De­signer gave indie rock ‘Phys­i­cal Di­men­sion’


Vaughan Oliver, a Bri­tish graphic de­signer whose al­bum cov­ers for in­de­pen­dent record la­bel 4AD be­came vis­ual ac­com­pa­ni­ments to in­flu­en­tial al­ter­na­tive rock bands like Pix­ies, the Breed­ers and Cocteau Twins, died De­cem­ber 29 in Lon­don. He was 62.

His death was con­firmed by a spokesman for 4AD, who did not spec­ify the cause.

Oliver grew up im­mersed in rock mu­sic and in­trigued by al­bum cover art. Af­ter study­ing de­sign, he knew that he wanted to make art­work that was a fit­ting ac­com­pa­ni­ment to the mu­sic on an al­bum.

“I al­ways wanted to de­sign sleeves as a kid,” he said in an in­ter­view with on­line magazine De­sign­boom. “Record sleeves are ephemeral, and I al­ways wanted to make them more than that.”

Oliver be­gan de­sign­ing al­bum cov­ers for 4AD af­ter meet­ing Ivo Watts-Russell, who founded the la­bel with Peter Kent in 1980, at a party in Lon­don. He formed a de­sign part­ner­ship called 23 En­ve­lope with photograph­er Nigel Gri­er­son in 1983. Af­ter he parted ways with Gri­er­son in 1988 he kept work­ing for 4AD, col­lab­o­rat­ing with Chris Bigg and other artists un­der the stu­dio name v23.

4AD be­came known for re­leas­ing mu­sic that did not con­form to main­stream ex­pec­ta­tions, and Oliver’s cover de­signs helped catch the eyes of record store browsers who might not have heard of the la­bel’s artists. Each of his il­lus­tra­tions was in­formed by the band’s mu­sic, and there­fore they were quite di­verse, but they shared a sur­re­al­ist sen­si­bil­ity.

“My goal was al­ways to turn mu­sic into an ob­ject, grant­ing it a phys­i­cal di­men­sion,” Oliver said in an in­ter­view with on­line pub­li­ca­tion O Magazine.

Oliver and his stu­dio part­ners de­signed a cover with a ghostly lace pho­to­graph for the Cocteau Twins’ ce­les­tial al­bum “Trea­sure” (1984) and doused a Valentine’s Day heart with what looked like blood on a bril­liant green and red back­ground for the cover of the Breed­ers’ “Last Splash” (1993), an al­bum that be­gan as a side project for Pix­ies bassist Kim Deal and Throw­ing Muses gui­tarist Tanya Don­nelly.

His de­signs for Pix­ies, a jar­ring indie rock band from Bos­ton that in­spired later al­ter­na­tive groups, in­cluded a sepia photo of a top­less fla­menco dancer for “Surfer Rosa” (1988); a red, ringed Earth for the cover of “Bos­sanova” (1990); and a pho­to­graph of a mon­key with a halo over­laid with a geo­met­ric de­sign and sur­rounded by num­bers for “Doolit­tle” (1989).

Shortly af­ter the re­lease of “Mino­taur” (2009) — a Pix­ies boxed set that fea­tured new work by Oliver and in­cluded the band’s first five stu­dio al­bums on vinyl and gold-plated CDs, a fine-art book, a book of pho­to­graphs and other elab­o­rate mem­o­ra­bilia — the band’s front­man, Black Fran­cis, told The Ed­mon­ton Jour­nal that Oliver “was the only per­son out­side the Pix­ies that vis­ually rep­re­sented the band.”

In a state­ment Fri­day, Black Fran­cis called Oliver “the be­gin­ning marker for our own artis­tic jour­ney,” not­ing that “we saw the first mock-up of the first ‘Come On Pil­grim’ sleeve, quit our jobs and never looked back.”

“He loved the look and smell and feel of things,” he added, “and more than most are able to ar­tic­u­late, which he did most elo­quently from deep within his soul’s ate­lier.”

Oliver said that he needed to com­mu­ni­cate with bands and care­fully con­sider their mu­sic be­fore he could make art­work that con­veyed their style.

“I sim­ply tried, all through my ca­reer, to cre­ate a dif­fer­ent iden­tity for each band I worked with,” Oliver said. “Cre­at­ing feel­ings or aes­thetic moods de­rived from the mu­sic, from the tex­ture and at­mos­phere the mu­sic it­self al­ready had. You would only get that thanks to a close col­lab­o­ra­tion and many con­ver­sa­tions with the band in par­tic­u­lar.”

Among the other 4AD artists for whom Oliver de­signed cov­ers were This Mor­tal Coil, Lush, TV on the Ra­dio and Scott Walker. A memorial on the la­bel’s web­site said that “with­out Vaughan, 4AD would not be 4AD,” adding that “his style also helped to shape graphic de­sign in the late 20th cen­tury.”

Vaughan Wil­liam Oliver was born in Sedge­field, County Durham, Eng­land, on Sept. 12, 1957, to Doreen (Tin­dale) and Ernest Oliver. His fa­ther was a min­ing sur­veyor. He grew up in New­ton Ay­cliffe, also in County Durham, be­fore earn­ing a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in graphic de­sign at what is now Northum­bria Univer­sity in New­cas­tle upon Tyne in 1979.

Soon af­ter that he moved to Lon­don, where he con­nected with Watts-Russell and be­gan his long col­lab­o­ra­tion with 4AD.

“We some­how man­aged to com­pli­ment and bol­ster each other in our mis­sion to tran­scend medi­ocrity,” Watts-Russell wrote in a per­sonal re­mem­brance on the la­bel’s site.

His first work for the la­bel was in 1980 for the Mod­ern English sin­gle “Gath­er­ing Dust,” and his last was in 2018 for a 30th-an­niver­sary reis­sue of two Pix­ies records. He also de­signed cover art for the band Bush and for mu­sic by film­maker David Lynch. He had in­ter­na­tional show­ings of his art, taught de­sign and worked with com­mer­cial clients like Mi­crosoft, Sony and L’Oréal.

He is sur­vived by his wife, Lee Wid­dows, with whom he lived in Sur­rey, Eng­land; two sons, Beck­ett and Cal­lum; and a sis­ter, Ali­son Oliver.

Oliver said that he thought cover art re­mained an im­por­tant com­ple­ment to mu­sic, even though dig­i­tal mu­sic for­mats have largely made phys­i­cal al­bums ob­so­lete.

“The cover, even if it has no phys­i­cal pres­ence, is an­other mu­sic tool,” he said. “That’s why there are still cov­ers to­day that are very … true. Any cover cap­tur­ing and ex­press­ing the state of mind of the mu­sic it rep­re­sents is true.”


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