just me so I try to do things that have worth otherwise you just undermine any reputation you have, your value. There are people who think I might want to work on a book or identity but I don’t really. If someone approaches me with something useful or good or valuable, you want to help. There’s this generation out there who have grown up with my work and come to me now with new ideas. With the record covers, it’s the music itself that has entered the canon of pop culture and so it repeats. Unknown Pleasures is more evident now then it was 35 years ago. That’s weird. If I put “Unknown Pleasures” into tumblr search, it’s just as likely that someone who wasn’t even born then has posted that particular image. That pulsar pattern has kind of become a strange contemporary icon.

How do you feel about that?

It’s fascinating. This accumulative kudos means that there are now decision makers who’ll think, “oh, we’ll ask Peter Saville” and it takes a while to get to that point as a graphic designer. If you’re a fashion designer you’ll be completely lionised in a moment. But communications is essentially a service activity, so to get known for it is more difficult.

What about the Disney version of the Unknown Pleasures image?

Well, I had my own take on that. The filtering process at Disney had obviously broken down. A young person was probably contributing ideas somewhere in an office and thought it’d be funny to make a hybrid of Unknown Pleasures and Mickey Mouse but it seemed nobody knew where the image originally came from. To the men in suits it was just a pattern so it slipped through. It was a real bombshell that one, deeply embarrassing, the person who made it must have thought “what have I done?” To me, well it wasn’t my image anyway. Joy Division found it in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy, appropriated it and I kind of decided how to use it. Yes, it is a powerfully enigmatic image but without the enormous significance of the album itself and the deserved myth of Joy Division and the lost genius of Ian, it’s just another image.

How do you feel about the work now?

I have to always remind myself that the work was carried into the public consciousness by the music. You can do great covers for mediocre records that nobody remembers and you can do mediocre covers for great records that become iconic. Joy division were special. In a way Ian’s death sealed the authenticity that young people wanted from their culture. That is increasingly rare. The fact that the death wasn’t a silly accident, it was not an overdose, it was not drinking too much one night, it was not some silly prank that went wrong. Ian writes “Love will tear us apart” and “Isolation” and just to make sure we believe it – he goes. That is the ultimate act of artistic authenticity and it just secures it, and it has meaning and it isn’t blown years later by some awful act of commercialism or whatever. It epitomises a state of mind that young people can feel. Ian ends up making a sacrifice to the lasting legacy of Joy Division. Extraordinary. My own history is intrinsically linked to that and I have to remind myself. You know when Rob Gretton the manager of Joy Division and New Order was around and I’d say “well, I do the covers and they don’t even look at them,” Rob would say, “Yeah, don’t forget, we let you.” That was it, proactive in its passiveness, that yes, they let me do it, that it was a gesture, to let me do it. Because most bands wouldn’t have.

So you never felt that legacy was something you wanted to run away from?

No, you just grow out of it. When you’re twenty, doing a record cover is the most groovy thing you could think of. When you hit 30 your concerns changes. For the past ten years I’ve been creative director for the city of Manchester which is a far more appropriate job to do in your 50s. Young people still approach me and ask me to do record covers and it’s like, no, that’s just wrong. Basically someone of your own generation, your friends, peers should be creating those covers. I don’t know what an eighteen-year-old wants from a record cover, it’s not appropriate. I never asked my dad what he thought of Bowie or Roxy Music, it was pointless. Your work has to, not grow, but to go with you. First it was music, then it was galleries and museums and then fashion…If you have that sort of vocational drive at the heart of your work, to hold on to that it has to go where you take it. Graphics, as a career that is service lead, has allowed me to go to different places. If I had decided to be a fashion designer my career, my drive for it, may have run out years ago. I was with Yohji Yamamoto in New York in September and I asked him how he keeps doing it season after season. He looked at me, sighed, and just said, “it’s my fate.” I felt sympathy for him. I called his last collection “Meaningless Excitement” and he thanked me for it. You can get stuck in these things, and that’s what I really appreciate about graphics, it has been a vehicle I can drive to different places.

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  • Joe Clark

    I suppose it is pointless to ask you to fix the endless copy errors? Peter Saville did not design for “factory record,” for example.