The Groundbreaking Art of Alex Steinweiss, Father of Record Cover Design

Steinweiss Grieg

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.

Steinweiss Boogie

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.

Steinweiss Gershwin

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.

bartok cover

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.

Steinweiss Bessie Smith

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Andy Warhol Cre­ates Album Cov­ers for Jazz Leg­ends Thelo­nious Monk, Count Basie & Ken­ny Bur­rell

Clas­sic Jazz Album Cov­ers Ani­mat­ed, or the Re-Birth of Cool

Under­ground Car­toon­ist R. Crumb Intro­duces Us to His Rol­lick­ing Album Cov­er Designs

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Michael Biel says:

    There were HUNDREDS of illus­trat­ed album cov­ers before Stein­weiss did his first cov­er in 1940 (not 1939 as you stat­ed). The Dec­ca album series was at about num­ber 125 when Colum­bia decid­ed to just enter the pop­u­lar album field — MUCH lat­er than most oth­er labels. Stein­weiss and Colum­bia were late in enter­ing the area of illus­trat­ed album cov­ers, not first. Even Stein­weis­s’s first cov­er, an album of Rodgers and Hart songs, was the third Rodgers and Hart album to come out in three months with illus­trat­ed cov­ers.

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