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Vaughan Oliver - An Obituary

Vaughan Oliver – Graphic designer, artist

Born September 12, 1957; died December 29, 2019  

Vaughan Oliver, who has died aged 62, was a graphic designer who helped redefine record sleeves as artworks. His vivid mesh of woozy abstractions, shimmering colours and classicist typography defined the visual identity for independent record label 4AD. His designs complemented the music contained within with a synaesthesic evocation of its often other-worldly and sense-heightening mystery.

From 1981, when Oliver first came into contact with 4AD co-founder Ivo Watts-Russell in London and designed the cover for a Modern English record, his work gave the label its instantly recognisable look. Ornate, sumptuous and at times arcane, Oliver’s designs drew from the musical personality of whichever band he was illustrating, promising something equally mysterious beyond. This was the case for records by Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil, through to American bands Throwing Muses, Belly and Pixies, as well as mavericks such as David Sylvian, Scott Walker and film director David Lynch.

While Oliver’s designs for each artist were infused with different strategies, responses and interpretations, over time they created a body of work that charted a rich and sensual tapestry of seductive artefacts that morphed into an increasingly enticing whole. In this way, with influences including Aubrey Beardsley, the Dadaists and the abstract expressionism of Mark Rothko as much as the everyday detritus of consumer culture, Oliver’s aesthetic evolved and expanded, even as it remained faithful to the music that inspired it.

It is only fairly recently that vinyl records have started to be regarded as editions in the same way a print or a painting might. Along with design contemporaries such as Peter Saville, who did something similar with Factory Records, Oliver recognised the value of packaging as an entity in its own right, with the album cover effectively being one artwork housing another.

“A cover should work as an entrance door that invites you to cross it,” he told Joan Pons in an interview with O magazine. Those covers included several albums for the Grangemouth sired Cocteau Twins, who Oliver said were by far the most difficult artists he worked with. “I knew beforehand that their answer to anything I showed them was going to be a straight ‘No’,” he told Pons. “They never seemed happy with anything!” Despite this, Oliver’s designs for Head Over Heels (1983), It’ll End in Tears (1984), Treasure (1984) and Victorialand (1986) have become classics of their kind.

One of Oliver’s best known works was for the Pixies album, Doolittle (1989), which drew from the lyrics of the band’s song, Monkey Gone to Heaven, and mixed geometric shapes with photography and typography.

While the twelve-inch format was Oliver’s main canvas, there were elaborate excursions into rarer territory. The most pronounced of these was for the 1987 4AD compilation, Lonely is an Eyesore, which was produced in an expensive limited edition wooden box containing vinyl, CD and cassette as well as a video and some etchings.

“Somehow,” he told Pons, “my goal was always to turn music into an object, granting it a physical dimension.”

Vaughan William Oliver was born in Sedgefield, County Durham, and went to Ferryhill Comprehensive, Durham. With few cultural facilities around, Oliver turned to music. The aural allure of bands like Roxy Music became a gateway into visual culture, with exposure to the cover for the first Roxy Music album a defining moment for Oliver as he immersed himself in the music. Oliver looked as well to the designs of Roger Dean for Yes and Hipgnosis for Pink Floyd, which similarly went beyond well-groomed images of the band to something powered much more by the imagination.

In 1976, Oliver started studying graphic design at Newcastle Polytechnic. Oliver’s parents only really understood the worth of what their son was doing after they were able to buy lightbulbs in a box he’d designed. After graduating, Oliver moved to London, where he eventually met Watts-Russell, becoming an integral part of a nascent 4AD. The pair collaborated for decades, each feeding off the other’s creativity.

In 1983, Oliver founded 23 Envelope with photographer and film-maker Nigel Grierson, who he had been friends with since bonding over music and art at Ferryhill. When Grierson departed in 1988, Oliver rebranded with new partner Chris Bigg and various associates as v23.

In 1990, Oliver’s work for 4AD was shown in Nantes, France, the first time it had been seen in a gallery context, and the exhibition transferred to Paris. In 1994 there was a major retrospective in Los Angeles. In 2000, Rick Poyner wrote a monograph, Vaughan Oliver: Visceral Pleasures. To mark the 25th anniversary of 4AD in 2005, a limited edition collection of Oliver’s poster designs was published, with a second edition coinciding with a solo exhibition two years later.

More recent album covers include Emma Pollock’s 2007 debut, Watch the Fireworks, and three albums by a reconvened Pixies, having provided designs for every record the band had made previously. Outside music, Oliver worked on the 2012 London Olympic Games and TV ads for Microsoft and Sony.

Oliver’s archive is housed at the University for the Creative Arts in Epsom, where he taught as a visiting professor, and where he was awarded an honorary Master of Arts in 2011. In 2018, a two-volume limited edition collection of his work, Vaughan Oliver: Archive, was published. As one might expect, and as with everything Oliver did, the packaging and presentation was an immaculate thing of rare beauty.

Oliver is survived by his wife Lee and their two sons.

The Herald, January 14th 2020


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