- Inducted in 1998
- Born March 24, 1917
- Died July 17, 2011
In 1939, at the age of 23, Alex Steinweiss revolutionized the way records were packaged and marketed. As the first art director for the recently formed Columbia Records, Steinweiss saw a creative opportunity in the company’s packaging for its 78 rpm shellac records. The plain cardboard covers traditionally displayed only the title of the work and the artist. “They were so drab, so unattractive,” says Steinweiss, “I convinced the executives to let me design a few.” For what he saw as 12-inch by 12-inch canvasses inspired by French and German poster styles, he envisioned original works of art to project the beauty of the music inside. In 1947, for the first LP, Steinweiss invented a paperboard jacket, which has become the standard for the industry for nearly 50 years.
Alex Steinweiss was born in 1917 in Brooklyn, New York. His father loved music and instilled the passion in him. In 1930, Steinweiss entered Abraham Lincoln High School. His first artistic endeavors resulted in beautifully articulated marionettes. These brought him to the attention of the art department chair, Leon Friend, co-author of Graphic Design (1936), the first comprehensive American book on the subject.
Steinweiss’s first day in Friend’s class was a magical experience. “To see these young men painting letters with flat-tipped brushes was one of the great inspirations of my life,” he says, “I had to get involved with that!” He learned the principles of design and how to apply them through daily contact with the endless array of beautiful examples of poster design, typography, drawing, and calligraphy. Friend exposed Steinweiss to the works of the great graphic designers of the time, including Lucian Bernhard, A.M. Cassandre, and Joseph Binder.
Upon graduation from high school, the School Art League awarded Steinweiss a one-year scholarship to Parsons School of Design in New York. He almost left after the first year, convinced, in spite of the depression, that he would be able to get a job. Before quitting school, however, he wrote to illustrator Boris Artzybasheff, who, instead of offering employment, advised Steinweiss to finish school.
Steinweiss followed his advice. Afterward he presented himself, unannounced, to the New York studio of Lucian Bernhard, the German master of poster and type design. Bernhard’s son, Carl, answered the door with a rankled, “Don’t you know you’re supposed to call for an appointment?” But Steinweiss confidently handed him his portfolio and requested that the master peruse it. Carl glanced at the work, was impressed, and brought it to his father. A half an hour later, Bernhard came out of his office and informed Steinweiss that he had already phoned Joseph Binder, the Viennese poster maker who was looking for an assistant. Steinweiss worked for Binder for almost three years until he quit to form his own studio. Six months later he got a call from Robert L. Leslie, who recommended him as an art director to Columbia Records.
At Columbia, Steinweiss evolved a unique cover art style mingling musical and cultural symbols. His first cover, for a collection of Rodgers and Hart music, featured a theater marquee with the album’s title appearing in lights. He designed images for jazz recordings by Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, and numerous classical, folk and pop recordings. Newsweek reported that sales of Brt/no Walter’s recording of Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony “increased 895%” with its new Steinweiss cover.” His signature, the “Steinweiss scrawl,” became ubiquitous on album covers in the 1940s.
“I tried to get into the subject,” he explains, “either through the music, or the life and times of the composer. For example, with a Bartok piano concerto, I took the elements of the piano—the hammers, keys, and strings—and composed them in a contemporary setting using appropriate color and rendering. Since Bartok is Hungarian, I also put in the suggestion of a peasant figure.” For the album “La Conga,” he painted a huge pair of hands playing a stylized conga drum. For the original recording of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, he placed a piano on a dark blue background lit up only by the yellow glow of a lone street lamp. His cover for “Songs of Free Men” by Paul Robeson, depicting a slave’s chained hand holding a knife, had great emotional impact. He experimented with various styles (cubism for Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite) and typography (an ornamental circus-like typeface for La Bohème).
Cristobal Diaz, a musicologist who originally collected only Latin American music, wrote, “After viewing these covers for a while, I felt that the music within these albums had to be worthwhile to inspire this art. So it is by means of my appreciation of (Steinweiss’s) covers that I was introduced to classical music.” Many performing artists developed a love for and loyalty to Steinweiss. Leopold Stokowski requested that only Steinweiss do his covers. And Steinweiss often received letters of praise from artists such as Eddy Duchin and Rise Stevens for so exquisitely interpreting their work.
Steinweiss also designed movie posters (Casino Royale and The Love Machine), DeKuyper liquor bottles, and graphics for countless other products. But at age 55, noting the rise of Swiss Modernism and minimalism, and the increasing preference for photography in the field, Steinweiss decided to retire from graphic design and start a new career as a painter under the pseudonym Piedra Blanca.
In 1974 he began “Homage to Music,” an open-ended series of paintings. “Many great works came into existence because a composer was moved to create a masterwork of music as his emotional response to a painting,” says Steinweiss. “Since I’ve loved and listened to great music all my life, it has always been a desire of mine to reverse this process and create paintings directly inspired by the masterpieces of the great composers.” These paintings include: “Petrouchka” (Igor I Stravinsky), “Salome” (Richard Strauss), and “Don Giovanni” (Mozart).
Still active in his 80s, Steinweiss recently designed a home page for the Internet “to interest people in the opera and ballet fields” who might commission his work for their companies. And he is proud that his family is following in his creative footsteps. His son Leslie is a composer and conductor, daughter-in-law Marjory is a filmmaker, and granddaughter Shoshannah is a graphic designer.
-Jeff NeweltPlease note: Content of biography is presented here as it was published in 1998.
Photo credit: William P. Gottlieb