It all started with a dying star. A pulsar data graph that Joy Division's Bernard Sumner fell in love with. The guitarist pulled the 1970 black and white graph by radio astronomer Harold Craft, which resembles digital mountain peaks, straight from the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy. A pulsar, the word a contraction of "pulsating star," is one possible endpoint of a star's life, much like a black hole.
Sumner and his band, fronted by pasty, melancholic genius Ian Curtis, delivered the image to graphic designer Peter Saville, who had recently started designing posters and record sleeves for the band’s label, Factory Records. Saville used it for the cover of the band's debut album, inverting the colors and adding no identifying text. “They very astutely spotted this image as potentially a wonderfully enigmatic symbol for a record cover,” Saville explained in short documentary Data Visualization, Reinterpreted, and the artwork for Unknown Pleasures was born.
On June 15, 1979, the mysterious black and white artwork began decorating record store shelves, drawing in browsing customers. Sonically, Unknown Pleasures was a monumental achievement, one of the most important and influential rock albums of all time, putting Joy Division at the forefront of the post-punk movement.
Producer Martin Hannett took the music beyond the simple clanging fury of punk's 1977 generation, embracing new technologies like electronic drums and experimenting with samples of someone eating chips, a flushing toilet, breaking glass, and an aerosol spraying in place of a hi-hat cymbal. Today, the album is heralded for its sparseness and ambience and considered an important link in the chain leading to the techno and electronic music that would blossom in the following decades.
But while prescient critics and fans foresaw the music’s enduring impact, hardly anyone anticipated the mammoth impact the album's spartan cover art would have on 21st-century fashion design.
The iconic cover can be seen on streets and fashion runways, in closets and stores, and even inked indelibly on people's bodies. “There is, without a doubt, a global cult around Unknown Pleasures and very much around this image,” Saville added in the documentary. The cover has become one of the most popular band tee designs ever, to the point of becoming a meme, and its ubiquity has spilled over into high fashion and streetwear.
The most famous runway affiliation came through youth-culture demigod Raf Simons, whose FW03 collection “Closer” was an ode to the band and Saville’s iconography, putting the Unknown Pleasures image on a canvas parka, leather motorcycle jacket, and two knit sweaters. The Belgian designer revisited the band and its artwork for SS18, too, but Simons is only the beginning.
The Unknown Pleasures artwork has influenced Yohji Yamamoto, Virgil Abloh, and UNDERCOVER's Jun Takahashi, who produced Joy Division-inspired pieces and collections in 2009, 2017, and 2019. Collaborations and capsules based around the Unknown Pleasures design have been made by Supreme, Carhartt, adidas, Nike, New Balance, Dr. Martens, and smaller brands such as FACT., Children of the Discordance, and countless others. Even Disney has tried its hand at a tribute.
This month, with the record turning 40 years old, lifestyle brand Goodhood has worked with the surviving members of the band on a capsule of apparel and homewares to go with a 40th-anniversary red vinyl reissue with inverted white sleeve design.
The question, when thinking about the cover's popularity, is why. “Sick design” won’t suffice as an answer. Why does this image, in particular, continue to inspire some of the greatest designers around and why do people continue to want to wear it?
To start with the obvious, band tees are a closet staple that communicate a message and affiliation beyond mere fandom. We make subconscious cultural associations with every band. Consider an AC/DC shirt, which for many says “old white dad.” Now consider the Ramones (“youthful, riotous, troublemaker”) or Black Flag (“hardcore, angry, heavy”). Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures relays another thing entirely.
What fans and designers see behind the peaks of the pulsar is the gothic romanticism of Curtis' stark, haunting lyrics and the intellectualism of post-punk in general. The waves carry the legacy of the band’s short but powerful run, which ended when Curtis, a style icon in his own right, took his own life on May 18, 1980, two months before the band put out its second album Closer.
On “Insight,” Curtis sang, “Guess your dreams always end / They don’t rise up, just descend / But I don't care anymore / I’ve lost the will to want more / I’m not afraid, not at all / I watch them all as they fall / But I remember when we were young.” He was 22 and would be dead a year later. It was a forebodingly unfiltered message and connected with audiences via its extreme vulnerability.
Saville told Highsnobiety in 2013, “In a way, Ian’s death sealed the authenticity that young people wanted from their culture. That is increasingly rare… It epitomizes a state of mind that young people can feel.” Saville's logic can still be applied to kids in the current day. See, for example, the cult followings of deceased rappers like XXXTentacion and Lil Peep.
Unknown Pleasures has won the hearts of generation after generation of young people by embracing the darkness and suffering that can lurk inside a person, feelings that are often shamed in mainstream society and only now are we beginning to face up to as a society.
Part of the sound and lyrical identity was shaped by the grim reality of life in Manchester in the ’70s, when the city was in a state of post-industrial decline. It’s probably no coincidence that the gorgeous nightmare of Unknown Pleasures, a meditation on feelings of alienation and dissociation in urban life, took off in fashion in the ’00s, at the onset of the digital revolution, which has caused many to feel lonelier than ever.
Unknown Pleasures and its sleeve design have come to epitomize the hidden darkness and struggle of modern life, embodying humanity’s ability to sublimate pain into things of artistic beauty.
And its influence in the world of design goes on. Peter Saville has in recent years become an important figure in fashion, redesigning the logos of Burberry, Calvin Klein (under Raf Simons, of course), and Lacoste. Saville even walked the runway for Salvatore Ferragamo’s recent SS20 show at Pitti Uomo.
His Unknown Pleasures cover art has been endlessly reproduced and reinterpreted, yet it somehow retains its edge and relevance, still sparking inspiration today. The album’s ability to turn misery into poetry has proven itself timeless. And as long as the fashion world celebrates the dark and cathartic beauty that Joy Division represents, Unknown Pleasures' cover art will remain a cultural touchstone.