RIP Alex Steinweiss: The Man Who Invented the Album Cover
I noticed a post today on The Music’s Over website that Alex Steinweiss passed away on July 18th at age 94. Some of you oldsters might recall that 78’s and other discs used to come in brown paper wrappers, or in a physical book with several pages or sleeves which is where the term album actually came from. Sometimes the labels would put their logos on the outside, but it was usually just left blank.
A talented graphic artist, Steinwiess took a job with Columbia Records back in the late thirties. “Records used to be relegated to the back of the stores that sold refrigerators and stoves,” Steinweiss once recalled. “You’d go to the counter and ask for the title you wanted. I needed to shake up the industry. We had to do something like European poster art to draw the attention of the buyer.”
Kevin Reagan and Greg Escalante, both contemporary designer/artists, put on a successful exhibition of Steinweiss’ work back in 2008 at a gallery in Santa Monica. “At 23 he probably didn’t know exactly what he was getting into,” Reagan says of the artist’s new (Columbia) gig. “He was doing advertising art and all that. But at some point he went to his boss with an idea about the covers, ‘Why don’t we jazz these up? I think it would help sales to put something more attractive on the cover.’ So his boss let him try it. Soon after, a news magazine ran an article about it, saying that sales had increased over 900 percent! So the rest was history. After that he was designing like a nut, one after another. They were hand-illustrated; a lot of the lettering was even done by hand.”
“He was a young designer, classically trained. As a young kid to have control over image, typography, color, composition, it afforded him this crazy canvas. He must have been like a kid in a candy store. Don’t get me wrong—it was a lot of work. The first six months to a year he was doing all the production, all the design, every record that came out of Columbia. He was exhausted!”
Through his semi-retirement in 1973, Steinweiss reportedly designed in the neighborhood of 2500 album covers. Following his run at Columbia, he went on to design packages for London, Decca and Everest Records, and along the way created the blueprint from which all future album designers would follow. During the 1950s, Steinweiss began incorporating photographs into his cover designs, one of, if not THE first to do so. He also created numerous logos, book covers, posters, magazine covers, and TV show title logos throughout his career. Steinweiss retired from the music business when he realized during the mid-70s, that his retro designs were not what the acts of the booming rock era had in mind for their images. He went on to work with other media, including ceramics and paint.