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Alex SteinweissIt’s hard to imagine now, but during the record industry’s first decades of existence, music releases came packaged almost exclusively in plain brown wrappers. Only occasionally were they adorned with the logos of the companies releasing them. Indeed, the term “album” originally referred to a physical book into whose paper sleeves a collection of two-sided, 10-inch 78 records could be stored, much like snapshots.

But a talented, 23-year-old New Yorker named Alex Steinweiss would quickly change all that when he took a job with Columbia Records in the ’30s. “Records used to be relegated to the back of the stores that sold refrigerators and stoves,” Steinweiss once recalled. “You’d go to the counter and ask for the title you wanted. I needed to shake up the industry. We had to do something like European poster art to draw the attention of the buyer.”

“When he arrived at Columbia, records used to be sold in cardboard sleeves at appliance shops,” notes Kevin Reagan, a contemporary artist who’s won Grammys for designing the covers of Music and Ray of Light by Madonna and the Dixie Chicks’ Home, respectively. “He had an amazing opportunity and took full advantage of that freedom.”

Today, along with fellow artist/designer Greg Escalante, Reagan has not only mounted a spectacular retrospective of a hundred of Steinweiss’ pioneering cover designs at Santa Monica’s Robert Berman Gallery, but he’s  inspired an eclectic range of other artists, writers, and musicians to create original tribute pieces for the show as well. The exhibit has just been extended through February 23 due to its immense popularity, and contributors range from other noted artists like Raymond Pettibon and Ed Ruscha to literary horror master Clive Barker, songwriter Allee Willis, and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.

Alex Steinweiss always had an artistic streak. He spent his formative years at Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School, part of loose-knit group of students known as the “Art Squad” for their work on various academic publications, posters, and signs. Mentored by the school’s esteemed art instructor, Leon Friend, Steinweiss won a scholarship to the prestigious Parsons School of Art. Upon graduation in 1937, he was immediately hired as an assistant by Austrian graphic designer Joseph Binder, before moving on to a new position at Columbia Records that would soon revolutionize the record industry. 

“At 23 he probably didn’t know exactly what he was getting into,” Reagan says of the artist’s new gig. “He was doing advertising art and all that. But at some point he went to his boss with an idea about the covers, ‘Why don’t we jazz these up? I think it would help sales to put something more attractive on the cover.’ So his boss let him try it. Soon after, a news magazine ran an article about it, saying that sales had increased over 900 percent! So the rest was history. After that he was designing like a nut, one after another. They were hand-illustrated; a lot of the lettering was even done by hand.

Alex Steinweiss exhibit at the Berman Gallery with Kevin Reagan (L) and Robert Berman (R)

“He was a young designer, classically trained. As a young kid to have control over image, typography, color, composition, it afforded him this crazy canvas. He must have been like a kid in a candy store. Don’t get me wrong—it was a lot of work. The first six months to a year he was doing all the production, all the design, every record that came out of Columbia. He was exhausted!”

Steinweiss would later move on to freelance assignments with London, RCA, Decca, and others, becoming the premiere graphic designer of jazz’s golden age in the bargain. Steinweiss claimed he’d designed a staggering 2,500-plus album covers before his retirement to Florida in the mid-’70s. Today Steinweiss is 91, and living in Florida still.

While Reagan was aware of Steinweiss’ groundbreaking oeuvre, he says, “I really didn’t know who he was until I was asked to be a keynote speaker a few years ago at a big CD and DVD conference. They were giving Alex a lifetime achievement award at the same conference. I did a little research on it, and then when we met it became a mutual admiration society right away. We were like two sides of the coin, but the same coin. I was working with the artists now; he was the guy who invented the medium. Different technology, but the same passions for imaging in the music business.”

Reagan quickly became not only a Steinweiss confidant and friend to his family, but a tireless advocate of the artist’s work. The recent gallery retrospective will be followed this fall by a lavish published anthology of Alex’s pioneering designs.

“I feel some weird kindred spirit with him,” Reagan admits. “There are parallels that all designers share. You look at things from a different perspective than most people: composition, organizing shapes and color. I have an incredible admiration for his versatility, and his sense of composition is staggering. His typography is very playful, his sense of color in a league of its own. You’re looking at stuff from 1938 or 1940, and yet it still looks so fresh and modern. That’s your best way to judge a designer—when you can look back on a piece that’s 50-plus years old and it still looks timeless.”

A Tribute to Alex Steinweiss
Creator of the Album Cover
Through February 23rd, 2008
Robert Berman Gallery
Bergamot Station Arts Center
2525 Michigan Avenue, C2
Santa Monica, CA  90404
www.robertbermangallery.com