Designing Factory: An Interview with Chris Mathan By Audrey J. Golden
“I knew when I left Peter Saville Associates that I would probably never have the opportunity to be that inspired as a designer again. It was the most creative time in my life, and I knew it. I got to work with amazingly talented people on fabulous music-related projects—much of it the very music I loved! It was crazy, too. I never went to bed before one o’clock in the morning. The time was right, London was on fire . . . . Peter was a creative force.” —Chris Mathan
Christiane (Chris) Mathan began working as a designer at Peter Saville Associates (PSA) and for Factory Records in the mid-1980s. At that time, Factory made plans to re-release its early LPs on cassette tape and CD and to put on the Festival of the Tenth Summer, a celebration of a decade of punk music. The Festival exemplified the spirit of Factory: that punk/post-punk/new wave music wasn’t just about sound—it was also about art, graphic design, photography, film, fashion, and other elements of material culture. Factory is certainly known for its bands—Joy Division, the Durutti Column, A Certain Ratio, New Order, and Happy Mondays, to name a few. Yet it’s also remembered for its unique production of artefacts. In establishing Factory Records, Tony Wilson, Alan Erasmus, and Peter Saville set out to, in Wilson’s words, “do things differently.” Every object produced by Factory was given a catalog number, from albums to The Haçienda (FAC 51) to the cat that hung around the dance club (FAC 191). Factory’s revolutionary fusion of sonic, visual, and tangible art defined a cultural moment.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Factory Records. In celebration, exhibit spaces in London and Manchester are displaying objects from the early Factory catalog along with related archival material and ephemera. With Rhino’s release of two limited edition box-sets highlighting the music and design of Factory, I had a chance to talk with Chris Mathan about her design work and its legacy.
AG: Along with Peter, you created the CD and cassette tape designs for what is, perhaps, the most iconic Factory album: Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. I want to start by asking you about your work on the CD and cassette tape re-releases of Joy Division, New Order, and other Factory albums. What’s it like shifting from design work for an album cover to design work for a CD?
CM: Factory, by that time, was releasing newer albums on CD, but the older albums had not been released in that format. So, Factory decided to release the entire back catalogue on cassette and CD. I worked on reinterpreting the original artwork that Peter had designed.
Because a CD and an album are not that different in terms of shape, the CDs were mostly just a ‘translation’ of the album. But in some cases, did we do anything interesting because the CD has an insert? Yeah. For example, with New Order’s Low-life, which is actually one of my favorites, because you had the front of the album, back of the album, and the inner sleeve, we made photo cards and slipped them in a transparent folder.
AG: Around the same time, you also worked on the linen-textured cassette boxes for Joy Division (Fact 10c, Fact 25c), A Certain Ratio (Fact 16c), Section 25 (Fact 45c, Fact 90c), New Order (Fact 100c), and so on—for which each band was given a distinct color. Those linen-textured box cassettes strike me as being much different from a ‘translation’ of the album to the CD. Can you say more about the design for those?
CM: First, it was a way to re-release the cassettes as a “family” of things. The linen-textured paper came in numerous of colors that could be used to identify each band. So Peter and I decided: we’re going to use purple for Joy Division, white for New Order, and so on.
Then the thing with the cassettes is that conventional cassette packaging really couldn’t accommodate all the intricacies of the albums. That’s why we decided to do something different. That’s where those linen-covered boxes come from. The box encased both the cassettes and some version of the album jacket or inner sleeve. For example, with Unknown Pleasures, the CD is pretty much the album cover, but I know Peter and I decided to do the cassette insert ‘translation’ of the album on white with silver.
AG: Those cassette boxes have become really collectable, as have so many other Factory artefacts. Were you and Peter thinking at all about the archival quality of the papers and inks at the time of production?
