Steinweiss, creator of the album cover, dies at 94

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The Independent Culture

Alex Steinweiss, who invented the album cover in the late 1930s, taking what had been a monochromatic surface and making it visually appealing, died Sunday aged 94, a gallery confirmed to AFP.

Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1917, the son of immigrant parents from Warsaw and Riga, Steinweiss was hired in 1939 to design advertisements for Columbia Records.

But he quickly gravitated to creating album covers for the new long-playing 33 1/3 rpm records then coming into vogue.

"They were like tombstones," recalled Steinweiss in a 2007 interview, referring to the covers of the 1920s and 1930s.

"I got busy with management and said that RCA/Victor was the main competition and their work was old hat. I approached them with the idea that it could be more exciting and that it would actually boost sales, despite the increased cost of production."

Steinweiss's first album cover, for a Rogers and Hart collection of songs, featured a theater marquee with the words: "Smash Song Hits by Rodgers & Hart."

Sales jumped 894 percent, and a new genre, album cover art, was born.

During his 25-year career at Columbia, Steinweiss designed some 800 album covers.

"Alex would be considered the most important of all the artists who translated to the visual arts from musical arts, he was the one who would be the most acclaimed, but he was also the pioneer," Robert Berman, who runs a gallery in Santa Monica, California that exhibited Steinweiss covers in 2008, told AFP.

A music fan from his childhood, Steinweiss designed albums for some of the world's most famous classical music, using a stylized geometric designs that borrowed from the Bauhaus movement and both American and European folklore.

For his album cover of Igor Stravinsky's 'Sacre du Printemps,' whose wild harmonies continued to shock audiences well after its 1913 premiere, Steinweiss used bold, canted type and an African figurine.

"Steinweiss was always part of the art movements that were happening in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, but he had his own little twist on things," said Berman. "If somebody throws a bunch of albums on the floor, you can always tell the Steinweiss."

A critic for the Los Angeles Times, describing the 2008 Steinweiss retrospective at Berman's gallery, said of his work: "Each delivers a deft touch, whether trafficking in a bold, Constructivist style or a whimsical, Atomic Age approach."

Steinweiss left the music business when he was 55 years old, as he felt increasingly out of step with the rise of rock and roll. He began painting and making ceramic bowls and art, according to the New York Times.

Steinweiss moved to Sarasota, Florida in 1974. His wife, Blanche, died in 2010, after 71 years of marriage.