back to brown paper bags

Before the late 1930’s record albums were said to have resembled tombstones: plain brown sleeves with the name of the artist stamped onto the cover.Then came a new direction, the formation of a new axiom that was not always true, but close enough. That is,if you can appreciate an album cover as good art, one is more likely to enjoy an album as good art. In other words, a visual language communicating, telling, beyond the banality of the moment to talk about something a bit more, real, enduring and significant that a hard sell. It means not telling everything but giving clues to a life, an attitude, a spirit…. Our present era is one of pitiful, aesthetic raping graphic design, representing the unlimited potential of Photoshop to lead pseudo designers to come up with completely atrocious work. But,with the onset of the the digital age of music and downloads, we have returned to the pre-1930’s where no one cares what’s on the front of a record when all the people who download it are not going to see. …

Alex Steinweiss.Read More:

One of the first album artists was Alex Steinweiss who began in 1939. He was from beginning inspired by European poster artists, such as A.M. Cassandre, Jean Carlu and Paul Colin. Steinweiss’s stylized images, inventive typography and clever illustrations, have all the qualities of the great European poster art from the 1930s. By the mid 1940’s the influence of abstract artists such as Klee, and Kandinsky were to be seen.

Jim Flora. Read More:

Jim Flora was hired by  Steinweiss to Columbia in the early 1940’s to be responsible for  jazz covers. While Steinweiss,was a classical-music fan, Jim Flora was passionate about jazz. This resulted in brightly-colored cover art with caricatural and even quasi-primitive graphics that recalled Joan Miro and touches of other modernist art like Picasso in the prism of a new context. So, his illustrations were influenced by the European modern painters as well as pre-Colombian art, with inflections of what was becoming   comic book art.

---Flora's album covers pulsed with angular hepcats bearing funnel-tapered noses and shark-fin chins who fingered cockeyed pianos and honked lollipop-hued horns. Yet this childlike exuberance was subverted by a tinge of the diabolic. Flora wreaked havoc with the laws of physics, conjuring flying musicians, levitating instruments, and wobbly dimensional perspectives. Flora's TriclopsTaking liberties with human anatomy, he drew bonded bodies and misshapen heads, while inking ghoulish skin tints and grafting mutant appendages. He was not averse to pigmenting jazz legends Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa like bedspread patterns. On some Flora figures, three legs and five arms were standard equipment, with spare eyeballs optional. His rarely seen fine artworks reflect the same comic yet disturbing qualities. "He was a monster," said artist and Floraphile JD King. So were many of his creations.---Read More:

Neil Fujita was another of the   post-Steinweiss designers at Columbia who developed the company´s album look. He was taken on by Rudolph de Harek, who was Columbia´s art director in the beginning of 1950s. This was pre-advent of television and record sales were booming, especially with the introduction of the LP and the beginning of stereo sound. Both de Harek and Fujita opted for a style which featured photography before illustrations, that could be said to have appropriated the urban look of photographer Helen Levitt. 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.

fujita.Fujita worked at Columbia Records from 1954 to 1960 (with a break from ’57 to ’58) and designed album covers for Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Art Blakey, and Miles Davis, among others. Read More:

Bob Cato represented the flowering of the modern era. He took over from Neil Fujita in 1960 as art director at Columbia and was a ground-breaking designer who helped turn the album cover into a significant form of contemporary art in the 1960s.  Born in 1923, in the 1940s he  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.

---Here's a bit of an interview with Fujita, discussing legendary album designer Alex Steinweiss and the beginning of music album design. "When I got to Columbia, Alex was at RCA, I believe. We met for lunch several times and would speak. The relationship was a friendly one, but I don’t think we talked a lot about design. There were a lot of changes going on in the business and we were both searching for our own answers. I would travel across the country speaking to record sellers. I would ask them how they sold records because I felt that we needed a new approach. In those days, clerks would spend a lot more time actually selling records to customers. We thought about how we could use images or pictures in a more creative way. We thought about what the picture was saying about the music and how we could use that to sell the record. And abstract art was getting popular so we used a lot more abstraction in the designs—with jazz records especially but also with classical when there was a way for it to fit, like with the more modern composers."---Read More:

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 supervised some of the

t iconic popular music covers of the decade which continue to be copied and knocked-off.

---Cato won Grammy awards for two cover designs, Barbra Streisand's People (1964) and Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits (1967), as well as the President's Merit Award in 1997. Cato's importance in turning record cover design into an established art form cannot be underestimated. Philip Meggs' definitive History of Graphic Design (1998) has this to say: The design staff of CBS Records operated at the forefront of the graphic interpretation of music. Conceptual image making emerged as a significant direction in album design during the early 1960s, after Bob Cato became head of the Creative Services department . . . photographs of musicians performing and portraits of composers yielded to more symbolic and conceptual images.---Read More: image:

Cato was willing to experiment in any direction, as recounted in Al Kooper’s memoir Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, published earlier this year. For a 1967 Blood, Sweat and Tears record Cato photographed the band with little children in their laps, each child’s face replaced by the face of the person whose lap they occupied and entitled it Child is Father to the Man. For the 1968 double-set Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, Kooper recounts that “I called Bob Cato the CBS art director at home to ask if Norman Rockwell could do the cover.” Cato contacted Rockwell and the cover was thus created.

---The following year, at the opening of the New Comix Show in Berkeley, Janis and Crumb posed for photographers, kissing each other passionately. The woman on the Cheap Thrills jacket is Crumb's idealization of Janis as the ultimate hippie chick, with proud, ripe buttocks and jutting nipples. Crumb also caricatured other members of the band, studying them as they played at a gig one night, and his impressions originally were planned for the back of the album.---Read More:

One of Cato’s most infamous choices was of Robert Crumb illustrations for Janis Joplin’s Cheap Thrills (1968). The recent Joplin bio by Alice Echols explains this had not been the original conception:

Columbia’s art director had planned a different cover, a photo of the group in bed in a hippie crash pad. The band arrived and discovered a bedroom done up in pink frills – like no hippie pad they’d been in. “Let’s trash it, boys,” Janis declared, and they did. The shot of them in bed naked, the bed covers pulled up only to their waists, was junked in favor of Crumb’s caricatures.

Crumb himself was excited by the project but stated; “When I meet Janis I want to be able to pinch her tit.” Months later they met at a party and Crumb grabbed her breast. Joplin looked at him and said, “Oh honey!”Read More:

---In 1948, Mati and his mother moved to Paris where he enrolled at the Académie Julian having previously dropped out of school in Israel and been sent at the age of 15 to an Art college in Jerusalem. He later studied with painter Fernand Léger, who introduced him to the art of Salvador Dalí, Buñuel, and the world of surrealism. Later in his life, he befriended Dalí, writing about his bizarre encounters with Salvador’s sexual behaviours in his book “Collected Works 1959-1975”. In Paris, he also met Viennese fantastic realist painter Ernst Fuchs."Ernst insisted on teaching me his mixed technique of Van Eyck and the Flemish school. I learned it in one week and sold every one of my paintings ever since." ---Read More:

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2 Responses to back to brown paper bags

  1. Maureen says:

    Interesting that you wrote on record covers today, a topic that is generating loud and emotional debate about the art work for Steve Reich’s “WTC 9/11″, Kronos Quartet, from Nonesuch. Quite a few comments on both the Nonesuch news page and FB page for the company. Perhaps something for you to write about.

    • Art says:

      I will take a look. We have a few of his cd’s at work, and it is not a music that is easily understood.Nor is he. In fact, some find Reich’s work downright irritating. If I can do something with this, it would interest me. Best to you.

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