In 1940, the graphic designer Alex Steinweiss, working as an advertising designer for Columbia Records, came up with the idea of giving an individual and colorful design to the album covers of shellac records, which up to that point had been sold in simple, uniform packaging. The first album Steinweiss designed was songwriters Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s Smash Song Hits by Rodgers & Hart (1940). For the photo, Steinweiss went to the Imperial Theatre in New York and persuaded its owner to halt the lettering on the illuminated sign for an hour so that a photographer could capture an advertisement for the two Broadway stars—a completely new idea at the time.
The graphic elements on the cover make reference to the shellac record inside the packaging. The red grooves give the stylized record the look of a target meant to draw the eye.
Through Oct. 16, Galerie Stihl Waiblingen in Waiblingen, Germany, is presenting Cover Art (Plattencover) to showcase the role of record sleeves, starting with Steinweiss and including works by graphic designer Reid Miles for Blue Note, photographer and filmmaker Anton Corbijn, art director Willy Fleckhaus, bassist and artist Klaus Voormann, collector and artist Rutherford Chang, rock Avant Gardists Kraftwerk, sleeve designer Peter Saville and feminist music and fine art ensemble Chicks on Speed.
The exhibition positions record covers as important visual components of music culture and also as independent works of art. Dr. Anja Gerdemann (director) and Susanna Baumgartner (research assistant) are responsible for the project at the Galerie Stihl Waiblingen; the exhibition was conceived in cooperation with Walter Schönauer, the art director of Rolling Stone and Musikexpress magazines.
The following questions, say the organizers, are central to the project:
“What does the process of working from the design to the finished cover look like? How do artists and musicians deal with the space available to them? How does one make the music and the self-image of a band visible? How does the communication between musicians and designers take place? What visual language is selected? What messages are transmitted? What models have been handed down? And what happens when less and less space is available for design due to the advent of CDs and streaming services? In short: What considerations, stories and anecdotes stand behind the aesthetics of album covers? What makes them into such a distinctive means of identification for bands, music listeners and record collectors?”