CM: As far as archiving Factory artefacts, there isn’t anything that can be changed [now] in how things were produced. They were commercial products, and except for the art world—where archival papers have always existed—commercial printing papers were not intended for archiving. No one thought, ‘well, these things are going to be worth something or people will want to preserve them as art objects in a half-century, so we should produce them with that in mind.’ Peter was definitely pushing the envelope anyway at Factory—but that kind of guaranteed permanency could not have been accomplished with most of the printed things without causing them to be insanely expensive to produce.
For example, the card stock record jackets we offset printed were manufactured for specific printing presses, scoring and folding processes, et cetera. Having said that, to preserve artefacts in reasonable condition now, sensible precautions like using archival mattes and glass would certainly help. There are commercially printed objects that are considerably older that have been preserved simply by keeping them dry, clean, and out of the sun. Commercial printing is no different today. It may [actually] be less archival since most printing inks are soy-based.
AG: Before we spoke the first time, I assumed you were from Manchester! How did you end up in England in a partnership with Peter Saville and Brett Wickens?
CM: When I was in art college in Nova Scotia, I managed a punk band. I fell in love with London and the whole punk scene. When I moved to New York in 1981, I’d go to 99 Records every weekend, and it was there that I discovered Joy Division . . . . That was my entrance to everything. [99 Records was an American independent label from 1980-1984 specializing in post-punk and no-wave. The Bronx band ESG was among the first to sign to 99 Records and later to Factory after Tony Wilson heard them while on a trip to NYC.]
In the 1980s, I was working as a designer at Knoll Furniture. Of course, I knew who Peter was. I went to visit a friend of mine in London and contacted Peter to ask if I could meet him. I went to the studio on Kensal Road [shared by Peter Saville Associates and Trevor Key], where I eventually worked. I met him, we talked, and I told him, ‘I’d love to come work with you.’
When I got back to New York, I sent him my portfolio slides, and then I never heard back from him! Which later seemed completely reasonable—just how Peter was [laughs]. I never heard back from him, but I planned to move to England anyway. I thought, ‘there’s all this great music, so I’ll find something to do.’
It’s widely acknowledged that Manchester and the north of England in general has been the hotbed of great music for a long, long time. I was a fan of a lot of Factory bands . . . obviously Joy Division and New Order, but also the Durutti Column, Section 25, Happy Mondays, A Certain Ratio, James—all of whom I got to work with and heard play many times—as well as non-Factory Manchester bands The Smiths and The Fall. Later, of course, came The Stone Roses and Oasis. There were many others coming from the north and Scotland, including Cabaret Voltaire from Sheffield and the bands on the Scottish label Postcard. There were all kinds of small independent labels in England in the ’80s. You could go hear different bands play most nights.
So, I moved to London, and I called Peter and said, ‘can I come pick up my slides?’ He and Brett were going to an art exhibit, and he said, ‘come meet me there.’ I met him at the opening, and by the time I left, I was in a partnership with Peter and Brett.
AG: I love your advertising design for The Mad Fuckers (FACT 181), the Bailey Brothers’ screenplay that took Tony Wilson out to Hollywood. The look of the ad feels pretty punk to me. How’d you come up with it?
CM: That’s something Tony had me do. It was already called The Mad Fuckers and I thought, well then let’s just make ‘fuckers’ really big! And that’s all, and Tony loved it. He loved that THE MAD FUCKERS was that big!
But really, Tony wasn’t at all surprised that I made the letters big. That would have been what he wanted and why the words were in there . . . for shock value. The words had no shock value themselves, but in the context of elegant type design they did!
AG: Speaking of typography, you selected the typefaces for the Brotherhood album (FACT 150) and for the Bizarre Love Triangle (FAC 163 – See top image) and State of the Nation (FAC 153) singles. What’s the typeface and how’d you choose it?
CM: I did design the typography for Brotherhood and the singles, Bizarre Love Triangle and State of the Nation. The bold sans serif is Franklin Gothic and the text is Bodoni as they proportionally work together. I still love both of them.
AG: How important was type to the design work you were doing?
