Alex Steinweiss was the inventor of cover art on recorded music, and of the method of packaging that LPs were sold in for several decades. He was born in 1917 in New York and grew up with a love of music instilled by his father. He went to Parson's School of Design, graduating in 1937, and worked with Austrian poster designer Joseph Binder for a few years after graduation.
Columbia Records hired him in 1939, shortly after the company's formation, as their first advertising and promotional designer, a position that might now be called art director. Steinweiss found the packaging of the shellac 78 records the company sold to be boring, though throughout the 1920s and 1930s all companies used this kind of generic cover with only the name lettered on the spine changing between one release and another. He suggested to Columbia that each album have its own specially designed cover art; at first the company was very reluctant to spend the money to do this. However, when the idea was tried out, the sales of albums with individual cover art were quite a bit higher. Steinweiss's idea was such a success that within a year other companies were following suit and putting cover art on their releases. Steinweiss' style, inspired by European poster art of the time, was fairly recognizable, though; he tended toward symbolic and abstract designs instead of photos of the music artist, and often used decorative type. He often hand-lettered covers if he couldn't find a good font for typesetting, and in the 1950s "Steinweiss Scrawl" became a font available to others through Photolettering, Inc.
In 1948, Columbia/CBS introduced the long-playing record, which was a major technical step over 78 discs, which could only hold 4 minutes of music per side. (An "album" of 78s was literally a book holding several discs.) LPs were also made out of a much less fragile material. However, at first LPs were sold in paper envelopes, which did not exactly do much to protect the record. Steinweiss came up with thin cardboard folded around the disc, with the paper covering on the outside for art; this became the standard LP covering.
Steinweiss continued to work for Columbia as a freelance artist, but he also did work for National Distillery, Schenley Distributors, White Laboratories, Print Magazine, Fortune magazine, London, Decca and A&R records. Eventually, he retired from commercial art to become a painter and ceramicist, living in Sarasota, Florida.
In 1998, he was given the Art Directors Hall of Fame Award for lifetime achievement (along with Chuck Jones) by the Art Directors Club of New York. For the Record: The Life and Work of Alex Steinweiss by Jennifer McKnight-Trontz and Alex Steinweiss (2000) showcases his work, which has also been displayed in many museums in "The Art of the Album Cover" and related exhibits.
Kohler, Eric. In The Groove: Vintage Record Graphics 1940-1960. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999.