Vaughan Oliver and the Body

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Vaughan Oliver and the Body

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.
Images of Vaughan Oliver’s archive, held at the University for Creative Arts, Epsom

“No matter how fragile or ephemeral, Oliver has attempted to keep almost everything,” writes Shaughnessy. “The result is a collection of not only his published output, but the components – the building blocks – that went into the making of his often complex and multi-layered work. It is an archive that reveals the designer’s process.”
Vaughan Oliver: Archive comes in two parts. One book contains a selection of the PMTs (Photo-Mechanical Transfer prints) that Oliver used as the basis for many of his most famous designs. The other explores the archive via several themes, including colour, typography, the body, and mystery.
Below, as part of our week devoted to the theme of the ‘body’ on the CR website, we examine some of Oliver’s works that have an anatomical dimension, including works featuring illustrations, commissioned photography and found photography. The images are accompanied by commentary from the book by Oliver and designer and collaborator Chris Bigg.
Ten Men Left, Poster for Stereohype 10th anniversary exhibition, released as giclée print, 2014
Ten Men Left, Poster for Stereohype 10th anniversary exhibition
Vaughan Oliver: “The first piece we’re looking at is something called 10×10. It was a response to an open brief by Tomi Vollauschek from FL@33. He invited designers to work with the number 10. The silhouette comes, I think, from a First Aid book – how to carry an injured man. I related that to an injured football player being removed from the field. That would leave 10 men on the field [laughs].”
Cover for Waves On Canvas by Into The Northsea, 2012; Design: Michael Speed; Photography: Marc Atkins
Waves on Canvas cover for Into The Northsea
VO: “This is playing with the hierarchy of type. On the front cover, I’ve got the name of the band running under the lyrics and over the photograph of the female figure with the books. The poster is a version of the back cover. And that was hard for the client to take.”
Cover for Surfer Rosa by Pixies, 1988; Photography: Simon Larbalestier
Surfer Rosa cover for Pixies
VO: “Charles [Black, lead singer of Pixies] sang a couple of songs in Spanish. He’d lived in Puerto Rico and had learned to speak Spanish. So I took the Spanish theme – probably overdid it [laughs] – but it allowed me to come up with an image in my head of something proudly Spanish, a Flamenco dancer. Then asking myself, how can that tradition be debased? And that’s where the topless dancer comes from. I took this idea to [photographer] Simon [Larbalestier] with a very clear image in my head.”
Poster for Ft Lake by His Name Is Alive, 1998. Design: Timothy O’Donnell; Photography: Dominic Davies
Ft Lake poster for His Name Is Alive
VO: “This is the poster we’re looking at. Normally the typography and the image are conceived at the same time, and they are designed to fit together. This was the opposite. Dominic Davies went away and made the images, very random stuff, open mouths, pliers on a table. And then we did the type independently.”
Proofs for Title TK cover by The Breeders, 2002; Design: Chris Bigg; Photography: Onie M. Montes
Title TK cover for The Breeders
Chris Bigg: “Kim Deal [founder of The Breeders] said she wanted the artwork to be done analogue – because the album had been recorded analogue. But it was 2002, and everything was digital by then, so we had to tell her it can’t be done that way anymore. I remember she came round to your house, Vaughan, one evening, and we started scanning some tin foil. Then she sent some random pictures, and it all became a bit chaotic. But I really like the final result.”
Believe poster for GusGus, 1987; Photography: Eva Mueller
Believe poster for GusGus
CB: “It was a different way of working for us. GusGus made a film for every track on the album. So sometimes we were working with stills from videos. There was no art direction, we just worked with what we were given.”
VO: “This is a picture of their manager on the poster. The band were cool enough to go with it.”
Moving Targets by Penetration: mock-up for a student project by Oliver, 1978
Student project at Newcastle Upon Tyne Polytechnic
VO: “This my response to the brief set by [illustrator] Robert Mason to do a music project when Terry Dowling brought him to Newcastle.”
EP2 cover for Pixies, 2013. Illustration: Ian Pollock, Michael Speed
EP2 cover for Pixies
VO: “The band had got together again and were playing the old songs. Then they decided, for the first time in many years, to make some new material. They released four 10” EPs – only online. And then released an album. So the online release gave me freedom to do away with band names, bar codes, and all that clutter. I could be mysterious because people knew what they were buying. I decided to go as far away from what had gone before. I wanted to get away from the forensic photography, and use an illustrator [Ian Pollock] to bring out the bizarre characters in the songs.”
Modern Calendar 96; Photography: Colin Gray
Image for Modern Calendar 96
VO: “The couple were inspired by a visit to my aunt’s house. She had left the price labels on all her Woolworth ornaments. All you could see were these orange price labels. So that’s why we added them to this shot, which is by Colin Gray.”
Proof cover for Le Dessin d’Enfant by Florence de Mèredieu, 1990. Child’s drawing supplied by author
Le Dessin d’Enfant book cover for Florence de Mèredieu
VO: “This is the only job that has ever come out of our international exhibitions. We’ve had shows all over the world, but they’ve never led to work. You are supposed to get lots of clients from these – but not us. It’s a book about child psychology. It’s called Le Dessin d’Enfant by Florence de Mèredieu. The drawing by a child was supplied.”
Spleen and Ideal cover for Dead Can Dance, 1985. Photography: Colin Gray
Spleen and Ideal cover for Dead Can Dance
VO: “The photograph is by Colin Gray. By chance he was driving past the ominous looking building. He had a child with him. He had the child stand in front of the building holding a star. Great image.”
Vaughan Oliver: Archive is published by Unit Editions, £75;; More from the Body special hereThe post Vaughan Oliver and the Body appeared first on Creative Review.

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