As told to Laura Havlin
Art director Peter Saville made a name for himself in the Manchester music scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, creating some of the most recognizable record covers of all time, designing now iconic sleeves for Joy Division and New Order among others. Since 2004 Saville has served as creative director to his hometown of Manchester, England, performing a service that led curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist to define him as a “social sculptor.”
From album art to fashion and consulting collaborations, his work has been characterized by its brave use of empty, clean spaces. Talking to Laura Havlin, Saville explores the significance and the power of negative space, and postulates what it has come to represent on a broader scale.
There is an active awareness of negative space in the context of graphics. It’s such a known value or quality that it’s more of an intuitive thing with graphic designers so it is most likely to be referred to in passing in a kind of “well of course” way. It’s particularly pertinent to graphic design—much more so than product design. It has an active value in architecture because of the interplay between volume and space. The presence of space is a quality in itself, but also a quality against that which is present is experienced. The classic courtyard in the middle of a building is typical of the relationship between what is there and what is not there.
In graphic design it is very important because it’s the space created within which something is present. The energy of what is there is determined by what isn’t there. Graphic designers will refer to space as positively and as intuitively as architects would. Most great graphic works employ the negative as evidently as they employ the positive. An example, which doesn’t appear to use it at first but actually does, is in a famous poster by Adolphe Mouron Cassandre, the French graphic artist and designer of the Yves Saint Laurent logo. One of his most famous works is of a cruise liner coming towards you. There isn’t literally negative space in the poster but actually the entire hull of the liner is, in a way, negative space.
There are different ways negative space might appear in a graphic work but it is always the way tension and contrasts are created. There is a great Man Ray poster for the London Underground that is predominantly black with a shape orbiting in the black. The blackness of the poster is the negative space in which something exists. That actually is negative space, the black, whereas in Cassandre’s poster, it appears to be all illustrative but actually there is a great big slab of negative space which becomes part of the illustration. Graphic artists always use negative space to create tension and dynamism within their work.
My own particular version of it, which I wasn’t consciously or strategically aware of when I started out, is a variation on this contrast theme. It only came to me recently when I was reading something about the stillness of the gallery as the environment in which we experience art. You are very aware of that experience you suddenly have when you cross the threshold and enter into a gallery and it all becomes empty space in which you then experience a painting or a sculpture or some other work of art. Space is created around the work by the gallery itself. If we were to remove the gallery and hang the paintings on the railings outside it would be a very difficult environment in which to see the work. The gallery creates this still zone in which we then see things—for graphic work that doesn’t generally happen. Graphic works compete in the public domain. They tend to fill the space available and consequently they are pressing up against other busy works.
This is just an excerpt. Read the entire feature in Issue 1, available here.