In 1938, Alex Steinweiss invented the album cover. It’s almost unimaginable that there was a time when records didn’t have covers (up until that point, they were sold in relatively plain brown paper wrappers advertising the record companies. See photo at right). Steinweiss’s idea was a huge marketing success which exploded into a new and exciting world of art and design. Now artists could explore their creativity in more expressive ways in a new commercial market. During the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s Jim Flora, Ben Shahn, Rudolph de Harak, Reid Miles, Steinweiss, and even Andy Warhol were major contributors to album cover design.
The mere innovation of illustrating for music – the intangible, ethereal nature of music itself – and the spread of abstract expressionism and surrealism into popular culture opened a wide array of new ideas to explore. It was an exciting time for design and to this day, album design continues to be one of the most exciting markets out there, constantly pushing the envelope of possibilities.
Here is the first album cover ever, created by Alex Steinweiss (For more detailed info click here). It’s kind of funny that this first album cover was kind of literal with the marquee background, but it didn’t take long for Steinweiss to go wild and crazy. The Brahms and Bob Sharples albums are great examples of where he went with his design. The Sharples LP was very contemporary in its day.
During this time, lots of color was almost as popular as limited color (although sometimes the limited color was meant just to save costs in printing). The Vivaldi Gloria is perhaps the most abstract example shown, with non-literal crosses made up of small, colorful squares. It’s a very sophisticated execution of a religious piece of classical work. Who says classical music has to be “square”?!
The Jim Flora covers (Mambo Cats, This Is Benny Goodman and His Orchestra and Inside Sauter-Finegan) are probably my all-time favorites due to the illustrative nature of the work. Flora used his unique style to catch the spirit of popular jazz music of the day. The colors and imagery work together to let you in on a little secret about what the music is like when you listen to it. Flora’s work influenced animation in his day and is widely imitated today.
Then there’s the Blue Note style. Blue Note designs used a limited number of colors, using two-color tones for a fantastic photo and deceptively simple typography juxtaposed in creative ways. See the Kenny Dorham album. Reid Miles used intense cropping of the photo to create a large amount of negative space. Add to that the great touch of putting the title inside the fingers of the photo and it’s quite striking. The “Us Three” cover is also a stunning balance of positive and negative space with great rhythmic play on numbers and time. Blue Note was just simply cool, man cool, and it is often imitated today but rarely equaled.
The very desire of artists today to imitate and expand upon what already is known to look great is a testament to why these old LP covers are so amazing. One seldom imitates something because it’s bad. Here are some examples of present day covers to compare with the old:
As you can see, there are obvious similarities here, but there’s a certain quality missing that the masters knew how to achieve. What do you think makes those old covers so great? Is it because they were created and pasted up by hand? Is it the finessing of type or merely subtle differences in color? Or is it all these things put together? There could be many answers, but the difference to me partially lies in how they give me pause at the mere sight of them. It’s when everything in me agrees that I’m experiencing pure magic.
For more examples of great Blue Note covers click here.
Article by Gina Stewart, an Art Director in our Design Studio.