Brain Pickings

How Alex Steinweiss Invented the Album Cover

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A brief history of music for the eyes, or how to go from brown paper to design revolution in 7 pounds.

Alex Steinweiss, father of the album cover, lived to be ninety-four, but his legacy will endure for centuries to come. The record sleeves and album artwork we know and love, and have come to take for granted, owe their existence to the iconic designer, who in 1940 created the first illustrated 78 rpm album package as a young art director at Columbia Records. The company took a chance on his idea — to replace the standard plain brown wrapper with an eye-catching poster-like illustration — and increased its record sales eightfold in mere months. His covers, blending bold typography with elegant, graphically ambitious artwork, forever changed not only the way albums were sold, but also the way audiences related to recorded music. He made, as critics now frequently say, “music for the eyes.”

I love music so much and I had such ambition that I was willing to go way beyond what the hell they paid me for. I wanted people to look at the artwork and hear the music.” ~ Alex Steinweiss

Steinweiss’ extraordinary work and legacy live on in Alex Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover — a lavish Taschen volume by triple Grammy Award-winning art director Kevin Reagan and prolific design writer Steven Heller (yes, him again), cataloguing three decades’ worth of Steinweiss’s magnificent classical, jazz and popular records, as well as logos, labels, advertising ephemera and even his very own typeface, contextualized with essays that illuminate their historical importance, visual innovation and cultural legacy.

And because it’s Taschen, the 420-page tome weighs in at 7 pounds and is also available as a lust-worthy ultra-limited-edition of 1,500 copies, each signed by the artist and including a serigraph print, for $700. (Cue in donation prompt…)

Promotional card sent to Steinweiss' clients, ca. 1952.

Image courtesy of Taschen

Equal parts visual poetry, music and design history, and blueprint for creative entrepreneurship, Alex Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover is an absolute treat from cover to glorious cover. For more on Steinweiss, you can explore the remarkable range of his work in Columbia Records’ Birka Jazz Archive.

Hat tip to studiomate Rob Weychert; images courtesy of Taschen

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Tom Wolfe on Marshall McLuhan for His 100th Would-Be Birthday

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How the man who coined the global village became the first seer of cyberspace and digital empowerment.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of iconic media theorist Marshall McLuhan, one of my great heroes and a Brain Pickings repeat offender. Marshall McLuhan Speaks is a fantastic, beautifully designed site commemorating the centennial with a treasure trove of McLuhan video appearances and interviews. Chief among them is this excellent biographical segment by equally iconic writer Tom Wolfe from 1984, produced and directed by Marshall’s daughter, Stephanie McLuhan-Ortved. (With bonus points for the Woody Allen cameo in the beginning, where you might also recognize the origin of the title of Douglas Coupland’s must-read McLuhan almost-biography, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!.)

The segment was eventually adapted in Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews, edited by McLuhan’s daughter and with a foreword by Wolfe offering a 21st-century perspective on McLuhan’s life and work.

Today, on the eve of the 21st century, with hot speculation about the coming digital civilization, in which all humanity will be wired up and online so that geographic locations and national boundaries, or so it’s predicted, will become irrelevant, McLuhan is very much in the center of the screen again, nearly two decades after his death, this time as the first seer of cyberspace.” ~ Tom Wolfe

Wolfe, of course, is best known in relation to McLuhan by way of his 1965 essay, “What If He’s Right?”. (“Suppose he is what he sounds like, the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov… What if he is right?”)

For the ultimate lens on McLuhan’s thought and legacy, I can’t recommend Douglas Coupland’s Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! enough — a compelling celebration of what I consider to be McLuhan’s greatest talent: his penchant for pattern-recognition and cross-disciplinary dot-connecting.

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Urban Atrophy: Haunting Photos of Architectural Ghosts

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What Classic Coke has to do with abandoned dolls and the afterlife of buildings.

The Japanese find beauty in decay, accepting the natural cycle of growth and collapse. This philosophy might be foreign to our Western clinging to the corporeal, but since 2005, Dan Haga and Dan Ayers have been looking for beauty and poeticism in abandoned schools, psychiatric hospitals, missile silos, amusement parks, cathedrals, jails, churches, and other remnants of modern civilization.

This year, they immortalized their finds in Urban Atrophy — a spellbinding collection of 560 striking, haunting images, alongside text that contextualizes these architectural ghosts and exposes the afterlife of ordinary buildings.

Pennhurst Hospital

Charles H. Hickey, Jr. School

Pennhurst Hospital

The Queen Theater

United Cross

Fort Washington

Hebrew Orphan Asylum

The Queen Theater

Mayfair Theatre

via Web Urbanist; images from Urban Atrophy

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