Before the 1940’s, record stores that were devoted to sell records were a rare thing to find. How record albums were sold was in appliance stores alongside the record players, in the same aisle as refrigerators and washing machines. They were displayed like books on a shelf with a brown sleeve, which the vinyl was placed inside. This was the way it was for many years until a brilliant man by the name of Alex Steinweiss came along.
“I love music so much and I had such ambition that I was willing to go way beyond what the hell they were paying me for. I wanted people to look at the art work and hear the music.” – Alex Steinweiss
In 1917, March 24th, Alex Steinweiss was born in Brooklyn, New York. His father was a female shoe designer from Warsaw and his mother was a seamstress from Riga, Latvia. After he was born, his parents moved to the lower East Side of Manhattan, New York and settled in Brighton Beach part of Brooklyn.
Alex Steinweiss was the man who invented the cover for music albums and created a new form of art after rebelling on how dull the record covers were and persuaded his boss at Columbia Records to let him experiment with his brilliant ideas. Before he came up with such an idea of album art covers, vinyl records were simply just sold in brown wrapper or sleeves to protect the record. After replacing the brown cover with fancy art, the company’s sales jumped over 800 percent in 1940’s. With his illustration, he took the industry by surprise, which help revolutionize the way music was being sold. For the next three decades, he made art work for genres of music like jazz, classical, and companies like Columbia, London, and Everest.
He later continues his art with Decca and London and did a series cover of logos and labels for the startup of Everest Label from 1958 to 1960. His final period of work designing covers for records was around 1960 to 1973 still working for Decca and London, which his new development were die-cut designs and collages.
The first cover that he did was an album cover for a collection of Rodgers and Hart Songs performed by an orchestra; it showed a high-contrast photo of a theater with the title in lights. This was just a simple idea of a record being attached to music, as Paula Scher, designer record cover for Columbia in the 1970’s era. Other album cover designs he did were, The Beatles Sergeant Pepper and Nirvana’s Nevermind.
During his younger years, Alex Steinweiss had spent time studying at Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School under designer Leon Friend. He had also hung out with a group, which they were known as the “Art Squad,” and collaborated on poster and signs for events at that school.
He has once stated that, “If someday, I could become a great sign painter, that would be terrific,” because he was amazed on how some of the students in his class could take a brush and dip it into paint and make beautiful letters.
After graduating, he Alex Steinweiss earned a scholarship to the Parson School of Design. He had also worked for the Austrian Poster designer Joseph Binder, who influenced him to use the style of flat colored and simplified human figure, which was popular at the time.
During the war of World War II, Alex Steinweiss became advertising manager for Columbia Records. He then left for a job at the Naval Training and Development Center in New York City to make training materials and cautionary posters. After the war was over, Alex Steinweiss we back to Columbia Records and freelance for them. During one meeting, the president of Columbia showed him an innovation that the company was about the release.
He was later asked to develop the album cover for the new format from Columbia’s record sleeves. With the help of his brother-in-law, he opened his own manufacturer company, but under his contract with Columbia Records, all patent were to be waived while working for them, so the right was no longer his but the company who invested in his company.
He had also, design art work for bottle companies, posters, magazines, books, and titles for TV shows. There is one today that is still around, which is the design for the coca-cola bottle.
Alex Steinweiss had claimed that his Steinweiss’ signature font, the Steinweiss Scrawl, appeared in 1948.
At the age of 55 years old, Alex Steinweiss left the music business, due to the new and emerging rock era designs that he knew he could no longer compete with. After he left, he started making ceramic work (pots and bowls), his own art, and later started painting in musical themes. It seems as if he left the industry, but still had a passion to continue on being attached to music, either in another or portraying it in art form. His wife and him later moved to Sarasota, Florida in 1974 and comes out once in a long time just for public appearance.
In 2001, Alex Steinweiss was featured in the Carlos McCormick’s gallery show, the “LP Show.” It originated in New Yorks Exit Art, and in 2002 traveled to the Experience Music Project in Seattle, Washington and then to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In 2003, an award, Alex award for excellence in album art cover, was named after Alex Steinweiss in honor of him from the CMP Information and the International Recording Media Association.
In 2010, his wife of 71 years died and survived by a daughter; six grandchildren; and three great grandchildren. He died later the next year in 2011, in Sarasota, Florida.
There are about 100 art albums designed by Alex Steinweiss in the archives of museum of modern art. He also received awards as the AIGA Medal and the Art Directors Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award. There are many art works that he had never published that is in the Steinweiss Archives.