The record cover was a blank slate in 1939, when Mr. Steinweiss was hired to design advertisements for Columbia Records. Most albums were unadorned, and on those occasions when art was used, it was not original. (Albums then were booklike packages containing multiple 78 r.p.m. discs.)
“The way records were sold was ridiculous,” Mr. Steinweiss said in a 1990 interview. “The covers were brown, tan or green paper. They were not attractive, and lacked sales appeal.” Despite concern about the added costs, he was given the approval to come up with original cover designs.
His first cover, for a collection of Rodgers and Hart songs performed by an orchestra, showed a high-contrast photo of a theater marquee with the title in lights. The new packaging concept was a success: Newsweek reported that sales of Bruno Walter’s recording of Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony increased ninefold when the album cover was illustrated.
“It was such a simple idea, really, that an image would become attached to a piece of music,” said Paula Scher, who designed record covers for Columbia in the 1970s and is now a partner in the design company Pentagram. “When you look at your music collection today on your iPod, you are looking at Alex Steinweiss’s big idea.”
Mr. Steinweiss preferred metaphor to literalism, and his covers often used collages of musical and cultural symbols. For a Bartok piano concerto, he rejected a portrait of Bartok, using instead the hammers, keys and strings of a piano placed against a stylized backdrop. For a recording of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” he used an illustration of a piano on a dark blue field illuminated only by an abstract street lamp, with a stylized silhouetted skyline in the background.
Mr. Steinweiss left the music business at 55, when he realized his design ideas were out of step with the rock era. He turned to his own art, making ceramic bowls and pots and later paintings, often with a musical theme. In 1974 he and his wife moved to Sarasota.
Mr. Steinweiss said he was destined to be a commercial artist. In high school he marveled at his classmates who “could take a brush, dip it in some paint and make letters,” he recalled. “So I said to myself, if some day I could become a good sign painter, that would be terrific!”
Via: NY Times
All words by Susan Sloan.