2004 AIGA MEDAL
Alex Steinweiss, art director for Columbia Records during the 1940s, revolutionized the way records were packaged and marketed. His genre-defining work in the visual expression of music transformed both the design and the music industries.
Steinweiss was born in 1917 into a music-loving home in Brooklyn, New York. In 1930, Steinweiss entered Abraham Lincoln High School. His skills in art brought him to the attention of the visual arts teacher Leon Friend. Friend encouraged the talents of a select group of students known as the “Art Squad” that included, among others, Gene Federico, Seymour Chwast, and William Taubin. They designed school publications, posters and signs, and were encouraged to submit their work to as many publications and competitions as possible. Steinweiss's work was showcased in PM Magazine when he was just 17.
Steinweiss won a scholarship to Parsons School of Design in 1934, became an assistant to the newly arrived Austrian designer Joseph Binder in 1937 and, in 1939, at the age of 23, he became the first art director of the recently formed Columbia Records.
At this time, 78-r.p.m. shellac-coated records were packaged as sets of three or four records in separate sleeves bound between plain pasteboard covers. They were stamped only with the title of the work and the name of the recording artist and displayed on shelves with just the spines showing. Steinweiss recognized an opportunity to use the packaging in more creative ways to reflect the music it contained and to improve sales. He went on to design upward of 850 album covers.
His first cover was for a 1939 collection of songs by Rodgers and Hart. A theater marquee with the composers' names spelled out in lights pivots on the central red axis of the encased record. His references were the French and German posters he had seen in Friend's class, but in the covers that he went on to design he developed a unique signature style that used geometric patterns, folk art symbolism, and a curly hand-drawn lettering (that became copyrighted as Steinweiss Scrawl).
During WWII Steinweiss took a job with the U.S. Navy designing cautionary posters and displays. He continued to work for Columbia Records by night, and after the war, as a consultant.
By the early 1950s Steinweiss had added to his list of clients National Distillery, Schenley Distributors, White Laboratories, PRINT and Fortune. In 1974 Steinweiss and his wife moved to Sarasota, Florida, where he continued to paint and design posters for community and cultural events. He passed away on July 17, 2011.
“His images are lively, playful, boundlessly inventive and seem almost to throb with the spirit and emotion of the classical music he loved.”
—Rick Poynor, review of For the Record: The Life and Work of Alex Steinweiss, Financial Times Weekend Magazine
“He is an alert, energetic, twentieth century personality. He is charged with ambition—an ambition that is controlled and directed by a cool logical mind, and which has an enormous capacity for work at its service. Add to that an innate talent for design and you have a combination that almost assures success. That success is abundant and has come early, but to Steinweiss it is a by-product.”
—Henry C. Pitz, The American Artist