Alex Steinweiss – part 1

Having looked at the album cover art of cartoonist Robert Crumb in the last post, I thought this might be an opportune time to look at the work of Alex Steinweiss (1917 - 2011). Alex Steinweiss played a seminal role in record cover design as the art director for Columbia Records as well as other record companies, London, Decca and A & R records. He also worked for clients including National Distillery, Schenley Distributors, as well as Print and Fortune magazines.

When Alex Steinweiss was appointed as art director at Columbia Records in 1938, there was no such thing as a record sleeve. Within a year of starting his new job he persuaded his bosses to invest $250,000 in the equipment needed to print on record packaging. No longer would records come in plain brown wrappers. Steinweiss created the ‘album package.’ It was an instant success, and created an entirely new field of illustration and design in the form of Album Cover Art.

Quote: “I got this idea that the way they were selling these albums was ridiculous. The covers were just big brown, tan or green paper. I said: “Who the hell’s going to buy this stuff? There’s no push to it. There’s no attractiveness. There’s no sales appeal.” So I told them I’d like to start designing covers.”

Steinweiss' Generic Covers:
From about 1940 to 1943, Masterworks sets without unique covers (and this was the vast majority of them) came in plain grey covers with the title and artist information enclosed within a box. After that, an attractive new generic design was unveiled which, though unsigned by Steinweiss, appears to be his work (in particular, the lower-case rendering of "columbia" is a hallmark of his style). It came in three colours.

Generic polka-dot style

The next generic cover design appeared in 1947, and it is the only one that's actually signed by Steinweiss.  It features a Greek statue in the background, three large spots for work, artist and album details, and smaller spots showing various instruments, a singer and a conductor; and again it came in colour variations.

Generic Greek style
In 1948 came not one, but several new generic covers, keyed to various genres of music. Orchestral, String and Chamber, Other Instrumental, Vocal, and Columbia Masterworks. All of these cover designs came in a variety of colours as well.

Generic Orchestral

Generic String and Chamber

Generic Other Instrumental

Generic Vocal

Generic Columbia Masterworks

Alex Steinweiss' career can be divided into roughly five periods. From 1939 to perhaps 1945, he designed all the covers for Columbia. During this period, he developed the entire graphic "language" of album design.

The second period is from 1945 to roughly 1950, during which he was no longer the sole designer for Columbia. He also began designing for other companies. This period is sometimes described as the "First Golden Age" of the album cover.

Steinweiss' signature font, the "Steinweiss Scrawl," first appeared in roughly 1947:


Steinweiss is credited with designing the first individually illustrated album cover in 1940 Smash Song Hits by Rodgers & Hart:

1940 "Smash Song Hits by Rodgers & Hart" [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-11]

Starting in around 1950, Steinweiss did the covers and record label for Remington, and began a more than 20 year association with both Decca and London Records.  For his Decca designs Steinweiss employed the pseudonym 'Piedra Blanca', which was quite clever. In German Steinweiss means White Stone. He therefore used the Spanish for white stone Piedra Blanca.

Like his earlier periods, most of his early 1950s designs are drawn, for Columbia, RCA, Remington, Decca and London. This is his third period, when he did drawing, lettering, and layout that was often brilliant but perhaps not as memorable as his late 1940s period. It was during this period that he collaborated with Margaret Bourke-White on a memorable series of covers for Columbia.

Starting in the mid-1950s, Steinweiss added photography to his palette. Steinweiss's photographic covers are remarkably distinctive. He utilized strange garish colours, odd lighting, and numerous visual puns and reference points.

He continued to work for Decca and London, and did the entire series of covers (and the logo and label) for the start-up Everest label from 1958 until roughly 1960. This was his fourth period, characterised by photography but continuing to use the entire range of tools he had developed. Steinweiss' final period of record cover design was from 1960 to roughly 1973, again working for Decca and London. His new developments of the period were in die-cut designs and collage. Alex Steinweiss died in 2011.

This is part 1 of a 6-part post on the works of Alex Steinweiss:

"Chain Gang" Joshua White and his Carolinians [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-22] signed Steiweiss

1940 "Bessie Smith - Empress of the Blues" [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-31] signed Steinweiss

1940 "Barber Shop Melodies by The Flat Foot Four"[Columbia Records catalogue no. C-35] signed Steinweiss

1940 "Dinner Music" [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-21]

1940 "Eddy Duchin" [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-32] signed Steinweiss

1940 "Famous Songs of Bert Williams" [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-25] signed Steinweiss

1940 "Invitation to the Dance… Strauss Waltzes" [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-13] signed Steinweiss

1940 "Tango" [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-15] signed Steinweiss

1940 "At the Piano…Frankie Carle" [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-23] signed Steinweiss

1940 "La Conga" Desi Arnaz and his La Conga Orchestra [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-12] signed Steinweiss

1940s Larry Adler "Harmonica Virtuoso" [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-18] signed Steinweiss

1940 Dvorák "New World Symphony" [Columbia Masterworks catalogue no. ML 4023] signed Steinweiss

Late 1940s Delius "Concerto for Violin and Orchestra" [Columbia Masterworks catalogue no. MM-672] signed Steinweiss

1941 "Congas / Rumbas" [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-65] signed Steinweiss

1941 "Duchin - Gershwin" [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-52]

1941 "Cante Flamenco" La Nona de los Peines [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-59] signed Steinweiss

1941 "John Kirby and his Orchestra" [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-45] signed Steinweiss

1941 "Here Comes the Showboat" [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-55] signed Steinweiss

1941 "Rhapsody in Blue" [Columbia Records catalogue no. X-196] signed Steinweiss

1941 Alec Wilder Octet [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-60] signed Steinweiss

1941 Burl Ives "The Wayfaring Stranger" [Columbia Okeh catalogue no. K-3] signed Steinweiss

1941 Charles Magnante "Accordiana" [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-53] signed Steinweiss

1941 Circus [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-58] signed Steinweiss

1941 Kate Smith "USA" [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-50] signed Steinweiss

1941 Marimba Music [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-71] signed Steinweiss

1941 Oscar Strauss conducting his "Chocolate Soldier" and other Operetta Favorites [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-67]

1941 Rhumba with Cugat [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-45] signed Steinweiss - an experiment with scalloped edging on the binding

1941 Theme Songs [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-63] signed Steinweiss

1941-42 Silkscreened poster

c1941 "Memorial Album" Hal Kemp [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-42] signed Steinweiss

1941 Paul Robeson "Songs of Free Men" [Columbia Records catalogue no. M-534] signed Steinweiss

1942 "Boogie Woogie" [Columbia Masterworks catalogue no. C-44] signed Steinweiss

1942 "The Boswell Sisters" [Columbia catalogue no. C-82] signed Steinweiss

1942 Beethoven "Emperor - Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat" [Columbia Masterworks catalogue no. M-500] signed Steinweiss

1942 Enesco "Roumanian Rhapsody No. 1" [Columbia Masterworks catalogue no. MX-203] signed Steinweiss

1942 Cesar Franck "Symphony in D Minor" [Columbia Masterworks catalogue no. M-479] signed Steinweiss

1942 Duchin Plays Cole Porter [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-87] signed Steinweiss

1942 Frankie Carle and his Girl Friends [Columbia Records catalogue no. C-97] signed Steinweiss

1942 Jerome Kern "Mark Twain" [Columbia Records catalogue no. X-227] signed Steinweiss