Bidding Farewell to Design Legend, Alex Steinweiss: Inventor of the Modern Album Cover

December always seems an appropriate time to express sentiment for events that passed throughout the year, and on our list of note-worthy 2011 occurrences is the loss of prolific graphic designer, Alex Steinweiss, who died earlier this year at 94.

The New York Times recently published a positive review of ALEX STEINWEISS: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover, a book published by Taschen that pays homage to the ground-breaking designer who set the standard for music packaging and marketing today.

Album covers designed by Alex Steinweiss
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Showcasing Steinweiss’ luminous body of work that spans more than three decades and across different media, the book was conceived, compiled and directed by Kevin Reagan, an art director/designer, and instructor at FIDM/Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising who has earned three Grammy Awards for his own album art.

Reagan instructs courses in the Graphic Design/Branding program at FIDM, including Logo/Symbol Design, Applied Branding, Graphic Design Portfolio and Brand X- a special course in which students develop a re-imaged version of an existing CD package, along with an integrated poster marketing campaign. Such a course would perhaps not exist if not for forward-thinking innovators like Steinweiss.

[Click here for inspiring graphic design portfolios by FIDM graduates].

Despite radical changes within the music and entertainment industries which have transformed the way the public interacts (or rather, doesn’t interact) with physical music packaging, there’s no denying the impact of Steinweiss’ approach to music marketing that has influenced both the graphic design and music industries.

As described by Design is History, as Columbia Records’ young new art director in 1940, Steinweiss pitched the idea to replace the standard plain, brown wrapper being used to package records with an eye-catching illustration. The simple idea virtually launched an entire genre of design.

“The company took a chance, and within months its record sales increased by over 800 percent,” states the site. “Steinweiss’ covers for Columbia—combining bold typography with modern, elegant illustrations—took the industry by storm and revolutionized the way records were sold.”

In addition to the bold, colorful original artwork used on the album covers (often his own hand-drawn illustrations and typography), perhaps the appeal of Steinweiss’ covers can be attributed to the conceptual thinking behind his designs. As described by the New York Times, “Steinweiss preferred metaphor to literalism, and his covers often used collages of musical and cultural symbols.”

Over three decades, Steinweiss made thousands of original artworks for classical, jazz, and popular record covers for Columbia, Decca, London, and Everest; as well as logos, labels, advertising material, even his own typeface, the Steinweiss Scrawl. He also developed posters for the U.S. Navy, packaging and label design for liquor companies, film title sequences, as well as fine art, according to Design is History.

He is known to have once said, “I love music so much and I had such ambition that I was willing to go way beyond what the hell they paid me for. I wanted people to look at the artwork and hear the music.”

There have been several articles written about Steinweiss, which you may read online (see links below) … but to truly appreciate his design perhaps you should dive in the “old-fashioned” way- in physical form- by perusing the book.

ALEX STEINWEISS: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover is available for purchase at this link.

Alex Steinweiss album covers
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Alex Steinweiss- the first album cover
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Read more about Alex Steinweiss:
AIGA: Goldmedalist Alex Steinweiss

Alex Steinweiss, Originator of Artistic Album Covers, Dies at 94 (NY Times)

Design is History: Alex Steinweiss

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Questions/comments? Email the editor, Mani O’Brien at mo’brien@fidm.edu

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Author: Mani O'Brien

Mani O’Brien is the Online Editor for the FIDMDigitalArts Blog and the Social Media Marketing Manager for FIDM/Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in print journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communications at Arizona State University in 2006, and Associate of Arts degree in Graphic Design (Professional Designation) at FIDM in 2010. When she’s not brainstorming social media marketing ideas or writing about the graphic design and digital media, she enjoys practicing yoga, reading magazines, and hanging out with friends and family in Los Angeles.

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