Alex Steinweiss: Remembering The Modern Cover Man

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    For Decca: Stravinsky's 'Firebird' Suite, with a performance led by Lorin Maazel.
    Image courtesy of Universal Classics
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    A very different take on Stravinsky: 'The Rite of Spring,' with the composer conducting.
    Image courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment
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    Steinweiss' work embraced jazz, Broadway and pop as well as classical; here, his take on a Count Basie album.
    Image courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment
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    Steinweiss began utilizing his "scrawl" in 1944, but by 1947 it had become his signature lettering.
    Image courtesy of Alex Steinweiss
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    An example of an Offenbach recording utilizing the famous 'Steinweiss scrawl,' though here used sparingly.
    Image courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment
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    Steinweiss' cover for a 1944 recording of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, the Vienna State Opera Chorus and conductor Felix Weingartner.
    Image courtesy of Alex Steinweiss
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    A streetlamp suggests a whole cityscape in this 1941 cover.
    Image courtesy of Alex Steinweiss
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    From the following year, another album cover for the Kostlanetz Gershwin series.
    Image courtesy of Alex Steinweiss
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    Steinweiss' cover for mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel's Rachmaninoff recital album from 1946.
    Image courtesy of Alex Steinweiss
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    A 1944 cover for an Artur Rodzinski-led performance that evokes both Russian folk tradition and Soviet poster art.
    Image courtesy of Alex Steinweiss
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    A vivid and strikingly modern album cover from 1942 for Rudolf Serkin playing Beethoven.
    Image courtesy of Alex Steinweiss
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    Steinweiss' "Turandot by Giacomo Puccini," from the Homage to Music series. Acrylic on canvas, 30 x 30 in., 1981.
    Courtesy of Alex Steinweiss
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    A striking reenvisioning of Moorish colors and shapes for this Alicia de Larrocha recording of Granados for Decca.
    Image courtesy of Universal Classics
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    The 1955 cover for a Ferenc Fricsay-led recording of Kodaly which charmingly integrates Eastern European folk art in a modern context.
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    The cover to Taschen's new book celebrating Steinweiss' life and legacy.
    Image courtesy of Taschen

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If you've ever fallen in love at first sight with an album, you owe a huge debt of gratitude to Alex Steinweiss, who died last week at the age of 94.

Steinweiss has been called the "inventor of the modern album cover." In 1940, as a youthful first art director of Columbia Records, where he had been hired to design the label's advertising materials, the Brooklyn native hit on the idea of replacing the plain brown paper wrapping of 78s with something far more eye-catching — and his work was pure genius. Steinweiss revolutionized how music was sold. After he redesigned Columbia's packaging for Rogers and Hart, sales went up almost 900 percent. His innovations didn't end there: In 1948, when LPs were introduced, Steinweiss designed the first LP jacket. In the process of enhancing music marketing, he invented a whole new artistic medium.

Alex Steinweiss photographed for DownBeat Magazine at his home studio, 1947. i i

Alex Steinweiss photographed for DownBeat Magazine at his home studio, 1947. William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress hide caption

itoggle caption William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Alex Steinweiss photographed for DownBeat Magazine at his home studio, 1947.

Alex Steinweiss photographed for DownBeat Magazine at his home studio, 1947.

William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress

If all that wasn't enough, his own design output of some 2500 classical, jazz, Broadway and pop covers over the course of his career, first at Columbia and later for other labels like Decca and the small imprint Everest, is absolutely astonishing.

Many of his covers featured his signature curly script — the "Steinweiss scrawl" — that, if seen out of context, seems like the dream cursive of a deliriously girly 9-year-old. But from a design perspective, the Steinweiss scrawl had ample benefits. He could include a great deal of information about the recording on the cover without sacrificing a sense of airy lightness. Moreover, he integrated the typography into the overall picture in a way that was fresh, innovative and visually striking.

Steinweiss adored opera and orchestral music, and the artwork he made is full of wit, verve, playfulness and an easy camaraderie with even the most high-art composers of the past. He summoned up Brahms through a bit of visual synecdoche, using the composer's famous cigar in lieu of a stuffy composer portrait, and communicated Gershwin's urban energy in busy color and clean shapes.

Just a few months before Steinweiss' death, the publisher Taschen released a marvelous title in several editions dedicated to his lifework. The simplest is 420 pages and weighs 7 pounds; the most elaborate, costing $1500, is numbered, signed and includes a signed serigraph of the Stravinsky Firebird Suite cover he made for Decca. It's a great tribute to both the man and his big idea — the one that created a whole new form of artistry and was the catalyst for how we think about recorded music today.

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