Alex Steinweiss, creator of album artwork
Alex Steinweiss, who passed away on July 18, 2011, was a trained graphic designer and helped reshape how vinyl records were designed and marketed in the 1940s and 1950s. Prior to this period, the majority of albums were released with a simple, plain paper packaging with the title stamped on the front. Steinweiss, who joined Columbia Records as its Art Director in 1939 (http://www.aiga.org/medalist-alexsteinweiss/), came up with simple idea to include a unique image on an album cover to help market and boost sales of new albums.
The first album cover he designed (below) was for a 1939 collection of songs by Rodgers & Hart. The album design shows the artists' names on a theater marquee with the album title in lights. According to AIGA, this album cover was inspired by French and German poster styles that Steinweiss had learned about in a high school arts class. Steinweiss "developed a unique signature style that used geometric patterns, folk art symbolism, and a curly hand-drawn lettering (that became copyrighted as Steinweiss Scrawl)." All in all, Steinweiss designed more than 850 album covers during his career at Columbia Records (http://www.aiga.org/medalist-alexsteinweiss/).
Album artwork was a simple yet profound innovation for vinyl records. Even in the digital age, artwork is such an integral part of a musical release (whether released on iTunes or as a new vinyl record) that it's hard to imagine an album not being adorned with a unique or provocative photograph or piece of artwork. Album artwork is one of my favorite aspects of vinyl records and it's one of the reasons I built this website--so that people can highlight, describe, and share the unique and interesting aspects of their vinyl record collection, such as the story behind an album's artwork.
Top photo from the New York Times; bottom photo from Flickr.