BY MIN CHEN
Landscaped with lace, crumpled tissue, shimmering pools of water; stamped with boldly manipulated typography; heavy with precisely lit atmosphere—Vaughan Oliver’s sleeves for 4AD were made for looking as well as feeling.
To look at Modern English’s After The Snow, or the Cocteau Twins’ Treasure, or the label’s 1987 compilation, Lonely is An Eyesore is to roam across intricate and abstract textures, punctuated with a squiggle or daub of curious detail. They’re tactile works, except what is felt is less their surfaces than the mood and spirit of their contents. “The music has led each design,” Oliver told Print in 2010. “If it doesn’t connect with the music, it’s worthless.”
From the 1980s to ‘90s, as 4AD’s in-house designer, Oliver (in collaboration with Nigel Grierson as 23 Envelope, then later, following a split between the partners, as V23) imprinted the British label with an exquisitely ethereal and worthy aesthetic, befitting the music made by its stable of artists including Dead Can Dance, Xmal Deutschland, and of course, Cocteau Twins. Those carefully cultivated, Tarkovsky-indebted, and beautifully damaged surfaces and figures resulted in artifacts so refined and so precious (or as the Pixies’ Charles Thompson would have it, “artsy-fartsy”) as to be so dearly collected. Indeed, perhaps no other label’s records—perhaps save for Factory Records’ Peter Saville-directed output—have been so intensely and lovingly cherished for the cohesion of their internal auras and lush façades. Not for nothing does a copy of the Lonely is An Eyesore box set sit in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s archives.
In fact, the fetishization that greets 4AD’s designs similarly runs through Oliver’s approach to design. He’s described his use of the photo mechanical transfer machine as a “love affair,” his attention to typography was unflagging (just note how seamlessly text is integrated with image on Clan of Xymox) as were his efforts in nailing the visual tone and tenor of each cover. In Martin Aston’s Facing The Other Way, Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie remembers that the sleeve for Treasure required fabrics from a “plush shop” that “cost a fortune,” all for what Oliver himself admitted was “a bloody mannequin with a few bits of lace around it.”
From the late ‘80s, photography would play a bigger part in Oliver’s designs for 4AD—beginning with the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, which featured Simon Larbalestier’s sensuous image of a topless flamenco dancer—bringing to the fore his almost-romantic fixation on objects. With the injection of fresh talents such as Chris Bigg, Dominic Davies, and the abovementioned Larbalestier, these latter-day V23 creations forewent the wispy textures and gauzy films of yore in favor of declarative, image-centric sleeves. And these images, frequently enough, unearthed beauty in the most common, everyday of objects.
There was the Venus flytrap (shot by Larbalestier) that covered Heidi Berry’s self-titled 1993 record and the ink-dappled heart-shaped candy (Jason Love) on The Breeders’ sophomore Last Splash. Ultra Vivid Scene’s eponymous debut framed an old advertisement for Dr. West toothbrushes in a window of silver gaffer tape, while Red House Painters’ Down Colorful Hill employed yet another Larbalestier image of a single well-made bed (with “a pubic triangle above the pillows,” said Oliver) to convey the album’s creeping stillness. Oliver’s abstraction was still present, if not in texture then in context; his re-appropriation and re-contextualization granting these objects, or what he calls ready-mades, a new and thrilling enigma. “I like to elevate the banal through surrealism,” he said in 2014. “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.”
And in some cases, like the sleeve of His Name Is Alive’s Stars on E.S.P, which depicted a quartet of oven mitts shot by Dominic Davies, the message could be downright oblique: “[His Name is Alive’s] Warren Defever talked about the mitten shape of his home state Michigan. When natives of this state meet they hold up their hands and point to which part they come from. On the back sleeve we are making a star on a kitchen table, inspired by the idea that we are all stardust.” Along with that poetry is also play. Of the lemons on Lush’s Split, Oliver remarked, “I think it’s very cool if a band are confident enough to present themselves as four lemons, though I don’t know if they got that, to be honest.”
These objects, so scrupulously rendered, ultimately serve one final, essential object: the record itself. In 1931, Walter Benjamin, in “Unpacking My Library,” elaborated on not just the joys and thrills of collecting books, but how one of these collectibles may be so fetishized. “Dates, place names, formats, previous owners, bindings, and the like: all these details must tell [the collector] something—not as dry, isolated facts, but a harmonious whole,” he writes, before going into an account about his obsessive pursuit of a copy of Balzac’s La peau de chagrin. After all, “ownership,” he concluded, “is the most intimate relationship one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who comes alive in them.”
Oliver, speaking to Long Live Vinyl about the resurgence of record and vinyl collecting, would likely agree. “It’s interesting that it’s slowly come back round to the value of the object and what that means to have and to hold, to objectify. I always thought it was innate, this desire to have something as an object,” he said. “When you look at your record collection at home, it’s a diary as much as anything else.”
It was never just lemons, toothbrushes, or bits of expensive lace that, in his own term, he was elevating, but also, in turn, the record sleeve, the experience of looking at a record sleeve, and the ownership of a record sleeve. It’s an object that in content, design, and acquisition, always imparts more than a look. “The personal experience is there,” as Oliver puts it, “the nerve centre of your history and emotions.”