Remembering The Man Who Revolutionized Album Covers

Robert Siegel talks with Steven Heller, the co-chair of the MFA Designer as Author Department at the School of Visual Arts. They discuss the life and the legacy of Alex Steinweiss, who revolutionized album cover art.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Alex Steinweiss died this week at age 94. He was one of those people who are not hugely famous but who have changed the look of everyday things. In his case, the thing was the record album.

A little history here for younger listeners who regard even the compact disc as a legacy medium. Albums are called albums because they used to be just that, bound volumes of paper sleeves that contain 78 rpm discs. They were like photo albums. The oldest ones that my father had in our home were as heavy as volumes of an encyclopedia and just about as unadorned as those volumes too.

The title of, say, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta ran down the spine of the album. Maybe it was on the front cover too, but if it was, it was completely unmemorable. And that is where Alex Steinweiss steps in.

His obituary in The New York Times was written by the former art director of The New York Times Book Review, a man who has worked on and written many books about design, including one about Alex Steinweiss: Steven Heller.

Mr. Heller, welcome.

Mr. STEVEN HELLER (Co-chair, MFA Designer as Author, School of Visual Arts): Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And take us back to 1939 when the 22-year-old Alex Steinweiss was the first art director for Columbia Records. What did he do?

Mr. HELLER: Well, he was hired to do advertising and promotion. In those days, records were sold in appliance stores as well as some record stores. And he created a beautiful poster-like points-of-purchase displays and posters themselves.

And then he had this great idea. He said that records were not really sold very well because they didn't have beautiful art on their covers, and he created a paradigm. He made a poster for this record album cover.

SIEGEL: He began, I gather, with an album of Rodgers and Hart songs.

Mr. HELLER: He did. And what he did was he took a photograph, a high-contrast photograph, and he made the name Rodgers and Hart, as well as the orchestra that was playing the music, from the light bulbs. It was a very conceptual cover, and that he placed against what looked like an abstraction of a record.

SIEGEL: I've read that Mr. Steinweiss figured that he had designed somewhere around 2,500 covers from 1939 until 1973. Is there some consistent style over all those decades?

Mr. HELLER: Well, there are different periods in Steinweiss' work. The earlier period was more Art Moderne or Art Deco. He tended to make everything surreal. He tended to reduce what we would think of as common everyday icons into symbols. And what's most important is he integrated the typography with the picture, and that's what made it so different from any of the other albums that were out on the market.

SIEGEL: Steven Heller, thank you very much for talking to us.

Mr. HELLER: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Steven Heller of the School of Visual Arts and The New York Times Book Review speaking with us about the late Alex Steinweiss.

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