The advent of the album cover

This post pays hommage to Alex Steinweiss, in fact make that a kissing-the-toes while bowing appraisal of this graphic design genius, who unfortunately died on 19th July this year at the age of 94.

Steinweiss was the inventor of the album cover at 23 years old- to put this in perspective, the most I have ever invented has been to find alternative uses for old clothes. Unbelievably, prior to Steinweiss’ employment at Columbia Records, most music albums came packaged in brown papers. As such, there was no artistic distinction between albums and consumers were, perhaps in a good way, not lured by an interesting cover. As Steinweiss himself noted- “The covers were brown, tan or green paper. They were not attractive, and lacked sales appeal.” Steinweiss transformed this- understanding that visual outer appeal of an album should be a reflection and even enhancement to the music inside. To turn to a cliche- the world never looked back and sales of records rocketed.

Steinweiss’ covers are still regarded as iconic- bright, visually arresting, with a creative use of typography and pattern, and indicative of his talent as an illustrator. Significantly, each design successfully supported the content of the album and in particular captured the liveliness of the Golden Age of jazz, classical and popular music at the time. In particular, one of the many things which I love about his work is the almost story-like screen capture style of many of his covers; and his mix of musical and cultural symbol and geometrical patterns, which make the consumer think, and seems to scream artwork (that would incidentally work wonderfully on my wall) rather than “buy me, I look great in a bikini”. While Steinweiss’ input resulted in dramatic sales increases, his covers remained of high artistic quality and, despite their variety, speak of him. Bold, provocative, imaginative.

Steinweiss, I salute you and my itunes is in your debt.

I love music so much and I had such ambition that I was willing to go way beyond what the hell they paid me for. I wanted people to look at the artwork and hear the music.”
—Alex Steinweiss


One response to “The advent of the album cover

  1. Pingback: Brighten, enlighten « Marzipan and Marmite·

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