Vaughan Oliver Tribute— Si Sharp -
“I don’t see myself as an artist. I work with artists and collaborate with them. Then it becomes graphic design. It’s not an art. I’m a graphic designer.”
In 1989, I discovered Pixies through their Doolittle album. I remember poring through the CD book with a friend, blown away by how detailed and beautiful the images were, and looking for lyrical references. The artwork and design was so perfect for the band. It reflected the band’s love for Salvador Dali, but also objects like the hip bone (abstracted from a lyric on Tame) seemed to have a sense of fairy tale nightmares entirely appropriate to the band’s folk-horror lyrical themes.
How surprising then to discover other bands, also on the 4AD label, who all had artwork that reflected the artists’ identities but all imbued with the same qualities and aesthetic. How did this visual style simultaneously represent two separate brands (artist and label) so truly? The answer was Vaughan Oliver.
Record labels had engineered a certain ‘look’ for sleeve art before, but no-one achieved more in this area than Vaughan Oliver, who passed away on 29 December, and his work with the 4AD label. The artwork in the late 80s and early 90s for that label is unarguably some of the best sleeve art ever produced. Look at the covers for Cocteau Twins, Breeders, Dead Can Dance, Belly, and Lush. All hint at the individual treasure contained within through ambiguity and subtlety.
Take the Pixies for example - each cover is distinctly different and reflective of the music and lyrics. There’s really no comparing the Hollywood Golden Age graphic on Bossanova to the topless dancer on Surfer Rosa but both are clearly Pixies covers on the 4AD label. And all are classy, beautiful and, unusually for sleeve design, stand apart from anything else going on at the time.
Oliver didn’t call himself an artist and the ideas displayed on his sleeves often came from the musicians or photographers involved but Vaughan made them cohesive and iconic - taking others’ visions and making them visual. A graphic designer who fell into his trade through his love of music and whose contribution is an indelible brush stroke on rock’s canvass.