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Alex Steinweiss, 94; originated album cover artwork

(Exit Art)
By Steven Heller
New York Times / July 21, 2011

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NEW YORK - Alex Steinweiss, an art director and graphic designer who brought custom artwork to record album covers and invented the first packaging for long-playing records, died Sunday in Sarasota, Fla. He was 94.

His death was confirmed by his son, Leslie.

The record cover was a blank slate in 1939, when Mr. Steinweiss was hired to design advertisements for Columbia Records. Most albums were unadorned, and on those occasions when art was used, it was not original.

“The way records were sold was ridiculous,’’ Mr. Steinweiss said in a 1990 interview. “The covers were brown, tan, or green paper. They were not attractive and lacked sales appeal.’’ Despite concern about the added costs, he was given approval to come up with original cover designs.

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 new packaging concept 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.

“It was such a simple idea, really, that an image would become attached to a piece of music,’’ said Paula Scher, who designed record covers for Columbia in the 1970s. “When you look at your music collection today on your iPod, you are looking at Alex Steinweiss’ big idea.’’

Mr. Steinweiss preferred metaphor to literalism, and his covers often used collages of musical and cultural symbols. For a Bartok piano concerto, he rejected a portrait of Bartok, using instead the hammers, keys, and strings of a piano placed against a stylized backdrop. For a recording of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,’’ he used an illustration of a piano on a dark blue field illuminated only by an abstract street lamp, with a stylized silhouetted skyline in the background.

Alex Steinweiss was born in Brooklyn. His father, a women’s shoe designer from Warsaw, and his mother, a seamstress from Riga, Latvia, moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan and eventually settled in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn.

On the strength of his high school portfolio, Mr. Steinweiss earned a scholarship to the Parsons School of Design. After graduation he worked for three years for the Austrian poster designer Joseph Binder, whose flat color and simplified human figures were popular at the time and influenced his own work.

During World War II, Mr. Steinweiss became Columbia’s advertising manager. He left for a job at the US Navy’s Training and Development Center in New York City, where he produced teaching materials and cautionary posters.

After the war, Mr . Steinweiss freelanced for Columbia. During one lunch meeting there, the company’s president, Ted Wallerstein, introduced him to an innovation that the company was about to unveil: the long-playing record. But there was a problem. The heavy, folded kraft paper used to protect 78 rpm records left marks on the vinyl microgroove when 33 1/3 rpm LPs were stacked.

Mr. Steinweiss was asked to develop a jacket for the new format and, with help from his brother-in-law, found a manufacturer willing to invest about $250,000 in equipment. Mr. Steinweiss had the original patent for what became the industry packaging standard (he did not develop the inner sleeve, only the outer package), but under his contract with Columbia he had to waive all rights to any inventions made while working there.

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 bowls and pots and later paintings, often with a musical theme. In 1974, he and his wife moved to Sarasota.

Mr. Steinweiss’ wife of 71 years, Blanche, died in 2010. In addition to his son, of Brooklyn, he leaves a daughter, Hazel of Sarasota; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Mr. Steinweiss said he was destined to be a commercial artist. In high school he marveled at his classmates who “could take a brush, dip it in some paint, and make letters,’’ he recalled, “so I said to myself, ‘If some day I could become a good sign painter, that would be terrific!’ ’’