Despite never writing a song or playing a note, Vaughan Oliver’s contribution to the alternative music subculture of the 1980s and 1990s was considerable and, to many, genre-defining.
For much of his career, Oliver designed album sleeves for independent British music label 4AD, where his work routinely defied categorisation and themes. Watercolour-brushed barely-human forms, topless flamenco dancers and abstract monkeys, depicted in his signature gothic, surrealist and texture-heavy styles, graced the covers of work from the Pixies, Cocteau Twins, the Breeders and many others.
Born in County Durham, Oliver naturally became interested in graphic design during his school and college years. In these early years, he noted his inspiration came from the works of Salvador Dalí, and later Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg.
He studied graphic design at Northumbria University (formerly Newcastle Upon Tyne Polytechnic) before moving down to London in the late 1970s. It was here that he would meet Ivo Watts-Russell, who, as the founder of 4AD, would provide the platform for much of Oliver’s craft. In a tribute, Watts-Russell called himself and Oliver: “Two Virgos with a tendency toward being controlling [who] somehow managed to compliment and bolster each other in our mission to transcend mediocrity.”
“He wasn’t interested in making things super clear”
Oliver joined 4AD in 1982. There, he made a name for himself as a designer who felt comfortable in the uncomfortable – one that manipulated the very meaning of what it meant to be a graphic designer.
“Most of us accept that graphic design and certainly advertising is about bashing out the company message in a clear and unambiguous way – Vaughan would do no such thing,” says graphic designer and writer Adrian Shaughnessy, who helped compile, edit and publish Oliver’s two-volume Vaughan Oliver: Archive in 2018.
“He wasn’t interested in making things super clear, he wanted people to make their own minds up,” Shaughnessy adds, pointing out Oliver’s sleeve design for the Breeders’ 1990 album Pod as a good example. For years fans marvelled at and pondered over the eerily sexualised, almost-human form on its cover, not privy to the knowledge that the form was in fact a picture of Oliver himself, taken with a long exposure as he danced in front of a camera with dead eels attached to his waist.
“He was a stubborn bastard”
Journalist and 4AD biographer Martin Aston recalls Oliver’s own words: “I never like to take the easy road. I like to provoke, to be perverse.”
This risk-taking earned him reverence among much of 4AD’s artist roster. “Having interviewed pretty much every artist who recorded for 4AD between 1980 and 1999, I knew that many of those artists revered him, and were thrilled that he supplied such iconic images for their music,” says Aston.
This wasn’t to say Oliver’s methods drew no criticism. For bands with strong ideas of their own, clashes could and did happen. Aston says: “Some of them opted out of having Vaughan design their records, others put up with it and complained afterwards, including the fact that whatever suggestions they made, Vaughan ignored them and did what he wanted anyway.
“But as far as I’m concerned, Vaughan’s designs far outstripped any that the artists may have done themselves; they’re more original, enigmatic, striking, memorable,” he continues.
Aston’s words were echoed in the tribute ex-Lush (a 4AD band) member Emma Anderson paid to Oliver on Twitter: “Vaughan was a total visionary, amazingly talented, a one-off. He was also a stubborn bastard and didn’t like being told what to do and that made him all the more brilliant. He didn’t bow to convention and working with him was an absolute honour and privilege.”
“Vaughan was my natural soulmate”
Intertwined as part of Oliver’s decades-long 4AD narrative were a number of collaborators. As Shaughnessy points out, he was “intensively collaborative”, and the two biggest partnerships in his career came in the form of photographer Nigel Grierson and fellow graphic designer Chris Bigg.
Grierson and Oliver met in adolescence and made the move to London together, where they worked under the name 23 Envelope. Before Grierson’s departure from the outfit in 1988, the two co-created almost all the artwork for 4AD, including sleeves for Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil.
In his own memorial to Oliver, Grierson explained the pair’s early years, wherein they shared “everything from our desk space to our art education, from our mischievous sense of humour to our love of football, from our inspirations to our aspirations, and from our love of music to our early schoolboy belief that designing record sleeves was just about the best thing that anyone could do with their life… In short, Vaughan was my natural soul mate.”
“Why commission an artist and clip their wings?”
Following this, Chris Bigg would become Oliver’s long-term collaborator. The sotry according to Bigg is that their friendship and working relationship began when he contacted Oliver in 1983 as a second-year university student, wanting to write part of his dissertation on 23 Envelope.
“He was very gracious with his time and conversation,” says Bigg. He was eventually given a full-time position alongside Oliver in 1987, wherein he says the standout feature of Oliver’s method was his ability to surround himself with and encourage talented people.
“He had real talent for letting individuals do what they do – why commission an artist and clip their wings? He would encourage them to surprise him. I love that, he had a vision but was also very open to suggestion and changing direction.
This was a quality that extended beyond just his colleagues, Aston recalls. “He encouraged nascent designers, writing back to them when they approached him, and even employing one or two.
“He was the same with fans, sending pieces of artwork, or posters. He once also designed, on request, a 40th birthday invite for one 4AD fanatic. He wasn’t simply flattered by people’s attention, he liked to involve them, and that made for a special relationship with the work, and the label.”
This encouraging of talent happened, it seems, even when Oliver wasn’t aware of it. Graphic designer Gordon Reid recalls his own run-ins with Oliver as an employee at a pie shop in Epsom. “By day I’d work in this pie shop to earn money and then by night I’d be creating artwork for 4AD and various other places.
“And he would come in often and although I never had the confidence to talk to him about his work, he was the nicest guy. It was such an important time in my early career, and just to have those chats in that pie shop, even if he didn’t know we worked for the same label, was a reminder that things could happen eventually for me too.”
“If something went wrong, he saw it as an opportunity, not a failure”
Oliver was most known for his work with Boston-born alternative rock band the Pixies, and the sum of this work would eventually come to be the focus of a retrospective exhibition at the University of Greenwich, where he held a part-time teaching role later on in his career.
The 2016 show, titled Where Is My Mind? The Work of Vaughan Oliver and the Pixies, was curated by fellow Greenwich professor, friend and fan Nic Clear. The process of curation took the pair through decades of paste up work sent to printers, proofs, photographs and finished artworks.
“What became apparent throughout the whole process was just how playful Vaughan was in his method. He was perfectly prepared to pick up on mistakes and see them as opportunities. If something went wrong, he saw it as an opportunity, not a failure.”
These “options”, as Clear puts it, were the highlight of the curation experience: “I remember he showed me a series of different outcomes that Surfer Rosa (the Pixies’ debut album) could’ve taken, and any one of them could have been fantastic – but to see the decision he made and didn’t make was fascinating.”
And it was this flexible quality, Clear says, that made him so adept at teaching in his later career. Alongside a part-time role at Greenwich, Oliver also held a visiting professorship at the University for the Creative Arts in Epsom. “He taught the students how to think differently,” says Clear.
Beyond 4AD Oliver also designed for other clients periodically throughout his career. Non-musical clients included Sony, Microsoft and the 2012 London Olympic Games. The Northern Echo reports his first big break came in the form of a Heinz baked beans label.
But it was music where Oliver found himself. As Aston says: “He was a visionary, and more often than not designed record sleeves that uncannily mirrored the musical contents, or suggested/told the listener something about the music that we didn’t yet know.”
At the age of 62 and in the presence of close family and friends, Vaughan Oliver died on 29 December. He is survived by his wife Lee, sons Beckett and Callum, and sister Alison.