CM: We jokingly referred to ourselves as ‘typoheads.’ I actually designed a typeface years before. And Brett [Wickens] was a seriously good typographer and designer. Between the three of us—Peter, Brett, and myself—we were really type enthusiasts. Peter really got type, and the power of different typefaces—typography as a design element.
AG: You also have a great story about a blowtorch and those jacket graphics for Bizarre Love Triangle and State of the Nation. What are we seeing when we hold those singles?
CM: I don’t remember who ordered the metal or where exactly it came from—different wholesalers. Sheets of various metals were delivered to the studio during the course of a week or so. I remember the delivery of a sheet of zinc that was stamped ‘BILLITON TITAANZINK.’ Peter liked that so much that it became the Brotherhood album.
Then the other metals [for the singles] . . . . I guess they weren’t really interesting enough. One evening we were in Trevor’s adjoining studio [Trevor Key’s studio in the back of the PSA studio building on Kensal Road in London]. Peter usually got to the studio pretty late. I don’t know how anybody thought about getting a blowtorch, but we were literally there holding these sheets up and blowtorching them late one night. The heat just distorted them and made the marks that you see on those two—on Bizarre Love Triangle and State of the Nation.
AG: OK, we’ve talked about albums. What about films, videos, and Factory IKON? The New Order video Pumped Full of Drugs (FACT 177) seems to have a corporate feel to it. What are we looking at?
CM: That’s a weird story. My memory of it is this: We got the assignment, and it immediately went on my desk. We were all a bit like, ‘pumped full of drugs?’ It’s creepy, right? I don’t know where New Order or Factory came up with it. My guess is that there was some cynicism involved in that title.
Anyhow, it was my idea, and Peter liked it, to do a real twist on the title and make it look like Swiss pharmaceutical design—as in pharmaceutical drugs, with the petri dish, the colors, and the type looking like it’s on a pharmaceutical drug label. It was to me a cynical response to the title.
AG: Where’d you find that image of the petri dish?
CM: We found a petri dish somewhere, and Trevor [Key] photographed it. I still have the actual photograph!
AG: Shifting from Factory and PSA work in England to related work in the U.S., how’d you develop the Of Factory NY icon with the star and stripes?
CM: I was hired to do the icon for Of Factory NY for the stationery at first. I came up with that for Michael Shamberg [head of Of Factory NY], and it made perfect sense to me that it would be the American star and the stripes. It was a take off on Factory because they were releasing American Factory artists like Miranda [Stanton, of Thick Pigeon].
The use of Factory icons predated my working with Peter, but when the Factory logo was designed, they were already thinking about the power of iconography to represent the different aspects and relationships that were part of the Factory Communications Ltd. brand. The Of Factory NY icon was part of that brand.
AG: You worked with Peter to design the graphics for the Festival of the Tenth Summer. I love how the “numbers-only” posters that were pasted around Manchester contained little (or no!) information about the events, but instead were designed to create intrigue. How’d the design process develop?
The numbers for the Festival came from futuristic, computer-generated images. The ‘8’, for example, was a digital, computer-generated number that was enlarged. It was based on a grid, and you could use a square, or a diagonal of that square. If you saw that reduced in size, it read ‘8.’ This was prior to the idea of post-script. Macintosh computers were already around, but useful desktop publishing had not quite yet been created for designers. By the way, the ‘8’ is an OCR-B [OCR-B is a monospaced font developed in 1968 designed to be read by electronic devices].
We worked from one through ten. First the ‘1’ went up. The next week the ‘2’ went up, and there was no explanation. Then the ‘3,’ and each week up to the ‘10’. Then the number ‘10’ poster explained what it the Festival was, what bands were playing, what was going on. The events included the numbers in an art gallery—the physical numbers [those numbers were displayed as one of the Tenth Summer events at City Art Gallery in Manchester]. So they were physical, three-dimensional art numbers, and they were huge. We produced them, and I don’t know what that cost.
We also designed posters and postcards of the numbers. Those were printed by Acme, a silkscreening company in London. Peter and I went there when they were silkscreening them to decide on the colors. They ran the postcards four-up on a sheet—press proofs for the postcards.
