A new book published this month by Unit Editions takes graphic design fans into the archive of Vaughan Oliver. Famed in particular for his work for record label 4AD, where he worked as in-house designer and art director for 20 years, Oliver created distinctive and occasionally unsettling covers for bands from the Pixies to The Breeders, Cocteau Twins to Throwing Muses.
The new book throws up some surprises, firstly, that Oliver’s archive, which is held at the University for the Creative Arts in Epsom (where Oliver is now also a Visiting Professor), is a “mess”. “A joyful mess,” writes Adrian Shaughnessy in the book’s intro, “but a mess nonetheless.”
“When we think of archives we think of air-conditioned, sterile sanctuaries of preservation: white gloves and lead pencils only. The Vaughan Oliver archive is not like that, although it must be pointed out that he has plans to catalogue the vast hoard of material and turn it into a fully searchable physical resource,” Shaughnessy continues.
This mess is in part obviously due to Oliver’s habit of keeping everything related to his work, meaning that the archive is undoubtedly a treasure trove, both in terms of the ephemera stored within but also in what it reveals of Oliver’s working practice. The collection also exposes how much the graphic design world has changed from the analogue era, when Oliver began working, to the digital.