Vaughan Oliver, the graphic designer whose art adorned the cover of the Pixies’ albums and whose work became synonymous with the 4AD record label, has died at the age of 62.
Graphic designer Adrian Shaughnessy, who co-edited the book Vaughan Oliver: Archive, first announced Oliver’s death on Twitter, noting he “died peacefully today, with his partner Lee by his side.” The Pixies also confirmed Oliver’s death. No cause of death was provided.
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“We are incredibly sad to learn of the passing of Vaughan Oliver; there was no-one else like him,” 4AD said in a statement. “Without Vaughan, 4AD would not be 4AD and it’s no understatement to say that his style also helped to shape graphic design in the late-20th century.”
“As a youngster me and a mate of mine would show off to each other – reading the NME with a copy of Frank Zappa, or Pink Floyd under our arms. I was a working class lad from a dull town in county Durham, there was no real culture, my parents were not really interested in anything unusual – everything I was getting was through record sleeves. it was a democratic way of discovering art. the local record shop was an art gallery for me,” the British-born Oliver told Design Boom in 2014.
After studying graphic design in university, Oliver connected with indie label 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell, who recruited Oliver and photographer Nigel Grierson’s 23 Envelope studio to give the label’s catalog a cohesive look. The partnership spanned six years and resulted in album covers for artists like Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Modern English and This Mortal Coil.
“It goes without saying that his work during the 80s and 90s changed cover art for ever and not just albums but books too,” Cocteau Twins’ Simon Raymonde wrote on Facebook.
Following Grierson’s departure from 23 Envelope, Oliver would begin what became his most memorable partnership as the official art director for another 4AD artist the Pixies, a collaboration that would span from the band’s 1987 EP Come On Pilgrim (“That hairy man. I thought that was Vaughan Oliver. I don’t know if it is or not,” Kim Deal recollected in the Pixies oral history Fool the World) through the recently released LP Beneath the Eyrie, including his iconic album art for 1988’s Surfer Rosa and 1989’s Doolittle.
Oliver told Rolling Stone in 2009, when the Pixies’ retrospective box set Minotaur was released, “My starting point would always be the music, reading the lyrics, talking with the band. The images that [Frank Black] painted with his lyrics really struck a chord. His work is full of fantastic imagery that always appealed to me, and those were ideas I was trying to reflect with the packaging.”
“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,” Oliver told O Magazine.
“I wouldn’t know how to explain why it has become such an iconic and admired cover. I guess it’s because it seems to hide an enigma. And, besides, the mystery is respected. In fact, the whole visual inspiration comes from the lyrics of the song ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven,’“If man is five / Then the devil is six / Then God is seven,’ also very mysterious.”
Oliver’s notable covers also include the Breeders’ Last Splash and that album’s respective singles, Lush’s Split, TV on the Radio’s Return to Cookie Mountain, Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase and a collaboration with David Lynch for 2011’s Crazy Clown Time.
4AD added, “The label’s first employee, he designed his first sleeve for the Modern English single ‘Gathering Dust’ in 1980 before going on to create iconic works for the likes of Pixies, Breeders, Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, Throwing Muses, Lush, Pale Saints, TV On The Radio, Scott Walker and countless others. 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.”
“I always wanted to design sleeves as a kid. Record sleeves are ephemeral and I always wanted to make them more than that. It might sound pretentious but I really wanted to make a mark. Put more effort into them than was I was supposed to and make the artwork timeless,” Oliver told Design Boom. “Now I realize though that the artwork can’t be timeless because of its connection to music. The music the artwork contains will always take you back to a certain time.”
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