Vaughan Oliver is a sweet northern Santa

I went to the Unit Live! chat last night in central London. Part of the Unit Editions operation, this discussion featured designers and writers who focus on design and music in the punk era and current day, including Malcolm Garrett and Kate Moross. But the draw for me was Vaughan Oliver, the designer who did such incredible work for 4AD records during the 1980s–2000s. He does more teaching now, but he showed the most recent Pixies release, which I hadn’t seen and looked rich and exciting up on screen.

Vaughan Oliver
Vaughan Oliver

Oliver was a creative hero in my teenage years (along with Peter Saville, Bowie, Anton Corbijn and others). He got me interested in British design and music and was a factor in me moving over here from South Dakota. So seeing him in person was a treat, especially when it turned out that he’s got a warm, funny, northern, Santa Claus vibe to him — I could’ve easily listened to him chat to host  for another hour.

Pixies "Head Carrier" artwork by Vaughan Oliver, designed in collaboration with artist Ian Pollock and Joshua Price
Above: Pixies Head Carrier artwork by Vaughan Oliver, designed in collaboration with artist Ian Pollock and Joshua Price. Top image: detail from Lush best of vinyl packaging.

Questions from the audience brought insights such as how his idea of success wasn’t money but to please the band and hint to the viewer that they what they were ‘seeing was a voice they hadn’t yet heard’. He spoke about the creative interaction with the Pixies when designing. The research process for creating an album might include visually interpreting lyrics, chatting with bands about what films and other creative interests they into at the time — all stuff that most of us would do as creatives, but it was interesting to hear the mechanics behind such evocative and mysterious designs. He pointed out that his role is primarily art director because a lot of the imagery comes from his collaborators. And he mentioned how his ethic is somewhat of a Victorian notion of ‘craft and quality’ — two elements apparent in his work, which still has impact all these years later.

Lush "Spooky" album artwork
Lush “Spooky” album artwork
Vaughan Oliver "Fit" poster for London 2012 Olympics. Illustration by Si Scott.
Vaughan Oliver “Fit” poster for London 2012 Olympics. Illustration by Si Scott.