"There's usually a sense of mystery or ambiguity in my work, which I think leaves a piece open so that the viewer can bring their own interpretation." The legendary designer talks challenging icons and the power of collaboration with Garrick Webster.
His record sleeves for bands such as Pixies and Cocteau Twins wouldn't look out of place in an art gallery; sometimes gritty, sometimes dreamy, Vaughan Oliver's sleeve work evokes moods to match the music inside. When photos of a performer looking cool were de rigueur for band artwork, Oliver gave us eyeballs in crucibles, lace, rust and writhing eels instead - type and images that poetically suggested the music offered something more. Including a touch of unease.
The heat and humidity on the day we meet is enough to make anyone uneasy. But, wetting his lips with a sip of cold beer now and again, Vaughan Oliver thoughtfully starts answering Computer Arts' questions in his steady County Durham accent. It quickly becomes clear that, although visually motivated, Oliver searches carefully for the right words. And he's lost none of his passion for design.
Computer Arts: Bring us up to speed with what you're working on right now.
Vaughan Oliver: What I'm doing at the moment is probably one of the best projects I've ever been commissioned for. In simple terms, it's a box set - all the Pixies' output, all the vinyl, all their CDs, albums, in one place at one time; a catalogue, a compendium, a tribute to Pixies. But I think 'box set', until you see it, does it a disservice, because we've been allowed to expand the collection into a large-format art book that sits in there with the sleeves. It's a lovely project.
It's not coming from the record label, it's not coming from Pixies. It's for an independent company in Los Angeles called Artist In Residence, who put out high-end collector's items with high production values. I said, "Why don't we forget what we've done. Why don't we put all those what could be termed 'graphic icons' behind us and start again? There's a new challenge."
CA: Once you'd put those iconic graphics behind you, what did you then aim to do?
VO: To challenge those icons, I guess. I always want my next bit of work to be the best bit of work, and with this box set it wasn't just the idea of putting the old work behind me; I thought it might be messy if it was made of disparate sleeve packaging, all done in different periods specifically for the albums.
I like the idea of giving it an overall feel, a total look, so that the final sleeves all have a theme, if you like. One that springs from the large-format book, which is then remixed, mutated, turned on its head and over-printed, under-printed and over-printed again for the CD collection. It all feels like it's from the same source - it's homogenously designed.
CA: If we skip back to the 1980s, wasn't that also your approach when you were establishing the 4AD identity?
VO: 'Branding before branding' is what people tell me, years later, it was called. There was no manifesto in the beginning. Ivo Watts-Russell, who started the label, had brought me in because he cared about the way music was packaged and he wanted every sleeve and package to be put together and designed with that same approach - with care and quality.
What we wanted to do was to give each band their own identity and have a sense of continuity from the singles through to the album, but I really didn't want Pixies to look like His Name Is Alive, or His Name Is Alive to look like Lush. But when you put all the work together, there's a thread that runs through it.
CA: How exactly would you describe that thread?
VA: Well, I do these short teaching courses, teaching design for the music industry, and there was a girl from Ecuador on this course a few months ago. She asked me the question, 'What runs through it?' But she also answered the question, saying, 'It's your soul.' I said, 'Oh, well, we don't use words like that over here!'
I suppose in simple terms there's an approach to the typography, there's an approach to the use of textures and there's a wit that runs through them that pulls them all together.
CA: 'Visceral' is a word that's frequently used to describe your style. What words would you use?
VO: 'Organic'. You know, it was organic before organic became popular. There's a book I should do: The Organic Graphic Designer. When you go back, that's pretty much how that identity at 4AD evolved. It was kind of sleeve-by-sleeve and it evolved in an organic fashion. 'Visceral' is quite good. I think 'romantic', 'poetic' - there's a great deal of visual poetry going on there as well. But describing the aesthetic, I think I'll leave that to you.
CA: How important is collaboration for your work?
VO: It's a very important part of my process, simply from the point of view of inspiration, and because I don't take photographs. I'm able to work on a broader variety of concepts if I work with a different photographer each time.
In the early years I was working with Nigel Grierson all the time - I think my palette broadened when we stopped working together - but then if it was a Pixies project I would go straight to Simon Larbalestier; if it was Lush, it would be Jim Friedman; if it was His Name Is Alive, it was Dominic Davies.
CA: Do you collaborate with other graphic designers as well?
VO: We should not forget Chris Bigg. I think he's survived three of my marriages, actually. We've been together about 27 years. We got together in 1982. First of all he was assisting me, then we became partners. We had a partnership in v23, which was just dissolved last summer. We still work together, and Chris knows me better than anybody else.
CA: Do you each work on separate jobs, or do you share the layout and decision-making within the same projects?
VO: We work in both of those ways. There are some projects that I just give to Chris with a bit of art direction and there are some projects where he does the whole job. There are other jobs where we work on it together, passing it back and forward at various stages. But for all that Chris fits in with my way of thinking, he has a strong independent aesthetic himself, and I think he adds a lot to the work.
CA: Has going into teaching aided you as a designer?
VO: It's strengthened my ideas and philosophy, in a sense. One of the reasons I went into teaching was the cabin fever - working on your own.
You get into teaching and, racked with self-doubt as you are, [after] sitting there on your own, week-in and week-out, you find that you have information to pass on, you have important experience that you take for granted, and I think that's been quite a bolstering experience.
CA: What do you mean by 'self-doubt'?
VO: That's part and parcel of the creative psyche. One day you rule the world: you've put that type in the right place, on the right picture, at the right time, in the right colour, at the right size - fantastic! Those moments! That's what you live for. The inspiration you get from that feeds you; it breathes life into you.
That doesn't last forever. If you're a soul-searching creative person, you can go as far down the next day.
CA: Do you still get excited about graphic design today?
VO: Graphic design still breathes life into me. It inspires me. It still arouses me. And, you know, I'm a cheap date. Just give me a bit of type and an image to work with - I can find satisfaction in that. It stimulates me. I'm just talking about it from my point of view in terms of inspiration and the working process. So, yeah, it definitely still turns me on.
In terms of graphic designers working today, I wish I could reel off three, four or five graphic designers that really touch me. I can't. I don't think it's for want of looking. I keep in touch with things.
There was a wave of designers - Peter Saville, Neville Brody and so on - that occurred and rode off the back of the independent music industry. There doesn't seem to be the same platform today. What we need is a revolution, don't we?