Thursday, August 04, 2011

Alex Steinweiss - Album Art Pioneer (1917 - 2011)

Alex Steinweiss, who died July 17th at age 94, belongs in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for a non-musical invention. He is credited with inventing album cover art. In 1939 Columbia Records hired him to create advertising for their label. Upon arrival he noticed how drab the covers for most 78 RPM records were so his new job took on a different role. In an interview with Steinweiss after his retirement he said, "The way records were sold was ridiculous. The covers were brown, tan, or green paper. They were not attractive, and lacked sales appeal."

Steinweiss seldom used pictures of the artists.  Instead he drew covers that corellated with the music inside. The designer retired in 1973 when he decided his work was too out of date for the rock and roll generation but not before producing, what he claims, were about 2,500 album covers.

Steinweiss's first creation, pictured above, was for a 1939 collection of Rodgers and Hart songs. According to Wikipedia, his original cover for the 1949 soundtrack to South Pacific, seen here at left, is still being used today and you can buy it on CD from Amazon.

Newsweek Magazine wrote that sales of Beethoven's "Eroica Symphony" by Bruno Walter "increased ninefold" when the cover was illustrated with the artist's work.

Back in the day, when I was less careful with my money, I must confess that more than once I purchased a record because I was attracted to its cover.  Unfortunately, these purchases more often than not turned out to be a mistake proving Steinweiss was correct.  Good cover art could sell the music inside.

By the late 60s many of the top artists were putting almost as much work into their album covers as they did the music. It's safe to assume that if it hadn't been for Steinweiss some of our most iconic rock album covers may not exist today. Would Abbey Road have the same impact in a plain brown wrapper? How many people have taken the London tube to EMI Studios just to get their picture taken at the famous crosswalk?  I surely am not the only one.

Steinweiss has his own website that displays many of his best covers.

1 comment:

  1. Put him in to the HOF immediately. In a handful of years, cover art will be sucked up into the digital ether and the stupid cloud. Hail Steinweiss, and thank you.