Obits — December 29, 2019 at 9:05 am

Vaughan Oliver, the artist who created 4AD’s iconic album covers, dead at 62

Vaughan Oliver | Source: Kickstarter

Vaughan Oliver, the British artist and graphic designer who helped create the visual identity of the 4AD record label and so many of the legendary imprint’s best-known bands, including the Pixies, Cocteau Twins, Throwing Muses, The Breeders, This Mortal Coil, Dead Can Dance and more, died Sunday, according to his friend and editor. He was 62.

Adrian Shaughnessy, a graphic designer, writer and publisher who co-edited the 2018 collection “Vaughan Oliver: Archive,” announced on Twitter on Sunday morning that “Vaughan Oliver died peacefully today, with his partner Lee by his side. Great loss of friend and design hero.”

Through his design studios 23 Envelope and v23, and his original partner, photographer Nigel Grierson, Oliver began working for 4AD in the early ’80s after meeting the independent label’s owner, Ivo Watts-Russell. Oliver worked on album covers for the label through the ’80s and ’90s, lending his surrealist and often dark vision to famous album sleeves including all of the Pixies’ covers — the sleeves of Surfer Rosa and Doolittle being among the artist’s best-known work.

On the Kickstarter page for his “Archive” book, Oliver described his work: “I like to elevate the banal through surrealism. Mystery and ambiguity are important weapons in a designer’s arsenal. I try to make images where you don’t always get ‘the message’ straight away — but these things leave a hook in you. Leaving some space for interpretation is important.”

Following news of Oliver’s death, 4AD posted a statement on Facebook:

“We are incredibly sad to learn of the passing of Vaughan Oliver; there was no-one else like him. Without Vaughan, 4AD would not be 4AD and it’s no understatement to say that his style also helped to shape graphic design in the late-20th century. In 1980, he was the label’s first employee, designing his first sleeve for the Modern English single ‘Gathering Dust’ before going on to create iconic works for the likes of Pixies, Breeders, Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, Throwing Muses, Lush, Pale Saints, TV On The Radio, Scott Walker and countless others. The Guardian said his designs were “abstract, dreamlike, elegant” and they weren’t wrong; he gave both us as a label and our musicians an identity and a voice. We will miss you Vaughan and our thoughts are with your family and friends. We were blessed to know you and will forever be thankful for all you did.”

Watts-Russell has shared some thoughts on Oliver’s passing on 4AD’s website, writing, “Vaughan Oliver taught me to appreciate quality. He taught me how to look at the physical world. He was a force of nature and I’m having such a hard time processing this. … It is rare to think of someone in one’s life and know that with absolute certainty that the course of both our lives were irrevocably changed for the better as a result.”

Former Cocteau Twins bassist Simon Raymonde posted a tribute to Oliver on Facebook on Sunday morning, saying he was shocked to learn of the visual artist’s death.

“It goes without saying what a hugely influential artist he was, but, more importantly, I know he was a wonderful father and a great man. Very funny with impeccable taste in music, art and cinema as you would expect. … It goes without saying that his work during the ’80s and ’90s changed cover art for ever, and not just albums, but books, too. Thanks for some beautiful memories Vaughan.”

Below, we’ve rounded up more tributes and some of Oliver’s best-known album covers.







Vaughan Oliver-designed album covers













  1. Shannon Daniel-Waitas

    What a terribly sad day for us all. I surrou ded myself with many of his album covers as a teenager. My deepest sympathies for his loved ones.

  2. Beautiful work that captured the mood of the Generation that tried to warn the world to be concerned for the future of the youth. Thank you for your art!

  3. Amazing. I’ve known of and used much of his album art within my own art, but never knew of the actual man. I really hate to hear of his untimely passing and I’m sure he is missed already.

  4. What awful news. The passing of true visionary who’s surrealist, playful and iconic album cover art illuminated a dark and functional world. A final, tragic kick in the face from a year that cannot dissipate soon enough.

  5. A huge loss to alternative music world as he created unforgettable visuals to dozens of important records. He is finally recognized as a visual pioneer and it is way past due ….rest in peace!!

  6. back in 90’s. i love lush’s split album cover. it was simple to me lemons and colours but why did the image keep remaining in my head while hearing kiss chase played in my ears. the art is special to me even now. thank you. Rest in peace

  7. He was brilliant. His album covers both complemented and somehow enhanced the music on the discs. 4AD the label and 4AD the stable of bands would not have been the same without him. Unreal how unique and visionary his aesthetic was, and how era defining.

  8. It was Vaughn’s work that inspired me to become a designer. A huge talent we’ll miss. What impressed me was his typography integration with the iconic images. The typography was just as important as the image and had a character and life of its own. Maybe, a future Dark Wave show could be themed to the 4AD artists he worked with. It would make for an excellent show!

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