With the surge of vinyl sales increasing and the online music streaming industry at the top of it’s game with iTunes and Spotify, the design of album covers has never been more important or relevant than right now. Without even knowing the genre of a single or an album, a customer should be able to glance at a cover and get a feel for it’s sound just through the power of it’s branding. Albums are the eyes of music as they portray sounds and feelings through the power of design and colour like no other. Imagine what life would be like nowadays if every album we ever bought was completely blank. Imagine if famous covers designed for Joy Division, Nirvana or The Beatles never existed. Imagine if Alex Steinweiss never designed a single album cover (see Figure 1).Back in the 1920s, consumers of albums had to deal with bland packaging that was none other than a brown cover with simple gold writing engraving the artist’s name (Carlson, 2014). This was the standard design for albums, and they were so plain; there was no creativity in them. In an age of the great depression and despair after the First World War, it was almost as if albums had followed this sombre and dismal tone. There was no diversity and so genre simply moulded into one single non-descript category. It was almost as if culture was stuck in a rut and was shunning albums as less important forms of entertainment. Alex Steinweiss – with a passion for music and a dedication like no other – changed the face of album design in a way that no one expected. He managed to bring a face to music, by adding illustrations, bright colours and many more iconic traits to the cases of 78s (see Figure 2).Steinweiss managed to satisfy the needs of consumers: delivering pop culture to the masses by putting music on the map as a medium that needed to be appreciated for all of it’s creative glory. Not only this, but he brought life back into the 1930s: he made shops multi- coloured and rich with his album covers that adorned the shelves, he gave people the chance to have luxuries, to be able to go out and buy something that wasn’t drab or boring. People came home wanting to talk about their new, beautiful, glossy records that they had saved up for because it was a token of pride – it was something to collect and brag about: Steinweiss had created something magical that gave people things to finally be excited about.
Alex Steinweiss grew up in Brooklyn, during a very hard economic time, where families all over where experiencing extreme poverty due to The Great Depression (White and Dazed, 2014). During the 1930s Steinweiss was in his late teens, a devotee of music like his father and was preoccupied with graphic design, encouraged by his influential high school art teacher. From an early age Steinweiss always showed so much enthusiasm for music. He said, ‘When I was a kid, I was already thinking of designing covers for music. It was in my soul. I loved music, and I wanted to spread the beauty of music and make sure that people got a good slice of it’ (White and Dazed, 2014).
In 1939, Steinweiss, only 23 years of age, was hired by William Paley to be the new art director for Columbia Records and whilst in this job role Steinweiss started designing his first ever album cover (see Figure 3) for the duo Rodgers and Hart (White and Dazed, 2014). Nobody could have ever expected the success of these covers, it’s predicted that sales of 78s increased by a staggering eight hundred percent (800%) if Steinweiss’ designs embellished the covers (White and Dazed, 2014). For somebody at the tender age of 23, only just starting out in the business, this was an achievement like no other which showed just how ahead of the time Alex truly was.His unique style incorporated inspiration from the streamlined, geometric feel of Art Deco, to the whiplash curves of Art Nouveau, mixed with minimalism and American Expressionism. Almost every cover that he designed took a different road than the previous one; he liked to mix it up and tried to explore a wide variety of techniques when producing new pieces. Many of his covers acted as iconography, the illustrations and the colours were all associated with a certain tone and symbolic meaning which tied everything together as visual metaphors. He wanted his covers to portray ambiguous meanings that would only heighten the anticipation for eager buyers who were keen to listen.
