Given the visual perfection and ubiquity of album covers by designers like Storm Thorgerson and Peter Saville---given the popularity of blogs featuring monumentally bad album covers---it’s hard to feature a time when records came wrapped in plain brown paper like cheap booze or covered in nondescript bindings like business ledgers. But this was the case, before another widely admired designer, Alex Steinweiss, more or less invented the album cover in 1939 at the age of 22.
There had been cover art before, during the age of the 78 rpm record, but only for the rare special release. Most music came stamped with its contents and little else. Initially contracted by Columbia Records to produce better jackets for the unwieldy 78, Steinweiss soon became the label’s art director and convinced them to try out several full color designs inspired by French and German modernist poster art. When Columbia released the first vinyl LP in 1948, Steinweiss not only designed the cover, but he invented the paperboard jacket that still surrounds records today.
You can see a few of Steinweiss’ covers for classical and jazz albums here. At the top of the post, see that first LP cover, for a recording of Grieg’s Violin Concerto in E Minor. The design may seem pretty restrained, but Steinweiss quickly broadened his palette. Just below the Grieg cover is a classic design for the jazz compilation Boogie Woogie, and just above, we have a colorful block design for a Gershwin album. Steinweiss also drew inspiration from abstract expressionist painters like Wassily Kandinsky, as you can see in the Bartok cover below.
Steinweiss' designs were extremely popular and sent record sales soaring. In one instance, Newsweek reported that sales of a recording of Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony “increased 895% with its new Steinweiss cover.” A savvy, fearless artist, Steinweiss left the field with the same ease and grace with which he’d entered it. After designing album covers, movie posters, and graphics for “countless other products” for 33 years, writes Jeff Newelt for the Art Directors Club, Steinweiss retired to become a painter, “noting the rise of Swiss Modernism and minimalism, and the increasing preference for photography in the field” of graphic design. While Steinweiss wasn't afraid to incorporate photos into his designs on occasion---as you can see in a 1940 Bessie Smith cover below---it was the rare occasion. Mostly what interested him were bold colors and geometrical shapes.
Though it’s certain that someone would have come along and created record covers eventually, it’s hard to underestimate the tremendous influence Steinweiss had on the form---the way his work has guided our experience of staring in awe at a mysterious album cover, even in the MP3 age, and trying to imagine the kind of music it describes. For much, much more on Steinweiss, you could purchase this enormous, and enormously expensive, Taschen book. Or save a few bucks and browse through some extensive online collections of his work, like this Steinweiss tribute site, this six part biography, and the Birka Jazz Archive from Columbia, which also features iconic covers by such artists as Jim Flora, Neil Fujita, and Saul Bass. Steven Heller, who teaches at the School of Visual Arts in NYC, presents a talk on Steinweiss' art here.