In 1940, a 23-year-old graphic designer named Alexander Steinweiss proposed that Columbia Records change its presentation and packaging of 78 RPM record albums. His idea: To use original artwork — drawings and paintings — on the front of the albums. This new approach meant a dramatic departure from gold or silver imprints of “just the nomenclature in a serif or gothic font on the black, brown or beige heavy books,” according to audiophile site Soundfountain.
While Steinweiss passed away this week at the age of 94, his influence remains powerful, even in the age of digital music. “When you look at your music collection today on your iPod, you are looking at Alex Steinweiss’s big idea,” design guru Paula Scher told The New York Times, which reported Steinweiss’ death today.
“The way records were sold was ridiculous,” Steinweiss said in a 1990 interview, according to the Times. “The covers were brown, tan or green paper. They were not attractive, and lacked sales appeal.” His first cover, for a collection of Rodgers and Hart songs performed by an orchestra, “showed a high-contrast photo of a theater marquee with the title in lights,” the Times said. Steinweiss’ innovation “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.”
According to the Times, Steinweiss held the original patent for what became the industry packaging standard — not the inner sleeve, but the outer package — but had to waive all rights to any inventions under his Columbia contract.
He left the music business at 55, “when he realized his design ideas were out of step with the rock era. He turned to his own art, making ceramic bowls and pots and later paintings, often with a musical theme,” the Times wrote.
Steinweiss was born in 1917 in Brooklyn. His father, a women’s shoe designer from Warsaw, and his mother, a seamstress from Riga, Latvia, emigrated to the Lower East Side of Manhattan and eventually settled in Brighton Beach, the Times reported.