Transcript: Peter Saville on Soft Furnishings

published on 10 November 2017

In the mid-nineties, Peter Saville moved into an apartment in Mayfair. The mood and mythologies of that space, and his life within it at that time, inspired and informed a shoot with Nick Knight for the July 2009 'Sex' issue of Wallpaper*.

In the mid-nineties, Peter Saville moved into an apartment in Mayfair. The mood and mythologies of that space, and his life within it at that time, inspired and informed a shoot with Nick Knight for the July 2009 'Sex' issue of Wallpaper*.

Image from Soft Furnishing: The Erotic House of Peter Saville by Nick Knight, from 'Wallpaper*', July 2009

Lou Stoppard: Give me the context or the background. How did you come to live in this extraordinary, retro, louche apartment in Mayfair in the mid-nineties? And how did the later Soft Furnishings from the 2009 project come about?

Peter Saville: In a way, Soft Furnishings was an exercise in self-mythology. In the crash of the early nineties when many people's values were disorientated by a collapsing economy, there was an increased affinity with those aspects of 20th century culture that were dystopian. The America that David Lynch put a magnifying glass on, initially in Blue Velvet, was entirely dystopian. There's the apple pie conservative correctness on the surface and underneath it a deep sense of corruption and perversion which we all now accept, but the first time you saw Blue Velvet it was a very disturbing world that was portrayed. What was interesting to look at in middle America at that time was that mid-century modernism was still evident everywhere. There were endless examples that you would describe as 'so wrong they’re right' – buildings and particularly their lobbies, cars, clothing – people actually looking like it was still 1970, which of course Tom Ford ironically referenced in his first collections for Gucci. Jeff Koons' early work is another example of celebratring the dystopian. All distinctly different to the postmodern era's referencing of classicism, which started in seventies architecture and had its apex in the eighties. Basically the postmodern break celebrated everything except where it had just come from. As that postmodern era became a cliché in its own right, people began to look back to where we were before and to pick up the 'modernist' thread again. It's picked up ironically though, because in our times, almost everything is ironic – everything. Styling for the most part feeds off irony. Until something genuinely new comes along – like the internet or 3D printing, or a war, something genuinely life changing – the gaps are filled in with styling; and now characteristically, irony. Irony addresses elites, the 'in crowd'. The point being: 'they' won't get it but we do. Ironic reference is entry level elitism. So, this was the mood leading into the early nineties: a reconsideration, a reconnection and a reviewing of the last moments of modern. It became quite cool to look for a linear sixties apartment building, as opposed to a period house with cornicing. I was drawn to Los Angeles for its very dystopian qualities rather than New York, which was mirroring London and Paris. What was much more interesting was the weirdness of Los Angeles. When I lived in LA I sought out the kind of property that everyone there didn't want anymore, which was a seventies playboy house in the hills with shag-pile carpeting and dark wood panelling, everyone who came to visit couldn't understand why I liked it.

LS: Did you actually like it or did you just like that it was ironic?

PS: I liked it ironically.

LS: But did you like it as well?

PS: There were certain associations that it evoked. It was a playboy house in the hills after all – it was sexy, in an ironic way. I felt it was directional and when we feel things are directional we like them more. Actually I did like it – that's one of the problems, we keep moving on from one style to another, but in truth we do continue to like certain things even though the prevailing direction drops them. Musically, if I go back to my own teens in the seventies, people who liked rock also liked dance and vice versa, but weren't allowed to until moments of fusion came along – Blue Monday actually being one of those. We have a pluralism that we accept as normal now, but it was still only coming in the nineties. Fusion was still in its early days, but I was already excited to have dark wood panelling and shag-pile carpets! Flicking through style magazines now, the palette is completely pluralist. There are no rules really anymore, there's no prescriptive fashion anymore, that tyranny is over. So I had this absolutely seventies style house in the Hollywood hills and then came back to London and continued the same – from Mulholland to Mayfair. The Mayfair apartment became legendary, either because visitors thought it was cool or strange. Either way they talked about it because it was unexpected. References that came to mind were David Hicks, Hugh Hefner and everything that just spins off from the word 'penthouse'.

LS: How much did it cost you to do the whole thing up?

