“At that age, no one was asking me to redesign the transit system, but somebody asked me to do a record cover,” designer Peter Saville said to the Washington Post in 2019 about his cover for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. “So I did a record cover the way I wanted—not just the way I wanted a record cover to be, but the way I wanted everything to be.”
The now-ubiquitous image (it really is almost everywhere you are, and I recently spotted one shaped like the state of Vermont at a gift shop) of a series of pulse waves was almost in black with a white background as the band wanted. Thankfully, designers at Factory Records—Joy Division’s Manchester label run by Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus—had free reign, and Saville chose a darker, “sexier” black as he was worried it would look “cheap.” Saville and the band decided not to put the band’s name or the album title (because, no, you don’t really need to) on the cover, and, voila, the rest was history.
You’ll find that same cover from Saville and many more at the Manchester Science + Industry Museum's latest exhibit, “Use Hearing Protection: The Early Years of Factory Records.” Documenting the salad days of the iconic music label, viewers witness just what made the label and its design so ahead of its time from 1978-1982, when the industrial city was rocked by the likes of Joy Division, New Order, and The Durutti Column (though no disrespect to Vini Reilly, Durutti wasn’t one for melting faces). On display, you’ll find many of the concert posters they designed from those years, in addition to album covers from the previously mentioned Peter Saville, Ben Kelly, Mark Farrow, Martyn Atkins, Ann Quigley, and Trevor Johnson.
The exhibition was curated by the museum, alongside artist Jon Savage, archivist Mat Bancroft, and Stuart Wheeley from Warner Music UK. Treasures like Ian Curtis’s teardrop guitar are on display, as well as notebooks, photographs, and various other pieces of ephemera from the label’s early days. So long as you bring your own headphones, you can play a big-shot record producer as they have a mixing desk and synthesizer from that era that allows you to experiment with your version of a Factory Records track.
You’ll also find the first fifty artifacts from Factory Records, one of the most definitive features of the label. Sure, record labels have a numbering system for their releases, but the Factory catalog never consisted of just LPs and 45s—there were also concert posters, VHS tapes, t-shirts, and stationery. Hell, there’s even a lawsuit and the Hacienda cat in there, a feline that lived in the basement of the legendary but now defunct Manchester club (and no, the cat is not on display).
Above all, guests will catch a glimpse of the kinda' depressing and dark industrial wasteland that—surprisingly—became a hub of art and culture at the tail end of the 70s, delivering a design aesthetic that, frankly, hasn’t really left us.
Take a gander at any of Saville’s Joy Division, New Order, or Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark album covers, and you’ll see a clean and distinctive POV that’s just as fresh as when it was created. It's one of music's most fascinating eras, a mix of post-punk, new wave, electro-funk, and dance, and the exhibit uniquely celebrates the world that Factory created.
Use Hearing Protection runs until January 3rd of next year. You can buy tickets here.