In 1938 before Alex Steinwess, a then 23 years old designer, convinced Columbia’s suits to create the first true album cover, all 78s were sold in generic sleeves
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, and therefore the first album cover, so it has to be considered a classic, was for a collection of Rodgers and Hart songs performed by an orchestra, showed a high-contrast photo of a theatre marquee with the title in lights. Please note the word “smash” on the cover!
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”
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
After the war, Steinweiss freelanced for Columbia. During one lunch meeting there, the company’s president, Ted Wallerstein, introduced him to an innovation that the company was about to unveil: the long-playing record. But there was a problem. The heavy, folded kraft paper used to protect 78 r.p.m. records left marks on the vinyl microgroove when 33 1/3 r.p.m. LPs were stacked
Steinweiss was asked to develop a jacket for the new format and, with help from his brother-in-law, found a manufacturer willing to invest about $250,000 in equipment. Mr. Steinweiss had the original patent for what became the industry packaging standard (he didn’t develop the inner sleeve, only the outer package), but under his contract with Columbia he had to waive all rights to any inventions made while working there!
Steinweiss died in June 2011, aged 94. See more of Steinweiss’ cover art here
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