This album cover for Paul Robeson entitled ‘Songs of Free Men’ (Alex Steinweiss: The story of the world’s first record sleeve artist, no date) is a perfect example of the technique stated above (see Figure 4). With a colour scheme similar to Russian Constructivism, this evokes a feeling of justice. It looks almost like propaganda due to its statement title positioned in a geometric red rectangle, which reads ‘Songs of Free Men’. The dark grey Art Deco hand gripping the knife in this piece is enchained, implying that this hand is one of a slave. As the hand is tightly gripping a knife, which is plummeting into the body of a snake, this is showing how the hand is rebelling against the creature below. It is dominating the Nazi emblazoned animal, which is so often linked to Luther and evil, and so the hand is shown as powerful, passionate, heroic and an advocate for freedom.The choice of typography used in this design is simple but iconic: from the army like stencil letters, to the black, mono-space, font seen at the top and bottom of the design. By using a font commonly associated with war to adorn the words ‘Songs of Free Men’ as the statement title, it encourages the theme of freedom, hardship and suffering to stare you blanking in the face. It is plastered on top of the main illustration almost as if it were a publicity sticker, displayed there by a rebel in order to make it the centre of attention and to show how it’s campaigning against conventionality. On the other end of the spectrum, the clean lines of the black, geometric, sans serif font portray a timeless style, symbolising sophistication and professionalism. The colour black has been used to show the classiness of the record label and artist, by doing this it gives them credibility. In a design so dedicated to depicting a political agenda, the spaced out font balances the design literally and metaphorically by using up white space and by bringing an unbiased feel to the piece – reminding the viewers that it is an album cover.
Throughout his career and life, critics and other experts in his field have praised his contribution to album cover design. Art Director and Steinweiss tribute artist, Tommy Steele, states he is the ‘grandfather of album art’ and that without him ‘the industry wouldn’t have evolved in the same way at all’ (White and Dazed, 2014). Paula Scher, Art Director, couldn’t praise him enough ‘what he was then, is what a graphic designer today should be’ (White and Dazed, 2014). Two books have been written about Alex Steinweiss, both of which explore and credit him for all his outstanding contributions to the music-packaging world, these books are called: For the Record: The Life and Work of Alex Steinweiss (McKnight- Trontz, Steinweiss, and Heller, 2000) and Alex Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover (Steinweiss, Heller, and Reagan, 2009). Reagan describes Steinweiss as a ‘big hero’ and a ‘heavy hitter’ (White and Dazed, 2014).
Kevin Reagan, one of Steinweiss’ top accreditors, wrote a book dedicated to his work and, with the help of Greg Escalante, co-curated an exhibition called ‘A Tribute to Alex Steinweiss, Creator of the Album Cover’, which took place in the Robert Berman Gallery in 2008 (A Tribute to Alex Steinweiss Creator of the Album Cover, 2007). The gallery presented paintings, collages and over one hundred original album covers from Steinweiss. Also present, were special tribute pieces by artists such as Tommy Steele and Ron English (A Tribute to Alex Steinweiss Creator of the Album Cover, 2007). Both co-curators Reagan and Escalante have commented on Steinweiss’ body of work, saying that his work ‘began a whole new art form that is still appreciated today’ that he had a ‘huge impact on our culture’ and that ‘Steinweiss should be a household name’ (A Tribute to Alex Steinweiss Creator of the Album Cover, 2007).
Steinweiss tribute artist, Tommy Steele, and Art Director in his own right, created three pieces of art work that were displayed in the exhibition: Steinstencil (2007), Sprayweiss, (2007) and Pixel Delivery, (2007) (Steinweiss Tribute List, 2008). All of these pieces were very eye catching and thought provoking but one of the pieces really stood out above the rest in my opinion. This being the Sprayweiss (2007) (see Figure 5) piece that was a light-jet photo print, framed: 26 x 26 inches (Steinweiss Tribute List, 2008). I found this piece to be one of two things, a perfect tribute and a clear example of how Steinweiss’ influence can be seen in modern day art, due to the use of spray painted Steinweiss Scrawl in the design as graffiti, which is a trademark handwritten font that Steinweiss designed, created and often used in his own work (Alex Steinweiss – Juxtapoz magazine, no date).Album covers have never been so important; designers are creating covers that reach out to viewers in an instantaneous way. Steinweiss created a platform where music and art connected, where eyes and ears molded into one, his creations enabled you to see the sound of the singles you wanted to buy and this is why he’s still relevant. In the 21st century, the online music-streaming platform is booming, with commercial giants like iTunes and Spotify racking in more and more users per day.
Album covers featuring famous faces covering the entire frames, draped in dollar bills and their names scrawled in large fonts across the headlines, is what sells. Artists of all calibers are realizing that this is the industry to be involved in; with tracks being shared over many different social networking sites in a matter of seconds and the discovering of new singles being as easy as sweeping your finger across your smartphone screen. It’s blatantly obvious that online streaming is the fastest way to get your songs noticed. Living in such a face-paced, technological world, one second truly does matters. People don’t have time to look through albums; people don’t have time to guess what genre of music an artist represents. It’s all about branding and artist’s identities. Listeners link a colour or an image to a mood and in that same second, they judge music on those tiny squares next to single’s names on iTunes or Spotify. That tiny square, no matter how small, is the crucial thing that counts and Steinweiss knew this.
