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.
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.
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.