Album cover designer Vaughan Oliver, who developed a signature abstract style as the 4AD label’s in-house man on top of doing classic work for bands like the Pixies, has died at age 62. No cause of death has been given.
Perhaps his single best recognized work was the cover for the Pixies’ “Doolittle.” He also designed artwork for the Cocteau Twins, the Breeders, This Mortal Coil, Throwing Muses, David Lynch, TV on the Radio, Modern English, Bush, Lush, Scott Walker, Pale Saints, Red House Painters, Ultra Vivid Scene, His Name is Alive and others.
“Without Vaughan, 4AD would not be 4AD,” the label said in a release confirming his death, “and it’s no understatement to say that his style also helped to shape graphic design in the late 20th century. … In 1980, he was the label’s first employee, designing his first sleeve for the Modern English single ‘Gathering Dust’ … The Guardian said his designs were ‘abstract, dreamlike, elegant’ and they weren’t wrong; he gave both us as a label and our musicians an identity and a voice.”
Asked once by an interviewer why sometimes his packaging “seems to hold anything but a record,” he answered, “You mean they look more like objects than records? I do hope so!”
“From an early age, my great passion has been music and, very soon too, the design of the object that contained that music. At 15, I was fascinated by the cover of the first Roxy Music album, although later on I also admired some progressive rock covers, like the ones Roger Dean did for Yes or the Hipgnosis ones for Pink Floyd… When I started studying graphic design … my teachers used to say: ‘That’s not work. No one does that. The cover is something bands usually ask the drummer to do.’ [He laughed.] ‘Yes, well, you wait and see…,’ I thought.”
Said 4AD co-founder Ivo Watts-Russell in a statement: “Vaughan Oliver taught me to appreciate quality. He taught me how to look at the physical world. He was a force of nature and I’m having such a hard time processing this. … Two Virgos with a tendency toward being controlling, we somehow managed to compliment and bolster each other in our mission to transcend mediocrity. The breadth and scale of work is incomparable, continuously fanned by the inspiration a new collaboration would bring. I’m aware that we each considered the other a bit of an enigma, a contradiction to our own personalities, and I also know that our mutual respect for each other remained intact.”
Watts-Russell said they had “drifted apart” before his awareness of “an unrelated but serious illness” in the last year had caused him to “bully my way back into his life a little. I was scared for him then, so found myself participating in more genuine, heartfelt, conversation than we’d been used to working side by side for years. So some things were said — words of affection, admiration and eternal gratitude — that might just have been left unspoken. For this I’m grateful. But I’m so angry that, having made a full recovery, he was still taken. And, of course, I want to have just one more conversation.”
In a 2016 interview with Medium, the designer stressed just how important it was to him to connect with a band’s music before embarking on cover art.
“The goal what we’re (graphic designers) aiming for is to reflect the music; the sleeve should be a gateway into what the music is about without defining it but also providing a suggestive mood and atmosphere,” Oliver said. “A sleeve for Lush, or Pixies, isn’t interchangeable for a sleeve for the Cocteau Twins. The music has led each design. I always start with the music, read the lyrics. Because I think it’s such an otherwise simple or superficial exercise — take a fabulous image, and a bit of wonderful cutting-edge type and, oh, wonderful sleeve. But if it doesn’t connect with the music, it’s worthless. I think the strongest sleeves are the sum of the parts.”
The abstract qualities he preferred were implicit in the music of many of the 4AD acts he worked with, too. “I think there’s something typical to Cocteau Twins sleeves that runs through most of their work,” he said. “There’s a sense of ambiguity and mystery; you’re not quite sure what the hell all of this is about. You want to know more, but it allows you to bring your own interpretation. It stays open.”
Oliver didn’t worry that his artwork was too esoteric for fans. “4AD was about giving the man on the street more credit than a mainstream company would,” he said in the Medium interview. “We’re all generally visually educated, and a man on the street who’s bombarded with sophisticated images is better educated in understanding the visual world than a mainstream record company who is credited for sticking a head and shoulder shot of the artist on a record sleeve. A regular guy is much more imaginative and visually literate. The general public is a lot brighter, more visually literate than the corporates give him credit for.”
In an interview with Long Live Vinyl, Oliver spoke of forming a desire to do album covers while growing up in the 1970s in Sedgefield in County Durham.
“There was nothing more exciting than waiting in anticipation for the next Roxy Music album sleeve — the early ones — it was just a wonderful thing,” Oliver said. “If it’s accompanied by music… well, that connection between visuals and music produces something that is bigger than the individual parts, if it works. It also seemed back then that people like Roger Dean or Hipgnosis were using their imagination, stretching things, not doing things in the normal way. So in my naïve teenage way, I thought, ‘I want to do that’.”
Of the famous “Doolittle” cover, which took its cues from the song “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” Oliver said: “The grid came from a conversation with Charles (aka Frank Black), where he was explaining that successful music was a mathematical equation — which kind of broke my heart, because I’d had this very romantic notion about it. I thought, ‘Okay, you’re talking about formulas, but we use formulas in painting, like the Golden Section,’ so the grid was my response.”
Talking with Joan Pons, he said, “A cover should work as an entrance door that invites you to cross it. But the cover most people have talked to me about isn’t the one for ‘Surfer Rosa,’ but the one I did for ‘Doolittle.’ If I’d gotten a pound for each person who ever told me they decided to study graphic design because of that cover… [He laughs]. It’s a great responsibility!”