In Memory of Vaughan Oliver

Remembering the 4AD designer.

Written by Craig Berry
Designer & Writer

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Whilst studying art and design at my foundation course in 2012/13 I had a project which focused on the relationship between graphic design and music.

This was something that I chose as before I started studying graphic design or even knew the term itself, I had always loved music album artwork; in my obsessive nature I would make sure every song on my iPod had the right artwork and I would know the songs I wanted to listen to just by looking for the artwork before the name.

For this project, we had to follow the usual art-school project style of researching existing artists and designers before creating anything ourselves (I never knew if this helped), and for this, I chose several artists and designers to look into the work of. One of which I remember vividly more than anyone else was the British graphic designer, Vaughan Oliver (1957–2019).

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I was drawn to Oliver through what I was listening to at the time which was (amongst many other artists in my teens) the Pixies. I think I had heard Where is my Mind at the end of the film Fight Club and subsequently another song by them on Zane Lowe’s evening Radio 1 show (probably Velouria or Debaser) which meant I had all their albums on my iPod Touch which was my life-saver on the hour-long bus+ rides to and from college every weekday. Because I listened to the albums, I knew the artwork which was totally distinctive and unlike anything else in my music library at the time.

“Vaughan Oliver is a British album cover graphic designer. He primarily creates record covers using photographs, manipulating them with layers; the old style of graphic design before Photoshop. His covers are very photo heavy and sometimes very abstracted and imaginative especially his cover for experimental [rock] bands such as the Pixies or the Breeders. Images used in Oliver’s albums often take different meanings i.e. the fly-trap plant in one [Heidi Berry — Heidi Berry] looks very solemn and soft when it is in fact a dangerous plant. Same with the evil-looking strawberry.* [The Breeders — Last Splash]”
Actual full extract of a write-up about Vaughan Oliver by me from 2012/13.
*The “evil-looking strawberry” is not a actually strawberry, but a heart.

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Studying Oliver’s work was interesting and eye-opening as it was the first time I had looked so much into a specific designer’s work. I don’t want to say that Oliver’s work was my entry-point into graphic design but I don’t want to say it wasn’t either — it’s more that I don’t think one single thing was my entry-point; more like several things.

Why is this relevant though?

Back in 2019 (29 Dec), Vaughan Oliver sadly passed away at the age of 62, leaving behind him a huge legacy of design for music and specifically for the alternative and indie rock music released on the 4AD record label in the 1980s and 90s where he worked from 1982–1998. Oliver designed some of the most iconic album artwork for some of the most renowned bands of this time. Some have already been mentioned but the roster of bands for who he worked for include: the Pixies, the Breeders, Cocteau Twins, Lush, Pale Saints, Mojave 3, This Mortal Coil, Throwing Muses and singer Kirsty MacColl.

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It was Oliver’s work which helped to shape the image of the label 4AD, also with his partnerships; either with photographer/filmmaker Nigel Grierson as 23 Envelope or with Chris Bigg as v23 (but also working as multiple other design partnerships and associates with Paul McMenamin, Timothy O’Donnell, Simon Larbalestier, Marc Atkins, Martin Andersen and more).

“Oliver and Grierson met in their late teens, as schoolboys, at Ferryhill Comprehensive, County Durham. Their friendship began in the art room, chatting about their mutual passions for art and rock music. For both of them, designing album covers — the medium was then still a twelve-inch mini-canvas — was a natural ambition. “Record sleeves,” says Grierson, “seemed like the greatest thing you could possibly do.”
Quote from
Eye Magazine #37 by Rick Poyner (2000)

Much of Oliver’s work is said to be inspired by the surrealist painter Salvador Dalí which is recognisable through the abstract and surrealist manipulation of photography on many of album artworks and thus gave the label an identity. Much like Peter Saville was doing around the same time for Factory Records where they each album artwork had its own internal logic, seldom did they ever feature an image of the band for which the record was for.

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Although they seem vague and abstract, Oliver said of them himself:

“Each cover was similarly unique, but also seemed to suggest it was a piece in a larger puzzle to be revealed later. “When you look at all the works together, you might detect a similar texture, even an intention, an outlook, maybe. You can also find unexpected aspects. I simply tried, all through my career, to create a different identity for each band I worked with.”
Vaughan Oliver talking to interviewer Joan Pons.

Of course, being born in 1993, I didn’t grow up listening to 4AD bands. I didn’t experience the post-punk brash of the Pixies or shoe-gazing melancholia of Cocteau Twins. I didn’t see these bands and genres come and go. But this doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean I can’t still appreciate their music and in turn, the artwork attached to it. Quite often I find myself listening to 1980s/90s alternative music; I have multiple Spotify playlists littered with Oliver’s work, it’s hard to miss and it’s recognisable yet diverse and even without being there at the time; you can see how he (and other artists/designers of course) defined the alternative music of these decades.

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“Without Vaughan, 4AD would not be 4AD, and it’s no understatement to say that his style also helped to shape graphic design in the late 20th century.”
4AD obituary on Vaughan Oliver’s death.

Oliver’s work obviously did not go unnoticed; much like with Saville’s designs for Factory, his album artworks almost certainly inspired a generation of people who listened to these albums to get into graphic design. Much of Oliver’s work and design process has been documented through the book Vaughan Oliver: Archive independently published in 2018 by Unit Editions:

“The book is a celebration of the Vaughan Oliver Archive, a treasure house of graphic delights housed at UCA Epsom. Oliver is the designer who kept the stuff other designers threw away: proofs, running sheets, paper labels for vinyl records, original artwork for classic album covers, videotapes, books and the weird ephemera that was the source of inspiration for many of his most famous works.

Vaughan Oliver: Archive (‘Materials and fragments’) is arranged around a set of themes — colour, hybrid forms, typography, the body, mystery, etc. It also features a selection of his exquisitely designed press ads, most of them unseen since the day they were published in the music press.

Designed by Spin and written by Adrian Shaughnessy, the book features many previously unseen works, including extensive interviews with Oliver, and with contributions from Chris Bigg, his long-standing creative accomplice.”
Description for Vaughan Oliver: Archive by Unit Editions.

This looks like a great book and something that any fan of Oliver, or the bands for who he worked for, would enjoy.

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For further exploring and listening you can also check out some music by the bands for which Oliver worked for.

Read more blog posts on craig-berry.co.uk or my Medium page.

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