how joy division's 'unknown pleasures' artwork has inspired everyone from raf simons to disney

As a new digital tool makes the iconic album’s artwork customizable, we take a look at the Peter Saville design's expansive legacy.

by Emily Manning
12 October 2016, 8:35pm

It's likely you saw Unknown Pleasures's album artwork long before you heard Joy Division's music, or even knew the seminal Salford four-piece's name. Perhaps your cool uncle held onto his Factory wax from his early 80s post-punk days; maybe you saw it in t-shirt form, hanging on the wall of a record shop or, more likely, your local mall's Hot Topic. It's possible you first encountered the design without even knowing it belonged to a band. In the nearly forty years since Joy Division released its debut record, Unknown Pleasures's album art has been widely appropriated by fashion designers, other musicians, creative superfans, even Disney. Now, you can bring your own cover to life.

Code writer Garrett Finucane has created a simple online generator that allows users to make their own variations on the design, and download the customized cover as a gif. Though artist Peter Saville is responsible for the record's design, Unknown Pleasures's wave pattern is not entirely the work of Saville's hand. In a short video created for Visualized's annual design conference in 2012, Saville explained: "as pretty much all groups with their first releases, [Joy Division] knew what they wanted on the cover. They brought me this folder of material and gave me this page from the The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy." That image showed radio waves from pulsar CP 1919, the first radio pulsar ever discovered. "There was a very tight, accurate frequency to the signal; it was every 1.337 seconds. And the diagram itself is a cutting of the continuous read out, and then a stacking," Saville explained. The image was originally created by astronomer Harold Craft at the Arecibo Observatory for his PhD thesis in 1970, Scientific American notes. That's less than a decade before Unknown Pleasures was released, and before Saville even became a Factory Records designer.

"There is, without a doubt, a global cult around Unknown Pleasures, and very much around this image," Saville continued in the video, recalling the "endless interpretations" he's seen in print, pottery, mosaic, fashion design, and full back tattoos. Indeed, there have been both melodramatic and comic appropriations and remixes: cakes, condoms, customized Gameboys, crossovers with brands like Powell-Peralta and Carhartt. In 2003, youth oracle Raf Simons presented perhaps his most coveted collection ever, Closer, an ode to Saville's work for bands like Joy Division and its reincarnation, New Order. The Unknown Pleasures design featured on canvas parkas, leather motorcycle jackets, and knit sweaters. Two years later, in 2005, Supreme did its first collaboration with Saville, creating a series of tees and skate decks with the Unknown Pleasures artwork.

Of course, the cover has remained a source of inspiration to fellow musicians, as well. In addition to countless band t-shirt riffs (like Surfer Blood's Astro Coastgear), Unknown Pleasures inspired the artwork for Vince Staples' debut album, Summertime 06. Staples is a longtime Joy Division fan, and credits his Mexican neighbors in Long Beach for first introducing him to the British post-punk legends.

But without a doubt, the most iconic Unknown Pleasures recontextualization is the most unexpected one. In early 2012, Disney sold officially licensed Mickey Mouse t-shirts rendered in Saville's radio waves (a rather ill-advised decision considering the controversial origins of the band's name, and the fact that its lead singer, Ian Curtis, famously killed himself). Nevertheless: "Inspired by the iconic sleeve of Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures album, this Waves Mickey Mouse Tee incorporates Mickey's image within the graphic of the pulse of a star. That's appropriate given few stars have made bigger waves than Mickey!" its original listing read. Within two days of the shirt's discovery by music blogs, it was removed from Disney's website, and still fetches massive resale values on eBay. "I hope that [Disney] will be as understanding when we start doing Donald Duck shirts," Joy Division's former bassist Peter Hook told MTV at the time.

"It's kind of a template which people continue to interpret," Saville concluded of his design. "It's the endless possible interpretations of this diagram that make it so powerful, and in a way useful, for something like an album cover." 


Text Emily Manning

Joy Division
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Unknown Pleasures
Peter Saville