Vaughan Oliver is a London based graphic designer with a passion for independent music. He is known mostly for the work he did for 4AD records in collaboration with Ivo Watts-Russell ,the founder of 4AD. While employed by Watts- Russell’s South London company, Oliver created a remarkable body of work which included record covers and promotional material for artists such as Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, The Pixies, Bush and Lush. Motivated by his love of music and with the use of found imagery and visual exploration he committed himself to a high standard of graphic design creating an impressive body of influential work.
4AD Records not only introduced the world to some great alternative music at a time before the notion of Alternative was so aggressively commodified, it also established a visual identity that in hindsight has proved, maybe as important as the music.
Oliver’s work has a painterly aesthetic characterised by surrealist imagery and a sometimes dark atmosphere. He often worked with photographers Nigel Grierson and Simon Larbalestier combining photographic image with abstract typography and evocative layered textures.
The artists of 4AD could not be confused with each other by a too similar visual presentation. Oliver applied a unique approach to every assignment while still achieving a cohesive visual language that distinguishes the record label. Other than Peter Saville and Factory Records in the eighties there is perhaps no other comparisons of the symbiotic relationship between record company and graphic designer as that of 4AD and Vaughan Oliver.
Though every design assignment distinguished it’s respective artist, every design was identifiable as a 4AD production. “It was branding before branding, and I don’t like using the word branding; but it was creating a vibe that made you trust something. It was amazing because we where doing, Mystery of Bulgarian Voices records, a Colour Box album, a Pixies album. It was actually quite broad, but somehow it all made sense on the label.”
Oliver goes on to say, “I was a bit wary of putting an identity on the label itself, but I wanted individual identities for the bands that were consistent. Then, with time, you would see a thread appear. There was a unity without a corporate branding stamp on it. It was very fluid. Eventually it became an emotional response that people had with the work. Thirty years later, I’m talking to students who call it, Emotional Branding. Ive got clients who ask me how they can have that now?” The answer is that,” you can’t have that now, that it builds with time and with the quality of the product. So what I’m saying is that , I was in love with the music, I was inspired by it.”
When Oliver talks about the process of his designs for 4AD he describes it like this, “Ivo who was running the company would say , Go for it….The bands had a say as well. Nothing was impressed upon them. I always thought it was about really digging into the music and expressing the music as a visual. “He describes his time at 4AD as not doing a job but being in a place of inspiration.
He developed relationships with the artists he designed for and his most famous covers are extensions of the music. They are not so much an explanation of the songs as they are another way into them. They have been described as representing an alternative universe from which the music emanates. You could gaze at the shadowy interiors and landscapes of Oliver’s creation and think this is what the music looks like.
On the Doolittle cover for the Pixies, Oliver recalls a conversation he had with Frank Black where Frank was saying that music is really just mathematical formula… “That broke my heart,” he said. “I thought it all came from the heart. So when he said that I thought, Oh fucking hell. And that led to Doolittle. It took me back to the idea of renaissance painting and having this idea of a formula or a template…..What’s it called the Golden Section or something that relates to painting?” The influence of that conversation is apparent in the album cover with the introduction of geometric shapes and numbers combined with the image of the monkey. The numbers 5, 6, 7, are also in the lyric of, Monkey Gone to Heaven, a stand out song on the album.
Today Oliver works from his London studio still creating amazing visuals for the music industry . He also teaches graphic design to university students and still considers himself a punk at heart.
Megg’s history of Graphic design, Fifth Edition. Philip B. Meggs, Alston W. Purvis. Published by John Wiley and Sons, Inc.