The Golden Age of Album Cover Design

andy warhol's sticky fingers cover waist view of man in tight genes

Album cover design is an artform, plain and simple. Artists use photography, painting, illustration, and graphic design to create indelible images that are inseparable from the music within. It is an art form that emerged out of practical necessity and evolved into a reflection of contemporary culture.

The first disc-type records appeared in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Record manufacturers used shellac — a hard resin and natural form of plastic — to create the records. Dissolving it in an alkaline solution yields a malleable substance that is easily pressed and produces a reasonable sound quality. HoweAn image of early record sleeves made of paper.ver, shellac is brittle and damages easily.

To compensate for this, companies issued records in paper or cardboard sleeves.  Often the sleeves were unadorned or had fanciful artwork which was not directly related to the music on the enclosed record.

Alex Steinweiss

It was not until 1938 did a substantial change come about. That was when Columbia Records hired Alex Steinweiss to head their graphics department. He graduated from the Parsons School of Design and had worked with the Austrian poster designer Joseph Binder. Binder’s designs focused on the reduction of geometric forms, on color contrasts and the psychological impact of colors. This influence is seen in Steinweiss’ work and his reliance on Cubism,  Constructivism, and De Stijl art forms are evident in his cover designs.

first album cover capital records marquee
The First Album Cover by Alex Steinweiss

Within a short time, Steinweiss convinced executives that selling music in plain brown sleeves was “drab and unattractive”.  And he knew a better way. His first album cover was for a collection of Rodgers and Hart’s songs. The cover depicted a high-contrast photo of a theater marquee with the title in theatrical lights. The response was positive but his cover of Bruno Walter’s recording of Beethoven’s “Eroica” is what clinched the deal. The label released the original record in plain, unattractive packaging. Rereleased with Steinweiss’ cover Newsweek reported that sales increased a whopping 895%.

Steinweiss’ concept was a logical extension of the commercial use of the cover but at the same time, it was revolutionary because it linked a commercial concept to a high artistic quality. The concept was quickly adopted throughout the industry.

Steinweiss’ influenced a great deal more than cover design.  In 1953 he designed the paperboard container used to hold the vinyl 33 1/3 album. Ironically the format paved the way for the creative use of photography and in a few years photography became vogue and eclipsed Steinweiss’ graphic approach.

Andy Warhol

Alex Steinweiss created a means of promotion that would have a profound impact on the growth of the music industry. But he also created an artform that would have meaningful social and cultural impact. Countless artists, photographers, and graphic designers would use the medium to express the hopes and ideals of their generation. They would also use it to vent their frustration and their wrath at the inequities of society.andy warhol's banana album cover for the velvet underground

Surprisingly, established artists also responded to the medium. In 1955 Salvador Dali designed a cover for his friend Jackie Gleason. Even Norman Rockwell got into the act and created cover art for the blues-rock act Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper in 1969. But perhaps the most noted artist to impact the genre was pop artist Andy Warhol.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the record industry was expanding rapidly. Post-war prosperity and the invention of the vinyl long-playing (LP) album brought music to the masses like never before. In 1949 RCA records hired Warhol to design album covers and assorted promotional materials. His first designs were rather conservative but by the mid-fifties, his signature pop art style was beginning to emerge. By the early 1960s, he was a noted artist having had several successful art shows in New York and on the West Coast. But a watershed moment came with his”Banana” cover for the band Velvet Underground and Nico in 1967.

Due to his pop artist status, he received design commissions from some of the greatest performers of the era. His cover design for the Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” is one of the greatest album covers of all time. Throughout the sixties and seventies, he designed covers for John Lennon, Diana Ross, and Aretha Franklin among others.

Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell

Warhol’s “banana” signaled the dawn of a new age in cover design. Between the late sixties and the early nineties, the industry released some of its most iconic album covers. Artists and graphic designers employed avante-garde and contemporary art techniques in an attempt to capture the mind-altering energy of rock music.

pink floyd's dark side of the moon album cover. a prism with a ray of light passing through it resulting in a rainbow of colors
Dark Side of the Moon

In 1968, Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell, two art school students, established the graphic design firm, Hipgnosis. Their first commission was “A Saucerful of Secrets” for Pink Floyd. In 1973, they designed the cover for “Dark Side of the Moon”, Pink Floyd’s most commercially successful album and one of the most successful albums of all time. It sold 45 million copies and remained on Billboard’s chart for 741 weeks.

Hipgnosis would go on to design album covers for some of rock’s greatest bands including Led Zeppelin, The Who, Genisis and Black Sabbath. The cover for Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” is another of music’s all-time great covers. Hipgnosis closed its doors in 1982 with the completion of their last assignment, “Coda”, Led Zeppelin’s final album.

Thorgerson & Powel relied heavily upon photography and innovative processing techniques. They creatively manipulated their photos and used multiple exposures, airbrushing and mechanical cut and paste techniques to achieve their results. In essence, they accomplished by hand and in the darkroom the effects that modern digital photoshopping software creates today.

Peter Saville

Just about the time Thorgerson and Powell were turning their sights away from cover design, rock music entered a new period. Post Punk and New Wave evolved as a logical progression of the Punk Rock movement of the early seventies.  As with Punk, these new forms of music were a reaction to the uninspired and overworked popular music of the period.

peter saville's first design for factory records. an event poster showing a blurred image of a person holding their ears with the phrase use hearing protection underneath.
Saville’s Event Poster for The Factory

In 1978, a sixth-term arts student named Peter Saville designed an event poster for the fledgling record label, The Factory. The poster design marked the beginning of Saville’s career as one of the industry’s most influential cover designers. Over the next decade, he would design some of music’s most iconic album covers. He is still practicing and is one of Britian’s most respected designers.

Saville was heavily influenced by the Modernist movement, especially Herbert Spencer’s book entitled “Pioneers of Modern Typography”. Also, Jan Tschichold’s “Die neue Typographie” had a profound influence in shaping his design approach.

He felt there was an “ideology evident in the aesthetic.” In an interview, with Franz Aussems, curator of Words for Designers, Saville said that Modernism “ . . . It is about something.  When you look at this stuff, the modernists, it’s about a changing time – a new order, a new way of life, a new…system.”

joy divisions unknown pleasures cover
Unknown Pleasures

Modernism may have been his influence but he drew his inspiration from the social and political upheaval surrounding him. And Modernists design tenets enabled him to clearly express the connections between music and pop art.  For instance, his cover design for Joy Division’s album Unknown Pleasures achieved pop art status in it’s on right. Its design can be found on everything from a coffee cup to T-shirts.

A Renaissance

The introduction of the CD and the decline of vinyl album sales in the nineties witnessed a corresponding decline in the significance of cover art. Although cover design remains important to the sale of music, even in digital format, the allure of the genre has greatly diminished. The CD’s 4″x4″ case is too small to have the same visual impact of the 12″x12″ vinyl sleeve.

However, with the resurgence of vinyl records over the past decade, it may be premature to signal its demise.


Album Cover Design by Alex Steinweiss

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Album Cover Design by Thorgerson & Powell

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Album Cover Design by Peter Saville

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