However, every action has a reaction, and this shallow way of listening to MP3s
and scrolling through the UK top 40, filled with the same genres of mainstream pop (no matter how relevant), has ignited a new wave that is taking the underground youths of today by storm – the revival of vinyl. In a cold technological age where music is just something to pass time on the tube with or to get drunk and rave to, youths have gone in search for nostalgia. Vinyl is the answer to this prayer – going to East London and picking up a record in Rough Trade, has become a new trend for teens eager to reminisce is classic albums that are more than just drum and bass tracks. Owning records from the likes of Pink Floyd or Nirvana, and listening to the albums from start to finish is something special, listening to music becomes more of an occasion when you listen to an actual record.
The covers embellished on the front of LPs are statements to talk about, they’re works of art to put on your wall or to collect.Even though records may be outdated and music is becoming more of an online phenomenon, that facts still stay the same – without the innovative ideas brought forward and created by Alex Steinweiss, the way in which records can be collected and appreciated wouldn’t have been the same. Steinweiss solved a creative problem with his invention and the after math of his work has been seen and appreciated through the groundbreaking album covers that made bands like The Beatles iconic, turned music into mainstream entertainment, created joy in the midst of the somber 1930s, saw galleries, tribute artists and books pay homage to his legacy and brought pop culture to the masses that will always be respected and adored by graphic designers and music lovers around the world.
(Figure 1) (no date) Available at: http://vf-images.s3.amazonaws.com/wp- content/uploads/2014/10/Alex-Steinweiss.png (Accessed: 24 November 2015).
(Figure 2) no date) Available at: http://vf-images.s3.amazonaws.com/wp- content/uploads/2014/10/1089522.jpg (Accessed: 24 November 2015).
(Figure 3) (no date) Available at: http://vf-images.s3.amazonaws.com/wp- content/uploads/2014/10/alex-imperial-orchestra-smash-song-hits-by-rodgers-and-hart- 1939-columbia-record.png (Accessed: 24 November 2015).
(Figure 4) (no date) Available at: http://vf-images.s3.amazonaws.com/wp- content/uploads/2014/10/1941-Paul-Robeson-Songs-of-Free-Men-Columbia-Records- catalogue-no.-M-534-signed-Steinweiss.jpg (Accessed: 24 November 2015).
(Figure 5) Tommy Steele, (2007), Sprayweiss [ONLINE]. Available at: http://www.robertbermangalleryarchive.com/robertbermangallery/artists/steinweiss_alex/ tributeworks/steele_wall.jpg [Accessed 24 November 15].
A Tribute to Alex Steinweiss Creator of the Album Cover (2007) Available at: http://www.alexsteinweiss.com/misc/AS_press_release_112707.pdf (Accessed: 24 November 2015).
Alex Steinweiss - Juxtapoz magazine (no date) Available at: http://www.nathanspoor.com/NS_GE_steinweiss.html (Accessed: 24 November 2015).
Alex Steinweiss: The story of the world’s first record sleeve artist (no date) Available at: http://www.thevinylfactory.com/vinyl-factory-releases/alex-steinweiss-the-story-of-the- worlds-first-record-sleeve-artist/2/ (Accessed: 24 November 2015).
Carlson, M. (2014) Alex Steinweiss obituary. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/aug/05/alex-steinweiss-obituary (Accessed: 24 November 2015).
McKnight-Trontz, J., Steinweiss, A. and Heller, S. (2000) For the Record: The Life and Work of Alex Steinweiss. Illustrated edn. Princeton Architectural Press.
Steinweiss Tribute List (2008) Available at: http://www.alexsteinweiss.com/misc/AS_tribute_prices.pdf (Accessed: 24 November 2015).
Steinweiss, A., Heller, S. and Reagan, K. (2009) Alex Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover, Issue 101; Issue 600. Edited by Kevin Reagan. Illustrated edn. Taschen.
White, E. and Dazed (2014) Alex Steinweiss: The art of music. Available at: http://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/21648/1/alex-steinweiss-the-art-of-music (Accessed: 24 November 2015).