PS: Well we only rented it and in 1995 the property market was flat. My new business partners Meiré und Meiré funded the 'makeover'. We had a budget of £25,000 to restyle a millionaire's former London bachelor pad, last decorated in the early eighties but the core elements of which were quite sound. Ben Kelly and I were able to reimagine it... There were certain things which had to go, but a lot was completely keepable – the midnight blue suede bedroom with the black lacquered bedroom suite, the de Sede leather sofas and the Verner Panton lights for example. We had carte blanche because it was so retro and shabby that it was unlettable, and the owner wasn't visiting London anymore and the market was depressed. I found it when looking for a location to do a Scarface style shoot with Nick Knight – the Brian de Palma film set in seventies Miami – really just as an alibi to explore the look. It was just after Tom Ford had done his first collection for Gucci and there was a flood of reference. I was looking for a location and I chanced upon the property and subsequently Mike Meiré decided it would be fun to do it together, so his agency took the lease for three years and put up the budget to do the make over.

I miss it the way one misses things as you get older. To quote Leonard Cohen, 'I ache in the places I used to play.'

LS: So was the idea that your entire living there was like an art project in a way?

PS: Yes. Mike and I thought it would be interesting to create something like a salon in the centre of London, just off Berkeley square. It was unbelievable – we had a 2000 square foot playroom with underground parking and a roof terrace!

LS: Were you sad when you had to leave?

PS: No, interestingly when the lease came up three years later I had had enough of it. I wasn't feeling luxury anymore.

LS: Did you find it affected your personal life, did the apartment rub off on you?

PS: The apartment rubbed off on me and vice versa.

LS: But who rubbed off on who more?

PS: I suppose people projected aspects of the Peter Saville mythology onto the place – this is what we quoted in the Wallpaper* shoot. Peter Saville's apartment in Mayfair became a catalyst for all kinds of licentious stories. People put two and two together and made… basically it became a canvas for people to project their own fantasies onto. It was though in reality, a playboy studio for me – it was a very seductive space... But you know, in truth, it got rather blown out of proportion. 'What does he do there?' 'What kind of things are going on?' 'How many girls were there the other night?' 'There's a fetish chamber in there!' A proto 'Shades of Grey' situation of which fragments were true, but not to the extent people mythologised it – but I quite liked it. There's the famous quote that if the myth is better than the truth go with the myth, so I went with the myth. So it became legendary, somewhat notorious.

LS: Infamous?

PS: Yes, infamous, that's the word. Tony Chambers from Wallpaper* must have heard the rumours as that's what he wanted to channel when we did the Soft Furnishings shoot. The apartment was done in 1995 and the Wallpaper* shoot was 2009. So we're talking about 12 or 13 years later. The look of the apartment had become mainstream – the stylistic ideas that it quoted had become fashion, so we were able to style the Soft Furnishings shoot from a wide range of lifestyle product, from Technogym to Betony Vernon. It was all there. There’s a man in the shoot who seems to spend most of his time in a dressing gown – a kind of Svengalian observer – the voyeur of it all. Obviously, the man in a dressing gown is playing me in a over-dramatisation of the moment. The mood was the blurring of lifestyle and sexuality and the insidious influence of pornography on life-culture. Obviously pornography's impact upon fashion and pop culture is immeasurable – the prevalence and everyday accessibility actually affecting so many things – the familiarity of hardcore is having a profound effect on our society, in some liberalising ways and in some very damaging ways.

LS: Do you miss the time you were living in the apartment?

PS: I miss it the way one misses things as you get older. To quote Leonard Cohen, 'I ache in the places I used to play.' But there's a calm that comes with age. I miss some things, but I don't dwell on what's not coming back.

LS: I'm conscious that we're releasing a new film of the project now, in 2017, what does it all mean today?

PS: Nothing, apart from the fact it means something to Raquel [Couceiro] as a personal project. It's a mission, a labour of love, by Raquel. She took a disparate collection of video and was able to knit it together into a collage with a narrative. She was able to shape a narrative – slightly dystopian, slightly David Lynch from random footage. All of it comes from the practice that Nick started of having a video camera on a tripod in the studio – CCTV effectively – plus some moments when one of the crew had picked up the camera, but none of it scripted or directed, or in any way planned because there was no intention to make a video. We were doing a stills shoot. All of the video material which Raquel has worked with was surplus – you could almost say from the cutting room floor. But her narrative works – she found a jigsaw with half a picture and she managed to fit it all together without there ever actually being a picture... But no, there is no particular reason to revisit something that was already two times retro. The reason is Raquel.

LS: But it's timely, because everyone is so nostalgic at the moment.

PS: Doing the seventies in 1995 was neo, revisiting it in 2009 was neo neo, do we really need neo neo neo? The story is really the discovered footage. Raquel makes a story that was never planned out as a screen play – she's written the screenplay in that sense. It's very new media. In 2009 we didn't feel that we had to do a film for Soft Furnishings - Nick recorded it, but he didn't make a film out of it, whereas these days it's: 'here's the shoot but really see the film'…

Peter Saville
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