The story of how album cover art came into existence is a classic design case study in how considered graphics meet the hard-nosed world of commerce.
New York designer Alex Steinweiss, billed in Taschen’s new retrospective as ‘the inventor of the modern album cover’ created the first 78rpm album sleeve in 1940 and by 1948 had created the paperboard 33rpm LP container – which remained industry standard until the introduction of the compact disc 40 years later.
As Kevin Reagan’s book relates, Steinweiss was a master at spotting an opportunity.
Born to European immigrants in Brooklyn in 1917, Steinweiss attended the Abraham Lincoln High School, where he entered a graphic design programme run by Leon Friend – co-author of Graphic Design, one of the first books published in the US about visual communication. There he fell under the influence of a stellar array of guest lecturers, including Plakatstil pioneer Lucian Bernhard and Bauhaus emigree László Moholy-Nagy.
Steinweiss says, ‘For most of us with limited economic resources, the career choice was to drive a cab. Thanks to Mr Friend we could earn a living and be challenged by working with type.’
After graduation and a series of small jobs Steinweiss was recruited as art director for the newly-established CBS Records. It was here that he had his epiphany.
The way records were sold at the time was to put them in plain paper wrappers and to bind these in book-style albums. The dark-coloured, leatherette albums were completely indistinguishable from each other.
‘To my mind, this was no way to package beautiful music,’ says Steinweiss. Inspired by poster designs, he proposed creating bespoke, colourful sleeve designs for each record. CBS management, predictably, balked at the cost.
Steinweiss persisted however and eventually managed to persuade CBS to trial his idea. Shortly after the first covers were released, figures showed that sales of the illustrated edition Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, conducted by Bruno Walter, were up by a jaw-dropping 895 per cent on the plain-covered version. The CBS marketing department was emphatically won over.
However great Steinweiss’s idea was, it would never have succeeded had his work not been absolutely first-class – and as Taschen’s book demonstrates, it certainly was.
While using strong elements of both American Modernism and the European poster style, Steinweiss also played prolifically with conceptualism. For Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, he placed a piano in a dark-blue field lit only by a street-lamp.
After developing the LP jacket in 1948, Steinweiss also worked on film titles, advertising and other packaging projects. In later life he turned to ceramics design and painting and is still a practising artist today.
Alex Steinweiss, The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover, by Alex Steinweiss, Kevin Reagan and Steven Heller, is published by Taschen priced at £44.99