The French think that Vaughan Oliver is rather good looking; and, given the adulation heaped upon him as a result of his work with some of the defining bands of the past ten years, “God-like” might also be an appropriate description. My first contact with the man who danced with skinned eels tied round his waist to fulfil a childhood vision was no more than a woefully pedestrian voice mail.
Oliver has been the subject of much attention from both the specialist and general press, and is set to make an appearance as part of the British Design and Art Direction Presidents Lecture series on 24 April. He has been coined a master collaborator, enthusiastic commissioner, reluctant speaker and, with his physical descriptions pieced together, a genial Post-Modern prop-forward. This Rimy River – the title of his talk and a poem by Victoria Mitchell – is a paraphrase for the journey he has enjoyed since the beginnings of his career which has combined frustration and serendipity in equal measure.
Born in 1957 in County Durham, he studied graphic design at Newcastle Polytechnic under the tutorage of influential illustrator Terry Dowling. Oliver side-stepped the technical side of design to pursue illustration. On leaving college, despondency set in as he experienced poor fortune, both in job hunting, and the realisation of his graphic ideas.
It fell to the packaging specialists Michael Peters to recognise his design ability, and to whisky labels to spark the beginning of his typographic odyssey. Not long after joining Peters he met the owner of 4AD records, Ivo Watts-Russell, and within three years Oliver went from executing initial freelance projects for the progressive music label to become its in-house designer. He prefers the company of musicians, and still listens to at least 75 per cent of the label’s output. His work for the Pixies, Cocteau Twins, Ultra Vivid Scene and the Breeders acquired cult status while sales of bedsit-bound Blu Tac sky rocketed. His work, much of it determined by the vinyl format, is a passionate swan song.
Collaboration with other disciplines, both for 4AD and other clients, has been the hallmark of a continually evolving aesthetic. Through manifestations as 23 Envelope and v23 Oliver has worked most notably with film maker Nigel Greirson, photographers Simon Larbalestier, Kevin Westenberg and Domonic Davies and former Stylorouge designer Chris Bigg. Non-music projects have included opening titles for the BBC and Spain’s Canal Plus, posters for the Young Vic Theatre, and the design of Huh magazine for Raygun Publishing. By 1996 he had been the subject of nearly 30 exhibitions worldwide, of which the accompanying programmes have become best sellers independent of the shows.
Oliver’s approach to type, which he once believed got in the way of a design, remains intuitive as opposed to scholarly. The influence of his packaging work remains clear with his balanced couplings of classic forms such as Bodoni with obscure proprietorial script and display faces (such as Empire of Iris and Atlantida) marking his work with an almost Victorian charm – an impression given further weight by the occasional use of stuffed animals and sepia washes. It is these choices, alongside the work of his many collaborators, that gives 4AD such a distinctive brand personality.
His design is as much the result of the interrupted process as it is a conscious seeking of a particular form. Breaking into photographic development, piecing together collages of type or found objects, he discovers what most usually avoid. The effect of this non-representational approach is, in his own words, “seductive”, allowing interpretations to change in a way appropriate to those who seek out new forms of music and design.
This is not design in the classic problem-solving tradition, but the organisation of dramatic, idiosyncratic imagery to create a subjective form of graphic art. It is this same multi-layering of semi-developed imagery, which art critic Rick Poynor described as “nightmarishly intense”, that is the hallmark of Oliver and his collaborators’ work. In the end, Oliver is very much the sum of his parts.
Vaughan Oliver will be speaking at the Royal Geographical Society on 24 April at 7.15pm.