Vaughan Oliver

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The death of Vaughan Oliver, one half of design partnership 23 Envelope, was announced over the Christmas holiday period.  For anyone interested in vinyl sleeve art, Oliver’s name would be impossible to ignore and it seems wrong to be losing someone of his talents at such a relatively young age.  Forever associated with the 4AD label, his work as half of the design duo 23 Envelope pushed at the edges of what could appear on a record sleeve, and it wasn’t long before other bands began imitating the label’s unique look. Indeed if you look at 4AD’s early releases which are fairly nondescript, it’s not hard to see how 23 Envelope made such an impact and arguably gave the label a very serious, professional, often mysterious and dark look, which synched perfectly with much of the music. 

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Their designs went well beyond the front cover though, and Oliver gave as much importance to the inner sleeves and labels, so helping to create a unified and immersive feel for each package (as on the Xmal Deutschland cover above).  Many designers mangled type sizes and shapes as the Mac unshackled the restrictions of set fonts, but 23 Envelope always seemed to do it with purpose and an eye for what looked right. So while some of their contemporaries work now looks suitably dated, 4AD covers manage to remain largely timeless.

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It was label signings The Cocteau Twins which first hooked me and it was a treat to go out and purchase each new release; you knew you owned something special.  I loved the way 23 Envelope covers played with seemingly abstract or wrongly exposed photographs, material which would be rejected by most, and got these to work.  There was a willingness to experiment with out of register images, overlaid typography and later on special colours and metallic inks. 


I would struggle to think of another label who so consistently came up with as many great covers during the Eighties.  Indeed I think Oliver was lucky to be involved at the peak of vinyl design, because although there is still scope for great individual covers, the ability to so firmly help shape a label in this way is unlikely to occur again. Although I have a modest collection of 4AD’s catalogue (and of course own the great anthology of his work published a few years ago which I must add to our site’s book section), many bought just for the sleeves, I thought it would be nice to just run with a handful of my favourite designs to mark Oliver’s contributions to album design, and I’m sure there will be many other sites doing similar posts.

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About simon robinson

Having worked as a graphic designer in the music industry, mainly in the reissue sector, I now concentrate on the design and publication of books about popular culture - and even write some of them.
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2 Responses to Vaughan Oliver

  1. Great post.
    Sad to hear about Vaughan. The 4AD covers that he did were totally distinctive and without a doubt was hugely influential in how other companies and bands (not sure who made the decisions all the time!) started to package their vinyl. For me back then what he did was a sort of visual magic. Someone like yourself can probably unpick how he created his work but to me it was a magic and I was happy just to marvel at his creations. I had This Mortal Coil and the Colourbox records (along with other 4AD stuff).
    If you asked me to name some graphic designers from the eighties there are only two names that spring to mind, Vaughan and Peter Saville. If I think about records from back then the only other really memorable and distinct output with much more of a DIY ethic came from Crass and I think Gee Vaucher was the person behind a lot of their record sleeves.
    I went to the Peter Saville exhibition in Manchester many years ago and on display were a lot of the materials he had used in making classic Factory Records sleeves. Even the stamped bit of metal from the Love Will Tear Us Apart cover! The exhibition was a revelation to me and an insight into the lengths designers went to.
    I suspect back in the early eighties designers were far less reliant on digital technology and still had a mind to be creative in a physical form. The stamped steel plate and the New Order True Faith leaf (in a box at the Peter Saville exhibition) were a reminder of how their world was very much a physical one mixed in with new technology.
    The first OMD single Electricity was black with black plasticised lettering and was only ever made in a very limited run because the technology at the time was so new and untested it kept setting fire to the card. That’s why the later editions came out with printed white on black and no plasticised lettering.
    Anyway for now lets leave Peter Saville to one side and celebrate the work and life of Vaughan. He was a creative spirit that inspired a generation of designers.
    Best wishes
    Mr C

    • simon robinson says:

      Some nice comments and yes, Saville’s work with Factory is of course up there and probably better known (I’d throw Warp Records in to this elevated status as well). It’s true another designer can probably pull apart the 4AD covers to some degree to see how they came together, but speaking for myself this doesn’t detract from the final results one bit. And he was lucky that 4AD were visionary enough to go along with the sometimes more costly concepts, but as you say inspirational. I was flicking through vinyl covers at HMV last week and a huge amount was very mediocre, it’s almost as if a lot of designers struggle to upscale ideas having worked on CDs for so long!

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