The art of Factory Records was that of a rediscovered culture. The music of the era-defining label, founded in 1978, has appropriated German electro, a passion for punk, the groove of funk and the drug use of disco, but its graphics have found inspiration in everything from the Bauhaus to the construction site, from Fantin-Latour to French Situationism.
A new show at the Manchester Science and Industry Museum (Using hearing protection: the early years of factory recordings) suggests that the visual vocabulary of the label was found in the decaying post-industrial streets of the city, which of course was largely, from the name of the label (although it had a Warholian inflection) to the fragments old buildings and workshop signage. But what’s even more interesting is that it has also been found all over the world. The real shock of Factory’s visual imagery was in the way the designers brought striking and brilliant images of the Modernist tradition, of Paris and Prague, Berlin and BDSM to the main street, teens and passers-by.
Led by designer Peter Saville, Factory’s visual language introduced 20th century avant-garde design into mass culture. Rather than being a top-down didactic exercise – as the British Design Council had tried to do in the post-war years – it was a bottom-up expression of pop and club culture in a city bruised, stunned by her own decline but buzzing with ideas and energy. .
The exhibition presents the first 50 creations from Factory. Each has been purposefully numbered, almost like an edition, with a poster weighing as much as a record sleeve, with a badge equaling a conceptual work of art. In this lack of hierarchy, we see a sophisticated conservative attitude that saw pop as culture rather than commerce. This was a conception not as marketing but as an attempt to create something of value beyond the transactional – the establishment of an appropriate art language and an improvement in British visual literacy.
Factory was in a unique position. One of its founders, Tony Wilson, had a well-paying job at Granada TV (its studios located right next to the Museum of Science and Industry, which Wilson helped attract here). This allowed him and his partners, Alan Erasmus and Saville, to treat it as a project rather than, necessarily, a business. The most famous example of this commitment to high design was Saville’s design for New Order’s unique 12-inch “Blue Monday” sleeve (“FAC 73”, so outside of the scope of this show). It was modeled on the shape of a floppy disk, a brilliant piece of graphic design that underscored the band’s new digital direction.
Famous, it costs more to produce than its cover price, with cutouts and a silver inner pocket. Wilson hadn’t been bothered as he was convinced he would sell hardly any copies – instead, it became the UK’s best-selling 12-inch single of all time. Factory Records managed to lose its biggest commercial success, but it created a cultural moment that has proven to be remarkably enduring, influencing fashion designers, graphic designers, architects and countless others including, but not limited to , the former head of design of Apple, Jony Ive, whose design of the iPhone is difficult to dissociate from the conscious modernism of Saville.
The designs featured here include “FAC 1”, the first factory poster from which the show takes its name – a yellow leaf with crisp graphics announcing the very sketchy Russell Club’s schedule. “FAC 2”, a cover for a vinyl sample, adopts construction site motifs for a striking image, its found line-drawing image of a worker in hard headphones contrasting with the coolness of the music. From there, the images run through Linder Sterling’s feminist concept of a menstrual hourglass (“FAC 8”, unrealized) to the indelible cover of Joy Division. Unknown pleasures (“FAC 10”), an image of a pulsar rendered as white-on-black counters. It has become one of Saville’s best-known creations, now so familiar that it has been stripped of its context and once again become a rediscovered image.
Some of the exhibits are very clearly derived from Situationist vanities. There is the sandpaper disc cover of the Durutti column – a tribute to Guy Debord’s book Briefs with a sandpaper cover designed to destroy its neighbors on the shelf. Wilson’s early designs directly adapt French texts but, more than just visual motifs, Factory borrowed from the French the 1968 critique of capitalism and the relentless rise of spectacle, of representation rather than of lived experience.
These designs could only have been produced for a record company fully aware of its position between trade and culture and not willing to succumb to commodification. One at 50 does a neat encapsulation, but “FAC 51” would have been the Haacienda, the club that spawned the baggy, drugged and ecstatic funk of the city’s next cultural incarnation as Madchester with bands such as Happy Mondays , another Factory alumnus. He is strangely absent.
Instead, the club’s original designer, Ben Kelly, created a space at the end of the show that attempts to recreate the vibe of a concert and is outfitted with found construction objects: bollards, yellow and black diagonals. , rigging, ceiling spots and industrial steel beams. It appears troublingly void and will not fill up as long as the Covid-19 restrictions are in place.
Elsewhere, Tories are trying to weave the thread of industrial Manchester into invoices, letterheads, machines, early computers and gorgeous photos of a desolate ruined city, now unrecognizable. It’s a deeply enjoyable show in a slightly surprising location (why the science?), And it highlights how Manchester designers brought the sophistication of modernist culture to clubs and record stores and remade pop like a rock. Gesamtkunstwerk.
The work embodies a profound visual overhaul that changed everything. But also, perhaps, nothing. His ideas have been ruthlessly reappropriated by an invigorated global marketing machine in everything from phones to auto ads. It has become our language.
As of January 3, 2022, scienceandindustrymuseum.org.uk