If you’ve ever fallen in love at first sight with an album, you owe a huge debt of gratitude to Alex Steinweiss, who died last week at the age of 94.
Steinweiss has been called the “inventor of the modern album cover” as we know it, and created a new graphic art form.
Before the 33 1/3 LP we have today was introduced, 78-r.p.m. shellac-coated records were the standard and were packaged as sets of three or four records in separate sleeves bound between plain pasteboard covers. They were stamped only with the title of the work and the name of the recording artist and displayed on shelves with just the spines showing.
In 1940, as Columbia Records’ young new art director, he met with Ted Wallerstein, president of Columbia, who introduced him to an innovation that the company was about to unveil: the long-playing record (LP). But there was a problem. The heavy, folded kraft paper used to protect 78 r.p.m. records left marks on the vinyl microgroove of this new LP when they were stacked.
Mr. Steinweiss was asked to develop a jacket for the new format that would protect the delicate microgrooves and, with help from his brother-in-law, found a manufacturer willing to invest about $250,000 in equipment. Mr. Steinweiss had the original patent for what became the industry packaging standard (he did not develop the inner sleeve, only the outer package), but under his contract with Columbia he had to waive all rights to any inventions made while working there.
His next idea, to illustrate the new outer jacket he invented, was the real genius of the idea. Steinweiss recognized an opportunity to use the new packaging he invented in more creative ways to reflect the music it contained and to improve sales by asking “why not replace the standard plain brown wrapper with an eye-catching illustration?” The company took a chance, and within months its record sales increased by over 800 percent. His covers for Columbia—combining bold typography with modern, elegant illustrations—took the industry by storm and revolutionized the way records were sold.
Over the next three decades, Steinweiss made thousands of original artworks for classical, jazz, and popular record covers for Columbia, Decca, London, and Everest; as well as logos, labels, advertising material, even his own typeface, the Steinweiss Scrawl. He launched the golden age of album cover design and influenced generations of designers to follow. If all that wasn’t enough, his own design output of some 2500 classical, jazz, Broadway and pop covers over the course of his career, first at Columbia and later for other labels like Decca and the small imprint Everest, is absolutely astonishing.
“The way records were sold was ridiculous,” Mr. Steinweiss said in 1990. “The covers were brown, tan, or green paper. They were not attractive, and lacked sales appeal.”
“When you look at your music collection today on your iPod, you are looking at Alex Steinweiss’ big idea.”
Steinweiss was born in 1917 into a music-loving home in Brooklyn, New York. In 1930, Steinweiss entered Abraham Lincoln High School. His skills in art brought him to the attention of the visual arts teacher Leon Friend. Friend encouraged the talents of a select group of students known as the “Art Squad” that included, among others, Gene Federico, Seymour Chwast, and William Taubin. They designed school publications, posters and signs, and were encouraged to submit their work to as many publications and competitions as possible. Steinweiss’s work was showcased in PM Magazine when he was just 17.
Steinweiss won a scholarship to Parsons School of Design in 1934, became an assistant to the newly arrived Austrian designer Joseph Binder in 1937 and, in 1939, at the age of 23, he became the first art director of the recently formed Columbia Records.
His first cover was for a 1939 collection of songs by Rodgers and Hart. A theater marquee with the composers’ names spelled out in lights pivots on the central red axis of the encased record. His references were the French and German posters he had seen in Friend’s class, but in the covers that he went on to design he developed a unique signature style that used geometric patterns, folk art symbolism, and a curly hand-drawn lettering (that became copyrighted as Steinweiss Scrawl).
During WWII Steinweiss took a job with the U.S. Navy designing cautionary posters and displays. He continued to work for Columbia Records by night, and after the war, as a consultant.
By the early 1950s Steinweiss had added to his list of clients National Distillery, Schenley Distributors, White Laboratories, PRINT and Fortune magazines. In 1974 Steinweiss and his wife moved to Sarasota, Florida, where he continued to paint and design posters for community and cultural events. He passed away on July 17, 2011 at 94.
“I love music so much and I had such ambition that I was willing to go way beyond what the hell they paid me for. I wanted people to look at the artwork and hear the music.” —Alex Steinweiss
Mr. Steinweiss preferred metaphor to literalism, and his covers often used collages of musical and cultural symbols. For a Bartok piano concerto, he rejected a portrait of Bartok, using instead the hammers, keys and strings of a piano placed against a stylized backdrop. For a recording of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” he used an illustration of a piano on a dark blue field illuminated only by an abstract street lamp, with a stylized silhouetted skyline in the background.
He left the music business at 55, when he realized his design ideas were out of step with the rock era.
So, the next time you go to your CD, album, iTunes, eLyric or cover art collection of any kind, remember Alex Steinweiss, the inventor of the everything we see about the music today.