The man who invented the album cover

20 02 2010

I happened to be reading Word, a British music magazine, last night and came across an article about Alex Steinweiss, the man who invented the (artistic) album cover.  It had never occurred to me that any single person is credited with that.  I probably never thought about it, but I was fascinated to learn about Mr. Steinweiss, who is now in his 90’s.

The wikipedia entry for Mr. Steinweiss introduces him as:

In 1939, he was the first art director for Columbia Records, where he invented the concept of album covers and cover art; previously, recorded music was sold in plain, undecorated packaging.

Steinweiss was active in record cover design from its inception in 1939 until 1973, when he semi-retired to devote himself to painting. By his own admission, he has designed roughly 2500 covers.

A book of his cover art has been released and here are some of the reactions to the book, which are really reactions to the man’s work:

“Ignoring the clanging death knell of the physical media, TASCHEN are celebrating the great man’s work with a luxurious compendium that focuses on the sparkling jazz, pop and classical covers he produced before 1962, when rock and roll swept in an heralded the age of the photographic cover.”

Word Magazine, London

United Kingdom

“Alex Steinweiss is justly remembered for the way he brought Columbia’s records out of themselves. He managed to make Beethoven look like Pink Floyd, Xavier Cugat like a Disney film, and Louis Armstrong like Kanye West….TASCHEN’s book is stupidly, prohibitively expensive to most, but it’s still lovingly put together. The sleeves are the stars, but wonderful factory line-style photos and evocative shots of Steinweiss with his lifelong geau, smoking cigars, always wearing suits, fills it out in style.”

Record Collector, London

United Kingdom

“No one can hold a candle to Alex Steinweiss. With the coffee-table buckling Alex Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Record Cover, TASCHEN gives a hearty high-five to the Columbia Records art director (now 92) who created the concept of cover art in 1940 with Smash Song Hits, a cabaret-jazz LP from Rodgers and Hart. If that weren’t enough, Steinweiss – whose swirly lettering and clean, vibrant graphics continue to influence design today – went on to pioneer the folded cardboard record sleeve as we know it. Respect.”

Nylon, London

United Kingdom

I’m a big fan of album covers.   It seems like so much that goes with the experience of listening to a song or album is lost without good cover art, liner notes, photos, booklets and other visual things that have been added over the years.  We have all of that to thank Mr. Steinweiss for as it was his idea to change the plain packaging in which discs were sold.

It seems we’ve come full circle (no pun intended.)  Music (popular, commercial) is simply an aural experience and little of art is to be found in or around it.



2 responses

16 03 2010
Groove Grove

Great post, we’re putting together an exhibition based around the graphic art that the west London music scene has produced and inspired, interesting to see your choices! Sometimes an overlooked form of art…

16 03 2010

Thanks Groove Grove. I’d love to see your exhibition. Where will this take place?

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