Here’s a name every vinyl collector and aficionado should know: Alex Steinweiss, who singularly created an entire packaging genre. But more on that in a bit.
Born in Brooklyn on 1917, AIGA Medalist Alex Steinweiss attended the Abraham Lincoln High School in that borough, where he studied with legendary art teacher Leon Friend, who over the years taught other AIGA Medalists, including Seymour Chwast, Gene Federico, and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. Steinweiss became a member of Friend’s “Art Squad,” designing publications, posters, and signage for the school. While still a student, young Steinweiss’ work was showcased in PM Magazine, a trade publication for “production managers, art directors, and their associates,” which regularly introduced the great European designers to the American public. That same year he won a scholarship Parsons School of Design in Manhattan. Soon thereafter he became an assistant to the renowned Austrian designer and AIGA Medalist Joseph Binder, a recent émigré. And at age 23 he became the first art director of the newly formed Columbia Records. Having been raised in a music-loving family, it was the perfect fit.
Steinweiss was entrusted with branding the company, creating their letterhead, catalogs, posters, and album covers. At the time, shellac-coated records were 78 RPM (revolutions per minute) that held a single song per side. They were often packaged in book form, a paper-over-board case cover with brown kraft paper sleeves on the inside containing three or four records. Before Steinweiss, the covers featured the name of the artist printed in black or gold. He changed all that. Soon he was applying colorful, eye-popping European inspired poster-like graphics and illustrations to the front and backs. But management was not pleased, due to the increased four-color printing cost. However, when sales shot up 800% with the first release, he was given carte blanche to continue. Soon he was overseeing a staff of designers, illustrators, writers, and production people. Eventually Steinweiss designed somewhere between 850-2,500 album covers.
During World War II, Steinweiss went to work for the U.S. Navy, producing training ads, recruitment posters, and displays. As their offices were located in New York, he was able to work days for the service and evenings for Columbia. After the war he went freelance but remained a consultant for Columbia.
Then in 1948 a new innovation occurred: the 33 1/3 RPM long playing (LP) vinyl record, which now contained five to six songs per side, due to the slower speed. These single records required new packaging, which Steinweiss created: a cardboard outer cover sleeve, which he patented and licensed to Columbia. After a change of management at Columbia in 1953, Steinweiss was out, but his patent assured his future as it became an industry standard. He also designed book covers, liquor bottles, magazines, posters, and titles for TV shows.
Steinweiss died in 2011 at the age of 94. In addition to his myriad designs and illustrations he left behind the type “Steinweiss Scrawl,” based on his frequently used hand lettering. One could say, however, that the entire record industry bore his signature.