COLUMBIA pioneered in many fields of the recording business. Also in the field of album cover design. In 1939 the company employed Alex Steinweiss as art director. He becomes the man who invented the album cover.
Columbia is the oldest surviving trademark in the record business, dating back to 1880s. The label's first jazz recording were made by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917.
Columbia was an American company until mid 1920s, when it was purchased by its own former subsidiary in England, the English Columbia. Later, in the 1930s, the English Columbia formed EMI and was forced to sell its American operations back to the US. In the late 1930s the American Columbia Records was sold to CBS, Columbia Broadcasting System.
It is the albums from the American Columbia that are displayed on this page. Albums from Columbia in England, and other countries, will be find on the pages for European labels.
During the 1950s, Columbia´s US recordings were distributed in Europe on the Philips label. From the early 1960s the US Columbia albums were labelled as CBS recordings when sold in Europe.
ALEX STEINWEISS created the first illustrated cover for an album of 78 rpm records. Before that, the albums were sold in plain brown sleeves, with a cardboard outer jacket and just the name of the artist stamped on the front. They looked like tombstones, Alex Steinweiss said. Below his very first cover, a Rodgers & Hart collection from 1939.
The practice of illustrated albums was soon adapted by the other big American labels. Steinweiss continued to work for Columbia during the 1940s and created many covers for 78 rpm albums.
In 1948 Steinweiss also developed the packaging for the new 33 r.p.m. records that Columbia was developing. His design of thin cardboard, covered with printed paper, soon become the industry standard.
Columbia's first LP in 1948 was "The Voice of Frank Sinatra" which had the catalog number CL 6001. It seems to be the first pop/jazz LP ever (picture below).
Surprisingly this first LP does not have a pictorial cover, in spite of the fact that such a cover already exists. The LP was a reissue of a 78 album from 1946, which had a nice color cover (see large picture to the right).
Alex Steinweiss left Columbia in the early 1950s. But he continued to be much in demand as an album cover designer, especially for classic music. He worked during the 1950s for labels such as Decca, London and Everest. Later he concentrated on graphics for posters, magazine covers and packaging design.
Steinweiss was from beginning inspired by the European poster artists, such as Cassandre, Jean Carlu and Paul Colin. His stylized images, with playful typography and eye-catching illustrations, have all the qualities of the great posters from the 1930s. Later he was attracted by the work of abstract artists such as Klee, Kandinsky and Mondrian.
JIM FLORA was recruited by Alex Steinweiss to Columbia in 1942 to handle the label's jazz covers. Unlike Steinweiss, a classical-music buff, Jim Flora was a great jazz fan.
All through the 1940s he devised brightly-coloured covers with caricatural and even naive graphics. His illustrations were influenced by the European modern painters as well as pre-Colombian art, given it a comic book twist.
He left the label in 1950. In 1954 he was hired by Bob Jones who was a former colleague from Columbia, now art director at RCA Victor. Flora came to produce some of his most oustanding works during the two years he was working for RCA Victor.
Alex Steinweiss at Columbia in 1939
Jim Flora early 1940s
NEIL FUJITA became one of the post-Steinweiss designers at Columbia who developed the company´s album look. He was recruited by Rudolph de Harek, who was Columbia´s art director in the beginning of 1950s.
Both de Harek and Fujita preferred a style which featured photography before illustrations. From mid 1950s Fujita was the art director. He was inspired of labels like Blue Note and Prestige and added a new, more hard-edged, attitude to Columbia.
He created many covers by himself, but also employed freelance designers and photographer such as Burt Goldblatt, William Claxton, Richard Avedon and Ben Shahn.
He was born in 1923. In the 1940s he first studied under the Bahaus designer Lazlo Moholu-Nagy and then with the designer Alexey Brodovitch, who was the art director of Harper's Bazaar. Cato then became his assistant at the magazine.
He stayed at Columbia from 1960 to 1970. His paintings, collages and photos illustrated a variety of musical styles, from Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis to Leonard Bernstein, and he created or superwised some of the most memorable rock music covers of the decade.
In addition to his own creatings Bob Cato also employed some of the era's most influential painters, designers and photographers, including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauchenberg, Robert Crumb and Mati Klarwein.
JOHN BERG was appointed as Bob Cato's assistent at Columbia in 1961. He took over as art director in 1965 when Cato was promoted to vice president of the creative department. John Berg's career at Columbia ran on until 1985.
Together with Bob Cato he changed the scene for the art of album covers. He created numerous of famous rock and jazz album covers for artists such as Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsten, Santana, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.
MATI KLARWEIN is connected with some of the most iconic Columbia album images of the 1960s and 1970s. His paintings on the covers for Miles Davis and Santana visualised theirs new mind-expanding music, and probably the covers today are even more recognizable than the music itself.
Otherwise Klarweins name and work remains unknown to many. But he was a prolific artist, painting many portraits and a wide variety of landscapes, as well as surreal and visionary art.
He was born in pre-war Germany and escaped with his Jewish parents to Palestine (Israel). In the 1950s he moved to Paris and has then been living, working and travelling around the world.
used in preparing this website. See also the links on each page.
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Graham Marsh and Glyn Callingham: East Coasting (London, Collins & Brown 1993)
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Jennifer McKnight-Trontz & Alex Steinweiss: For the Record, The life and work of Alex Steinweiss (New York, Princeton 2000)
Uwe Weiler: The Debut Label (Norderstedt, Germany 1994)