Despite his use of the stock imagery of surrealism – religious and sexual iconography, eyeballs, body parts and knives – Vaughan Oliver, who has died aged 62, was a remarkably down to earth individual. One of the first times I met him was when he showed me round an exhibition of his work. I’d been commissioned to review the show, and I found him to be a self-deprecating and witty host, but intensely proud of the work. In my review, I likened him not to the Prince of Darkness, but to a benign football manager introducing me to his team.
After the review was published, he got in touch to say he really was a football manager – he had a coaching license from the FA and worked with a team of young hopefuls on Sunday mornings. And having grown up in Newtown Aycliffe, County Durham, he was a lifelong supporter of Sunderland AFC. One of his less famous works was the cover for Sunderland’s 1992 FA Cup Final single – Roker Rave/Ain’t No Stopping Us Now. He was also a fan of oven gloves and toothbrushes, both of which appeared on Oliver designed record sleeves.
Vaughan Oliver was one of a small group of British graphic designers who helped turn graphic design into an activity that many young people, for the first time in history, saw as a desirable occupation. Previously, people had mostly stumbled into graphic design by accident. But when Peter Saville, Neville Brody, Malcolm Garrett and Oliver became widely known (for the most part through their work for cult record labels), they imbued the idea of being a graphic designer with the glamour of being in a band.
Oliver was different. Whereas Saville, Brody and Garrett had been schooled in graphic design and had absorbed recognisable graphic design traditions (Brody rooted in Constructivism; Saville and Garrett devotees of European modernism), Oliver followed no recognisable graphic design tradition. His first ambition was to be an illustrator, and it was only thanks to his tutor and friend, Terry Dowling, that he was directed towards graphic design. While his contemporaries were championing modernist sans serif typography and the supremacy of the grid, Oliver was using the crusty letterforms he found in antique type-specimen books with an un-gridded, freeform abandon.
When assessing Oliver’s work it is easier to find non-graphic design influences embedded in his aesthetic purview: Surrealism, the films of Andrei Tarkovsky; the dark phantasmagorias of the Brothers Quay; Japanese extreme cinema; and the morbid, death-obsessed imagery of photographer Joel-Peter Witkin.
All of these influences can be seen in his work for the record label 4AD. He spent 20 years as the label’s in-house designer and art director, and helped founder Ivo Watts-Russell turn the company into a cult label. From the logo to numberless record sleeves, posters and printed artefacts, Oliver’s work for 4AD is vast. Yet the idea of him as a production powerhouse is at odds with the meditative and often melancholic nature of his craft. Oliver’s work is the equivalent of ‘slow cinema’. He was the Ingmar Bergman – or perhaps the David Lynch – of graphic design. His work demands that the viewer meets it halfway, and in this regard it is the antithesis of most graphic design and nearly all advertising. He said: “I try to make images where you don’t always get ‘the message’ straight away. But these things leave a hook in you. Leaving some space for interpretation is important.”
Take his famous cover for Pod by The Breeders. A blurry, naked figure with a shaved head is doing a frenzied dance. Attached to the figure’s waist are strands of phallic-looking organic matter. In fact, we are looking at a photograph (by Kevin Westenberg) of Oliver dancing with eels strapped to his torso. Anyone confronting this image is free to make their own reading of the scene. Oliver certainly isn’t telling us what to think about this image, or what to think about The Breeders’ music. He leaves it to the viewers to decide. As the design writer Kenneth Fitzgerald has observed: “Oliver is that rare designer whose work speaks to people empathetically, as co-enthusiasts, not as consumers.”
Oliver was an individualist, with a highly developed aesthetic sensibility, but he was also a collaborator. The vast majority of his creative output is the result of collaboration – yet the result is nearly always recognisable as a Vaughan Oliver work. He was quick to acknowledge the contributions of others – photographers, illustrators, model makers and, most revealingly, other graphic designers. He was also fulsome in his praise for the typesetters, repro-houses and printers who, in the pre-digital era, were integral to the technical realisation of many of Oliver’s more elaborate works.
Collaboration began early for Oliver. At art school in Newcastle he formed a partnership with the photographer and filmmaker Nigel Grierson. They both moved to London in 1980; Grierson to study photography at the RCA, Oliver to work as a packaging designer at two of London’s leading commercial design studios of the period – Benchmark and Michael Peters & Partners. Later, the two worked together at 4AD under the name 23 Envelope. Fundamental differences of approach led to the dissolution of the partnership, but not before they had made some of the most memorable and evocative 4AD covers.
Oliver’s next great photographic collaborator was another RCA graduate – Simon Larbalestier. Together they produced record covers and posters that have come to define the label’s enduring visual appeal. Larbalestier’s haunting images, partnered with Oliver’s recondite typography and sensitive framing, provided the cover art for the great run of 80s and 90s Pixies sleeves. Larbalestier shared Oliver’s taste for eldritch imagery that hinted at perversion, fetishism and a feverish religiosity. Together they made record covers and posters that have defined an era in music packaging.
Grierson and Larbalestier were not the only photographers Oliver worked with. Both Marc Atkins and Dominic Davies offered Oliver a creative partnership that allowed him to use his interventionist tactics, yet still maintain the integrity of their photographic images. Graphic designers also shared the workload with Oliver. Prime amongst them was Chris Bigg. Both men worked on a huge range of printed material. More than an assistant, Bigg was a genuine collaborator. For most of their time together, they worked under the name V23.
After 4AD, Oliver still attracted high profile clients such as David Lynch and Scott Walker amongst them, and many of the 4AD bands continued to commission him. But he never found the safe, nurturing space that 4AD afforded him. Instead, he turned to teaching and acquired a bunch of Visiting Professorships, and was admitted to AGI (Alliance Graphique International).
He moved to Epsom, a commuter town outside London, where he lived with his wife Lee in a house next door to one previously occupied by a hero from his youth – the artist Aubrey Beardsley. He taught at UCA Epsom – a short walk from his home – and it was Epsom that housed the Vaughan Oliver Archive.
Oliver was the designer who kept everything – PMTs, black and white music press ads, mechanical artwork – and he was never happier than when showing people round his vast archive.
Vaughan Oliver was born in 1957 and died peacefully on 29 December 2019, in the company of his sons, his sister, his wife, a close friend and members of his extended family