Back in the dark age of analog sound, before jewel boxes and error correction codes rendered them obsolete, quaint paper vessels were used to protect the delicate grooved vinyl our ancestors knew as the phonograph recording.
As the 20th century drifts ever farther in the rear-view mirror, cultural historians are taking a fresh look at such fading ephemera. That’s the idea behind a Doheny Library exhibition that opened Sept. 5.
“A Sound Design: The Art of the Album Cover” pays homage to a medium that charmingly wrapped utilitarian function in aesthetic expression. Co-curated by music library manager Robert Vaughn along with Tyson Gaskill and Andrew Wulf, the exhibit showcases 52 iconic record jackets – from jazz to rock, punk and hip hop – spanning the expressive potential and stylistic variety of this popular art form.
Indeed, Vaughn said, the exhibition underscores that for years, album cover art was the top vehicle for distributing popular art to a mass audience. An album that went gold or platinum would be handled, closely studied and cherished by millions of music fans who otherwise might not look twice at the work of Andy Warhol, Raymond Pettibon or Salvador Dali.
Maybe you didn’t know that Warhol was the cover artist on the Rolling Stones’ 1971 smash, Sticky Fingers, as well as the Velvet Underground’s eponymous 1967 album? And that Pettibon designed Black Flag’s 1982 recording, Six Pack, and Sonic Youth’s 1990 Goo? Or strangest of all, that the Spanish symbolist Dali designed the jacket for one of Jackie Gleason’s popular “mood music” recordings, Lonesome Echo?
The album cover movement started in 1939, when Alex Steinweiss, a Columbia Records graphic artist with an interest in poster art, decided to try something new. At the time, an album cover was a plain heavy wrapper with tombstone-style text, like you’d find on the cover and spine of an encyclopedia.
Steinweiss got creative with the music of Beethoven and Rogers & Hart … and bam. “It was night and day,” Vaughn said. “Album sales started to soar. There was nothing to think about.” Soon every record label was doing it. The Doheny exhibition features Steinweiss’ design for the Cleveland Orchestra’s 1941 recording of Showboat, and a jazz album, Continental Tango, for bandleader Marek Weber. At Columbia, designer S. Neil Fujita took up the Steinweiss mantle with a stirring design for the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out (1959).
In the 1950s and ’60s, photography-design duo Francis Wolff and Reid Miles took jazz album covers to the next level – establishing a classy look that solidified the BlueNote label as the epitome of recording excellence.
The rock era produced amazing new collaborations such as the identity-defining, 30-year relationship between designer Roger Dean and the band, Yes. Sometimes it gave musicians a new creative outlet. The Doheny show features Brian Eno’s own design on his 1971 release, Ambient #1 Music for Airports, and David Byrne’s jacket for the Talking Heads’ 1983 album, Speaking in Tongues.
Other highlights from the exhibition include underground cartoonist Robert Crumb’s effort for Cheap Thrills, the 1968 LP by Big Brother and the Holding Company (Janis Joplin’s early band) and Jimmy Grashow’s whimsical pop-up gatefold design for Jethro Tull’s (1969) Stand Up.
The exhibition – which features LP jackets, historical tidbits and a video kiosk juxtaposing album imagery with the audio it illustrates – also will have a Web component offering links to in-depth readings. In the music library – conveniently located adjacent to the Rotunda exhibition space – Vaughn will make CDs of featured albums available for use by curious listeners.
“A Sound Design: The Art of the Album Cover” runs through Dec. 15 in the Ground Floor Rotunda of Doheny Library.