As the visual mastermind of the 4AD label, Vaughan Oliver designed some of the most artful sleeves of the 80s and 90s. Murray Stassen finds out how the label’s organic aesthetic evolved…
Most of the artists and photographers we’ve featured in these pages are freelancers who have worked for a variety of clients over the years. Vaughan Oliver is an exception, a man whose work – over more than three decades – has been largely commissioned by and become synonymous with one label alone: 4AD.
Working alongside colleagues such as photographer Nigel Grierson and Chris Bigg as 23 Envelope and later v23, Oliver pioneered an instantly recognisable style of sleeve design – at times otherworldly and mysterious, often striking, and usually featuring immaculately styled typography. He’s a unique sleeve designer with a body of work that can genuinely be described as beautiful, and his style was crucial in positioning the label at the artier end of the UK independent scene.
Unlike other designers who became sidetracked into a career in the music industry, Oliver had decided as a teenager that he wanted to design record sleeves. “It was in my thoughts before I started out, really,” he reveals, sat in his archive at The University For The Creative Arts in Epsom, where he teaches as a visiting professor.
“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. 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’.”
A son of Sedgefield in County Durham, Oliver studied graphic design at Newcastle Polytechnic before he found a job down south working in a packaging company, designing drinks labels. “It did have an effect on me,” he reveals, surprisingly. “It turned me on to typography, which I never took seriously at college. If you look at a drinks label, you had all these different typefaces – you’ve got fat ones, skinny ones, you’ve got script… I could see how you could subvert what was going on in the mainstream on those labels.”
But music was the area he really wanted to work in and in post-punk London, Oliver would be a regular face at gigs in town. He’d quite often glimpse Ivo Watts-Russell, owner of the nascent 4AD label. Ivo had released the first Birthday Party and Bauhaus albums and was starting to make a name for himself as one of the independent scene’s leading lights. “I’d chance my arm every time I saw him. I’d say: ‘Give us a job, mate. You need a logo, you need some consistency in your design’.”
“He didn’t take much persuading, because he had the same passion and care for the artwork as he did for the music; I used to love hearing him recall his first album – he could remember the colour of the inner sleeve, everything about it.” Watts-Russell handed him the gig of designing the sleeve for Modern English’s Gathering Dust single. The band had wanted to use a particular Diane Arbus photograph and, coincidentally, Oliver already had a screen print based on the same image in his portfolio. Soon he was taken on as 4AD’s first full-time employee.
There were other indies that placed a premium on design around this time – Factory, most notably – but Ivo and 4AD seemed to grasp that using a single design style could set the tone for the whole label and would, in effect (to use a modern term), ‘brand’ it. “We were trying to be the antithesis of corporate identity, but we were still taking aspects of the corporate world and subverting it. The idea of a label with an identity had its precedents in Blue Note and ECM. But there was more of a definite template to what ECM were doing – neat Sans Serif type in top corner, mysterious sort of image. At 4AD, we didn’t sit down and say, ‘we need an identity’, but one developed organically, evolving over time. It was only after maybe six years, I’d put an exhibition up and you can see a thread.”
But Oliver didn’t apply a one-size-fits-all approach. “Even though I was in-house, the bands were free to do their own sleeves. Some gave me material to use; others said: ‘What do you think?’. Others said: ‘We’ve got our own ideas, we’re going to do them ourselves’. I was trying to give each band their own identity… but there was some kind of common thread.”
Oliver was in the blessed position of being able to hear music weeks, sometimes months before he had to deliver artwork. “I’d hear the demos, I’d hear how things were gestating. Then you’d have the dialogue with the band. My peers at other labels would go: ‘You fucking lucky bastard! We get a call on a Friday and they want the sleeve on the Monday, a campaign by the Tuesday!’.”
With the label’s then-flagship band Cocteau Twins, Oliver started with the abstract quality of their music. “They were a band that said, ‘there is no subject matter’. You couldn’t hear what Elizabeth was singing. There were lyrics, but they were all distorted. Her voice was another marvellous instrument. So it was, ‘how do you try and place this?’. You couldn’t put any subject matter in there, because it was ‘our music is not about flowers’ or ‘the music is not about fishtails’. You’re trying to reflect the atmosphere of the music. As a band, they weren’t any easier than anybody else. They could never tell you what they wanted. You had to do something before they could reject it, and often, that process went on… But at the end of the day, I think they were happy.”
Around 1986 and ’87, 4AD signed a clutch of American bands who would take the label through into the next decade, and Oliver developed equally fruitful partnerships with Ultra Vivid Scene, Throwing Muses and, in particular, the Pixies. “I had a great relationship with all three, and with the Pixies, I still do. That was one of the good things about independent music – putting creative control in the bands’ hands. What was fantastic at 4AD for me on the visuals side of things was that with, say, the Pixies, there was nobody between me and Charles – the manager stood back. There was no marketing department at 4AD: I was the marketing department. Equally, there was no agent between me and the photographer. So all the creative airwaves were open and fluid.”
But every golden era has to come to an end. The bands most associated with that time all moved on or split up. Eventually, even Watts-Russell departed, in 1999. Oliver himself had gone freelance in 1987, but though he’d designed sleeves for artists such as David Sylvian and Bush, hadn’t exactly found himself overwhelmed by offers of work outside the label. “I think a lot of people saw it as ‘this is 4AD and particular to 4AD’, and it’s the same now. People want their own identity, even though 4AD covered a broad palette of sound and artwork from Colourbox to Voix Bulgares to Pixies. The very thing that was the strength of the label – this identity that we created – has worked against me as a freelancer…”
We’d assume there’d be an army of young bands influenced by the ‘classic’ 4AD roster, who would sell their kidneys for a Vaughan Oliver sleeve? “Yes, but record companies have their own way of thinking. I used to turn it over in my head – people might think, ‘oh, he’s going to be expensive’. Also I was never very active in going out and looking for the work.”
Oliver has since eased down his work in the music industry, though he continues to work with the reformed Pixies. These days, most of his energies are devoted to teaching the next generation of graphic designers at Epsom.
Oliver welcomes the ongoing vinyl revival. “It’s interesting that it’s slowly come back round to the value of the object and what that means to have and to hold, to objectify,” he suggests. “I always thought it was innate, this desire to have something as an object, that, when you look at your record collection at home, it’s a diary as much as anything else. The personal experience is there, the nerve centre of your history and emotions.
“And the younger generation are starting to understand that. When I take this stuff in to students they’re so excited about it,” he smiles, turning to a reissue of one of his – and 4AD’s – greatest hits: the Pixies’ Doolittle. “If I had a pound for everybody who’s said they’re doing graphic design because of that…”