Alex Steinweiss was born in Brooklyn, and after graduating he worked for three years assisting the Austrian poster designer Joseph Binder. During World War II, Steinweiss became Columbia Records’ advertising manager, who introduced him to their innovation: the long-playing record. Steinweiss developed a jacket for the new format, and so invented the notion of an album cover. He designed record covers from 1939 until 1973, 2,500 covers in total.
Before him, records were carried in featureless bags. “The record cover was a blank slate in 1939… most albums were unadorned” Steinweiss once said. “The way records were sold was ridiculous” in a 1990 interview, “The covers were brown, tan or green paper. They were not attractive, and lacked sales appeal.”
His first cover was 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. “It was such a simple idea, really, that an image would become attached to a piece of music… when you look at your music collection today on your iPod, you are looking at Alex Steinweiss’s big idea” said Paula Scher, who designed record covers for Columbia in the 1970s. “He designed them as miniature posters, with eye-catching graphics, distinctive and vivid colours, and creative, origintal typography… The Steinweiss style went hand in hand with the golden age of jazz, classical and popular music.”