Honoring the father of album art
You know you’ve reached a career pinnacle when an award is named after you. So it was only fitting that the Alex Award, created for excellence in entertainment package design, was named after Alex Steinweiss, the father of modern-day album covers. Although familiar with his work, Grammy Award-winning art director Kevin Reagan admits he knew very little of the artist’s life when asked to present a lifetime achievement award to him at the inaugural Alex Award ceremony in 2003.
The two soon became friends, and Reagan, fearful that a generation of iTunes listeners would never appreciate the man responsible for classical album designs, decided to pay homage to the artist with a career retrospective book, "Alex Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover," an extensive collection of Steinweiss’ artwork spanning six decades.
Published by Taschen, known for its immense collector’s editions, the 13-pound "Steinweiss" contains more than 800 images, including ad campaign designs, paintings, movie posters and collages of memorabilia from his overseas travels in the ’70s.
Steinweiss earned the title of "Father of Record Design" when he was hired as the art director for Connecticut-based Columbia Records in 1940. At the time, most albums were packaged in plain brown paper sleeves with no lyrics or credits. At age 23 he persuaded the big wigs to try eye-catching illustrated covers to lure customers. Sales skyrocketed. A repackage of "Smash Song Hits" by Rodgers and Hart was the first.
For the next three decades, Steinweiss designed thousands of original artworks for classical, jazz and pop covers for Columbia, Decca, London and Everest, creating album covers for the likes of Bing Crosby and Rodgers and Hart and recordings of Rachmaninoff, Beethoven and Stravinsky. "He was unstoppable, churning out 50 covers a month in his heyday," Reagan said.
It was Steinweiss’ stylish illustrations combined with bold typography that changed the way albums were marketed. The Steinweiss scrawl, a distinctive curvy font, was his trademark lettering.
Although he graduated from the Parsons School of Design in New York, it was his high school art teacher, Leon Friend, who was the biggest influence, introducing him to graphic design.
"His sense of composition and color is unbelievable," Reagan said, referring to his use of pinks and yellows in the early ’40s. "It was incredibly modern and fresh. He treated every cover like a painting."
With the integration of photography in album design in the ’60s, Steinweiss slowly began a retreat from the business as he was out of his comfort zone. "He thought photography cheapened the medium," Reagan said. "He introduced collage as a way to keep his illustrative base."
In 1974 he relocated to Florida, holding several solo exhibitions of his paintings, drawings, collages and ceramics. At 92, Steinweiss resides in Sarasota, Fla., with his wife of 70 years, Blanche.
"There’s a whole new generation that doesn’t know of him," Reagan said of his passion project. "I wanted to put this innovative man in history books of American graphic designers as one of the greats."
Steinweiss told the authors, "I love music so much, and I had such ambition. I wanted people to look at the artwork and hear the music."
-- Liesl Bradner
Images: Top, "Turandot by Giacomo Puccini." Right, "Alex Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover"; the book cover incorporates the album cover for "Contrasts in Hi-Fi" from Bob Sharples and his orchestra featuring the Sandmen. Bottom, the album cover for "Songs of Rachmaninoff." Credit: Alex Steinweiss