by John Baccigaluppi
If you’re not familiar with Mr. Oliver, he designed nearly all of the influential record label 4AD’s album covers for the first decade or so of their existence. The Pixies’ Doolittle and Surfer Rosa? Yep. The Breeders’ Last Splash and Pod? Yep. The Cocteau Twins’ entire catalog? Yep. At one point in the ‘90s, I had every CD he’d ever designed on a separate shelf of my CD library because they were “Vaughan Oliver” CDs. My wife Maria was looking for one of those CDs one day. When she couldn’t find it, and was a bit frustrated, she didn’t really understand my reasoning when I told her it was in the “Vaughan Oliver” section
Initially hearing those records when they came out blew me away, but in the long run the artwork became even more influential. Besides Roger Dean (who did many of the Yes album covers), or Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell of Hipgnosis (responsible for the classic Pink Floyd covers), coming across Vaughan Oliver’s designs for the 4AD catalog was one of the first times I realized that graphic design was a “thing.” There was something so mysterious, yet elegant and timeless, about his design work that it intrigued me. Designs that made the Yes and Pink Floyd album covers seem a bit dated – something that I outgrew. I never outgrew my deep admiration for Vaughan Oliver’s work. If you’re a graphic designer, and you’ve followed Tape Op for decades, this influence will be obvious. I’ve riffed off his style more than a couple of times, and will surely continue to do so.
I once had a chance to do a phone interview with him for another magazine. To be honest, it’s probably not one of the best interviews I’ve done; I was way too much of a fanboy. At the end of the day, I’m grateful to have had a chance to talk to him on the phone for half an hour, and he was very polite and gracious. I could go on, but I think I’m still too much of a fanboy. Instead I’d highly suggest you read the beautifully written article about him in The Guardian.
Or this nice piece in the Los Angeles Times.
And from Ivo Watts-Russell, founder of 4AD:
“Vaughan Oliver taught me to appreciate quality. He taught me how to look at the physical world. He was a force of nature and I’m having such a hard time processing this.
I have no idea how to define in a few words the enormous impact he had on my life. Two Virgos with a tendency toward being controlling, we somehow managed to complement and bolster each other in our mission to transcend mediocrity. The breadth and scale of work is incomparable, continuously fanned by the inspiration a new collaboration would bring. I’m aware that we each considered the other a bit of an enigma, a contradiction to our own personalities, and I also know that our mutual respect for each other remained intact.
We had drifted apart, having less frequent contact as the years passed and I moved to the States. This last year, aware of an unrelated but serious illness gave me cause to bully my way back into his life a little. I was scared for him then, so found myself participating in more genuine, heartfelt, conversation than we’d been used to, working side by side for years. So, some things were said… words of affection, admiration, and eternal gratitude… that might just have been left unspoken. For this I’m grateful. But I’m so angry that, having made a full recovery, he was still taken. And, of course, I want to have just one more conversation.
It is rare to think of someone in one’s life and know that with absolute certainty that the course of both our lives were irrevocably changed for the better as a result. The results, the fruit, is available for all to see... in pictures at least.
Vaughan William Oliver, quite simply: Thank you for the beauty, the friendship, the work, and the madness.”