In 1939, Columbia Records hired a young graphic designer, Alex Steinweiss, to create marketing materials for its burgeoning popular recording department. At the age of 23, he proposed to his bosses that instead of the basic brown paper covers that record albums were sold in, Columbia should use some of his art to interpret the music instead. Steinweiss had talent as well as business acumen: within months Columbia saw its record sales increase by over 800%. The rest is contemporary music history.
For the next 15 years, Steinweiss was the sole designer for all Columbia's records and later also worked for Decca, a legendary label known as much for its musicians as its artwork. He estimates he designed about 2500 albums. Taschen has recently released the massive retrospective of his work, Alex Steinweiss, The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover, which, appropriately, evokes the size and format of a bound LP book (and at 422 pages, about a hundred pounds heavier). Essays by Steven Heller and text by Kevin Reagan round out the compendium on the designer, who is still alive, by the way: Steinweiss just celebrated his 93rd birthday in Sarasota, Florida. A few gems from the collection:
Rodgers & Hart, "Smash Song Hits." Richard Rodgers and the Imperial Orchestra. Columbia Records, 1940.
George Gershwin, "Rhapsody in Blue." André Kostelanetz and his orchestra; Alec Templeton, piano. Columbia, 1941.
Igor Stravinsky, "Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)." Igor Stravinsky, conductor; the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York. Columbia Masterworks, 1944.
"Bing: A Musical Autobiography of Bing Crosby, 1927-1934." Bing Crosby with Buddy Cole and his trio. Decca Gold Label Series, 1961.