AG: What happened to those larger-than-life, three-dimensional numbers that were exhibited in City Art Gallery?
CM: [laughs] I don’t know! I don’t know what happened to them! [laughs again]. I guess Factory sold them for a lot of money.
AG: Factory was notorious for spending a lot of money on design and production but rarely recouping it. Did they make any money back on those numbers?
CM: I found a sheet of paper recently [with price lists from the Tenth Summer]. It has no title but appears to be a price list for various things, including Factory videos and cassettes, et cetera. One list is entitled: Merchandise—Tenth Summer. The last thing on the list is the price for #10: Installation (so, what it was being sold for). I have no idea if anyone ever purchased it, but the price tag at that time was $32,000. The numbers would have been expensive to produce, so that number isn’t all that high. If I recall, they were made on-site in the gallery.
AG: I bet a lot of people would want to buy those numbers now. Speaking of creating ‘intrigue’ through those 10th Summer images without titles, names, or other information, what are your recollections about how PSA work for Factory was viewed in the design industry?
CM: I remember before I went to England in the early 80s, I got into a heated argument with the New York designer, Michael Bierut [who recently designed the logo for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 U.S. presidential run]. I remember getting into a discussion with him about Joy Division, New Order, and how Peter was designing these album and single record jackets that had no name, no band name [e.g., the Joy Division Unknown Pleasures cover]. He said ‘you can’t do it, it won’t work, it’ll never work, you can’t do it, you can’t sell records.’ I said, but Peter is, and Factory are doing it.
I always think back on this because Peter’s work was groundbreaking and it wasn’t at all superficial. For Bierut to say ‘you can’t’ was because he could only see the music in this commercial sphere. We weren’t looking at it that way. We were looking at this as cultural, as art, as important, as ‘this changes the way people think about the music and the culture that created it.’ This is 30-plus years later, and people are talking about it! And, well, they’re not talking about anything else! They’re not talking about most ‘record sleeves’ designed with the name of the band and the title of the album in 60-point type on the album cover.
People are intrigued by things that strike them as defying the norm . . . certainly in the sphere of music.
AG: What was one of the features of Peter’s music design work that was so strikingly different from what others were doing at the time?
CM: I don’t know the simple way to talk about it, but juxtaposing things from one world that don’t appear to belong in another world. Like when you look at Joy Division’s Closer, when you bring that kind of funerary imagery into conversation with the world of rock’n’roll music, it takes on a different meaning.
It wasn’t a gimmick. It absolutely had a purpose. Peter would ask, for instance, ‘what happens when the corporate world is brought into the music world?’ Why not? Peter was intrigued because I had a background in corporate work. I’d worked at Chermayeff & Geismar doing work for Philip Morris, Exxon Mobil, and NBC. Peter liked that I had that background.
AG: When you look back on Peter Saville and Factory, what do you think about?
CM: I don’t think there could have been a Factory without Peter. I can’t possibly separate Factory from Peter. I don’t know what Factory would have been—could have been—without him. There were many other designers who worked for Factory, but they didn’t have that bold impact that Peter had, or the visionary connection to the culture that Peter had. Excellent designers, some of them were, but Peter is unique. He just had his finger on the pulse of what was going on—the culture, where it came from, the past, the history, the art, the fashion, the music—everything that’s going on around you. He was the person who was going to decide and did decide.
Whether it’s today or yesterday or 100 years ago, not every person—I’m a good designer, and Brett [Wickens] is a good designer, and a lot of people that worked for Factory and at PSA are good designers—but not every person has that vision. That’s unique to Peter.
I will always look back on that period as exceptionally creative and exciting. Most people look at what Peter was doing as really serious stuff, but my memory of it was that we actually had a lot of fun and laughed a lot.
Audrey J. Golden is a literature and film professor at Simmons University. She and her Factory Records collection live in Brooklyn, NY. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and you can check out her personal website to learn more about her writing and her archive of books, records, and ephemera.