Daring artist and record industry veteran revolutionised the way we collect music.

Alex Steinweiss, who dreamed up the concept of album cover art in the 1930s and gave us the first examples of creatively illustrated record sleeves, has died at the age of 94.

During his 25-year career at Columbia Records, the innovative artist produced more than 800 album covers, not only creating the genre of record cover illustration but elevating it to an artform in itself. 

Born in 1917, this Brooklyn native started out designing advertisements for Columbia, but quickly sold music executives on the idea of boosting sales and competing with RCA/Victor through striking illustration and graphic text for the new long-playing 33 1/3 rpm records. He described the generic brown paper covers of 1920s and 1930s releases as “tombstones”. 

Steinweiss’ first effort, Smash Song Hits by Rodgers & Hart, was a smash hit indeed, yielding a sales increase of 894 per cent… Not to mention an exciting new form of artistic expression that has captivated record collectors ever since. 

A music enthusiast from early childhood, he designed artwork for some of the world’s most beloved classical music recordings. His style incorporated geometric designs à la mode during the 1940s and 1950s, with a strong Bauhaus influence. For his iconic album cover of Columbia’s Stravinsky-conducted Le Sacre du Printemps, Steinweiss used bold, vivid type and an imposing African sculpture to capture the riotous energy and raw primitivism of the work.

Gallery owner Robert Berman sums up Steinweiss’s legacy as seen in a recent retrospective exhibition of his work: “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.

“If somebody throws a bunch of albums on the floor, you can always tell the Steinweiss.”

The artist bowed out of the music industry at the age of 55, increasingly alienated by the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. He was the most important figure in the development of album art and a pioneer in expressing synergies between music and creative visuals for the modern consumer age.

View Limelight‘s collection of kookiest classical music record covers from the past ten years.