The longtime artistic director for Columbia Records, who first pioneered the usage of original, creative album cover art, died this past weekend. Alex Steinweiss, who also invented the first packaging for long-playing records, is credited with revolutionizing album art by his colleagues: “It was such a simple idea, really, that an image would become attached to a piece of music. When you look at your music collection today on your iPod, you are looking at Alex Steinweiss’s big idea,” said designer Paula Scher. He was 94.
Steinweiss was hired by Columbia in 1939 to design advertisements for albums, and he noted in an interview in 1990 just how unoriginal and drab the album sleeves were at that point: “The way records were sold was ridiculous. The covers were brown, tan or green paper. They were not attractive, and lacked sales appeal.” Steinweiss instead sought out original artwork for the albums—his first cover, for a collection of Rodgers and Hart songs, made a huge splash, with just a high-contrast photo of a theater marquee with the title in lights. Newsweek reported that sales of Bruno Walter’s recording of Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony increased ninefold when the album cover was illustrated.
Born in Brooklyn, Steinweiss lived the majority of his life on the Lower East Side and Brighton Beach. As the Times notes in their obit, he favored metaphorical designs over portraiture—for example, instead of using a picture of Bartok for one of his piano concertos, he used the hammers, keys and strings of a piano placed against a stylized backdrop. Steinweiss left Columbia to work for the Navy for a stay, but returned as a freelancer, which is when he ended up developing a jacket for the new 33 1/3 LPs. He retired from the music business at 55, when he felt his design ideas were out of step with the rock era, and instead turned to creating his own art, including ceramic bowls, pots and paintings.