Graphic equaliser

AS A TRENDSETTER AND STYLE icon, Peter Saville doesn't disappoint. When we meet in London - at the offices of ad agency M&C Saatchi, where he is a consultant - the 51-year-old designer is dressed in a dark blue pinstriped jacket, matching jeans and white shirt, his hair immaculately ruffled. He has all the flamboyance of the musicians whose noise he has beautified, and isn't shy of acknowledging his influence - not just on the world of rock'n'roll, but the world per se.

"Look in a record shop or take a walk through Selfridges," he replies when I ask him where to find signs of his impact. "Look at the BBC's colour-bar identity, or the iPod," he continues, opening the office door on to the third-floor veranda so he can have a crafty cigarette. "It all looks so much better than 20 years ago." He points at my tastefully minimalist black hoodie with the neat yellow lettering promoting UK rapper Roots Manuva. "That sweatshirt you're wearing - you can see the influence directly from my work. There has been a revised standard."

Peter Blake's design for The Beatles' Sgt Pepper album may be the single most famous example of record sleeve art, but Saville is probably the single most famous record sleeve artist. Certainly, he is the only one to have an actor play him on the big screen, in 24 Hour Party People, about the Manchester music scene.

Saville's work for Factory Records in the 1980s cast a giant shadow, appropriate considering the sombre, monumentalist nature of his sleeves for Joy Division's albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer, which caught the apocalyptic Cold War mood. Throughout the decade, his uncluttered designs set the modernist tone, while the references to such past glories as the neo-classical era marked them out as pioneering examples of postmodernism in rock - although Andy Warhol, operating in the broader pop culture arena, probably got there first. ("All of my work between 1978 and 2000 is a quotation from or reference to less well-known aesthetics," Saville admits.)

COMPARED TO MORE WIDELY known artists such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, Saville's impact, he contends, has been greater because of the wider penetration offered by the record sleeve. A successful album can enter thousands, even millions, of homes.

"Damien and Tracey get a lot of press but what they do doesn't necessarily get across, doesn't register," he says. "They envy the pop audience. Record covers gave me uncompromised freedom and an incredibly large audience to speak to. And it influenced that audience, for better or worse."

Born in 1955, Saville grew up in the affluent South Manchester suburb of Hale, where his father, a businessman, spoilt him, the youngest of three boys who "didn't have much to feel bad about". He learned to survive his 12 years at a Roman Catholic grammar school by "being fluid and fitting in", even though, he admits, "they probably thought I was a bit pompous and pretentious".

It was a lesson that stayed with him during his years at Manchester Polytechnic, where he studied graphic design alongside Malcolm Garrett (who created the sleeves for the Buzzcocks and Magazine), and beyond, when he would come into contact with the working-class lads of Joy Division and the staff of Factory Records.

To the middle-class Saville, urban, post-industrial Manchester was an exciting, alien place. It fired his interest in the wider world and inspired him to seek out new cultural stimuli.

"I was on my own version of the Grand Tour," he explains. "My education began by staring at Roxy Music LP covers and listening to Kraftwerk, which gave me the courage to listen to Mozart. Suddenly I wanted to know about modernism, the Bauhaus, classicism, the Renaissance, typography, film-makers, photographers ... I discovered this enormous universe of culture.

"Malcolm and I would sit at art college in Manchester looking at books on the Bauhaus and, staring at Market Street, we'd wonder what the f*** had gone wrong. We'd look at packaging and signs, and we'd see how brilliant it could be, and it wasn't and it upset us. We found reality shabby. And although we couldn't change the world from the top down - we weren't invited to redecorate Downing Street! - we did get invited to do record sleeves. And we realised we could make a difference."

Comparing and contrasting his and Garrett's modus operandi, he explains: "Malcolm mixed up pop and Constructivism and came up with that weird DayGlo Constructivist thing. I didn't want to confront people; it was a seductive form of subversion, although it, too, changed things. And it did so through people saying, 'Oh, that's gorgeous.' And without doubt we've had an enormous effect on the visual culture of the UK."

He reckons that his signal achievement, even more than the chilling image of a tomb that appeared on the cover of Joy Division's Closer mere weeks after Ian Curtis's suicide, or the giant faux floppy disk that was the sleeve to New Order's Blue Monday 12-inch single (said to have been so costly that each copy lost the group money), is the design for New Order's second album, 1983's Power Corruption & Lies. It features, not as you might imagine from the LP title, an image of Machiavelli ("that would have been too literal," he says), but Henri Fantin-Latour's 19th-century depiction of roses. "It was the perfect conceit," he says, "a deceit, a lie. The group loved it."

And Saville, whose work grew more playful and lightened up as the decade progressed, loved the juxtaposition provided by the technological pop and the oil painting, of the old and the new. "It is without doubt the best piece of work that I've done," he says. It also explains why his favourite city would be an Italian one, where you are most likely to see "the intelligent integration of where we've been with where we're going".

Saville's rubbing together of the classical and computer worlds has served him well, throughout the Factory years and on to stints with design agency Pentagram and projects for everyone from Yohji Yamamoto to Pringle. But not as well as you'd think.

"Am I a millionaire?" he pauses for a moment, as though to check. "Well, back in January I did my accounts, and for the financial year 2005-2006 I earned 53,000 - that was my taxable income." I'm shocked, not just by his candour, but because I assumed - from his reputation and general demeanour - that he'd be fabulously wealthy. On the contrary: "I don't own a property. I owned one briefly and gave it back to the Halifax Building Society in the last recession. I just about break even in my earnings; I'm only just getting to the point where I'm solvent. Between 1985 and 2005, I never settled into an ad agency or a large design firm or owned a big successful design company of my own. That's why I don't have any money."

It isn't just his maverick career that Saville is refreshingly honest about. Ask him about his relationships with women and there's little that he won't tell you.

"I'm a bachelor in that I'm not married," he says. "I've had a reputation for being a playboy. Some lovely girls have said, 'We've heard the stories - we're not even going for supper with you!' Which was sad: I felt ashamed of that. It can be a handicap having a reputation."

Five years ago Saville met "an amazing girl in Berlin, completely out of the blue". Anna has shared his Clerkenwell studio-cum-apartment for the last three years. Living together with a woman for the first time in 20 years (the sleeve to New Order's 1987 single True Faith, featuring a gold leaf suspended against a blue background, was created in a melancholy moment during the aftermath of his last serious relationship) affected, he says, "the whole method of my life". So no more eating out, which he did nightly for 25 years, in "irritatingly fashionable" restaurants, and more eating at home with his 38-year-old girlfriend.

As for sex, the louche former gadabout reveals: "Because it tends to drift away in the context of a relationship I'm entirely used to the idea of loved ones doing things with other people". As for becoming a father, he says he's "not yet arrived at the point where I feel I can take care of children".

THIS MONTH, SAVILLE WILL BE "disseminating information and awareness about the role of design in the world today" at the Six Cities Design Festival. "Why does your TV set look like that, or your car?" he ponders. "These things should be on the school curriculum."

Saville is quite accepting of the imminent obsolescence, in this digital age, of the very thing that earned him his place in the pop-culture pantheon, even though he is saddened by "the appropriation by businesses of [my] cultural codes as camouflage for unbridled profitability".

"I tried to make the world more grown-up and put more grown-up references into pop culture," he says. "People ask me, 'What do you think of Coldplay?' I have no opinion of Coldplay. I'm 50. I didn't ask my dad what he thought of Roxy Music. I'm more interested in Newsnight than the V Festival.

"And I'm fine about record sleeves becoming obsolete. Music doesn't have as important a role to play in social culture as it did in the 1950s and '60s.

"Rock'n'roll introduced us to ideas of gender, equality, peace, war, freedom. But those ideas have been grasped. You can sleep with your girlfriend now; your parents take more drugs than you."

Saville also accepts that, despite his continued influence on 21st-century art and design, he did his highest-impact work long ago.

"I played a part in the opening up of the canon," he says, stubbing out his last Gauloise. "The fact that you and I can discuss Fantin-Latour and modernism - these were areas that pop hadn't gone to before. From the point of view of posterity that is my single biggest achievement."

• Peter Saville will talk about his work at the Tolbooth, Stirling, on 29 May from 6:30pm, as part of the Six Cities Design Festival's Designer Double Bill series. He will be joined by Robert Johnston, a Glasgow designer who has made books for Douglas Gordon, Jim Lambie and Mark Titchner, and artwork for Rough Trade and Chemikal Underground records. The event is free but ticketed. Tel: 01786 274 000 for details. See

Back to the top of the page