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Record sleeves are an integral part of the music world. Many of us grew up looking at beautifully designed album jackets while we listened to the record, often trying to find hidden meanings in the artwork, or just drooling over the images of our heroes. Back in 1988, CD sales took over from L.P.s (stands for Long Player, kids) and cassettes. The artwork got smaller, less interesting for the viewer and often more challenging for designers. Beautiful multi-page booklet inserts sometimes helped to offset the loss of the dramatic 12 x 12” canvas a record provides, but the real magic happened on record jackets.

Records have made a remarkable comeback

It’s not surprising that records have made a big comeback in the last decade. There’s nostalgia at play, of course, and many music lovers prefer the sound of a record, including me. (I’m not going to open a debate as to whether records are better than digital. Let’s leave that to the audiophiles.) I believe that a big part of the resurgence of interest in collecting records is in the sleeve art itself. The look and feel of a record is hard to beat and impossible for streaming audio to capture. Vinyl smells different. The sheer weight of a record in its jacket says “substantial”. And the jackets often vary from one press run to another, making them even more of a collector’s item. 

The album cover as an art form

To demonstrate the vital importance of the sleeve art today, many buyers don’t play the actual record, choosing to stream the music or download a digital file, thereby preserving the mint condition of their purchase. Some don’t even own a turntable at all. Obviously, the record jacket is part of the allure of vinyl. 

So, let’s take a look at where album cover art came from, and how this art form has developed here in Canada. The Juno Awards, Canada’s celebration of all things musical, happens this month (May 15 in Toronto). It’s as good an excuse as any to talk about Canadian album cover design.

Origins of the album cover

Alex Steinweiss was a graphic design artist known for inventing album cover art. During World War II, Steinweiss became Columbia Records’ advertising manager. Columbia introduced him to an innovation that the company was about to unveil: the long-playing record. But there was a problem. The heavy paper used to protect 78 rpm records left marks on the vinyl microgroove when 33 1/3 rpm LPs were stacked. Steinweiss was asked to develop a jacket for the new format and, with help from his brother-in-law, found a manufacturer, Imperial Paper Box, that was willing to invest in equipment. Louis Sukoff from Imperial Paper Box held the patent for the phonograph record housing, also known as the record jacket.

The new jacket design allowed for printed graphics. As the creator of the album cover, Steinweiss was active in record cover design from 1938 until 1973. He designed roughly 2500 covers. Here are a couple of examples of his work:

First album cover (Alex Steinweiss)

Example of the Steinweiss ‘style’

My love affair with the record cover

I began designing record covers while studying design in college. Many of my first designs were for records, both albums and 7” 45s, and for cassette sleeves. I had already built a decent personal collection of records and tapes. I also worked in a record store and had acquired many promo copies, many from Canadian artists. You can imagine my excitement getting to see my first designs turned into real live records. My love of music and my growing passion for design were converging… Over the next three decades I designed over 200 album covers.

While in school I did my work placement at a top agency in Toronto. One of the first things I noticed in the studio was a Juno Award standing next to one of the designer’s desks. It was awarded to Jeannette Hanna for ‘Album Cover of the Year’, for the Downchild Blues Band’s We Deliver sleeve design, replicating a pizza box. 

As a young design student, I realized I already had an important resource for inspiration: my record collection. I poured through liner notes, this time looking at the design credits instead of music credits. I discovered that some of my favourite sleeves were created by a handful of designers and design studios. Hipgnosis did groundbreaking designs in the 70s for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and others. Peter Saville Associates (Factory Records) and Vaughan Oliver (4AD) produced influential sleeve designs in the late 70s and beyond.

One of my early album covers: Altogether Morris, Take Me Home album, 1987 (cover and label)

Age of Mirrors, Screenplay, 1987, design by Mark Tharme

Canadian designers and Canadian albums

I won’t get into the “top Canadian album covers of all time” or any other lists here. If you’re interested, here are links to the weird, 12 Awkward Canadian Album Covers and the esoteric, Canadian record cover art, uncovered. And here’s a great introduction to some of the most Iconic Album Cover Designers, some of whom created covers for well-known Canadian artists.

Art Griffin’s Sound Chaser, 2016, designed by Roger Dean

International cross-pollination

There are Canadian designers who have designed for international artists, international designers who have created covers for Canadian artists, and of course, Canadian designers responsible for Canadian-made albums.

My friend Art Griffin pulled off a bit of a miracle when he commissioned the legendary album designer Roger Dean, best known for his iconic covers for English prog-rock group Yes, to design his 2016 release Visions from the Present for his Sound Chaser project.

Andy Stochansky, Radio Fusebox, released 2000, designed by Michael Wrycraft. Juno winner for Best Album Design, 2000

Burlington, Ontario born Brett Wickens has designed album covers for Peter Gabriel, Joy Division, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and many others. He also designed the logo for the HBO series The Sopranos.

I reached out to fellow Canadian graphic designers who have created album covers to ask them about some of their favourite Canadian designers and covers. They are coming back with such great responses that I have decided to share their stories here on the Muse blog as guest posts which will be unveiled in the weeks to come. Watch for the next instalment, generously provided by Greg Vickers, designer, musician and creator of the ambitious music project ‘Afternoons in Stereo’. Greg is a serious fan of both Canadian music and album covers. We are in for a treat.

I had reached out to Michael Wrycraft  for his input on this article. Michael “A Man Called” Wrycraft is a Juno Award-winning and 5-time Juno Nominated Graphic/Album Designer with a great sense of humour and a huge passion for music. He has over 500 album designs to his credit including Gordon Lightfoot, Bruce Cockburn, Stan Rogers, Rush, Watermelon Slim, Harry Manx, Burton Cummings, Blackie & the Rodeo Kings and many more. His client list is a virtual who’s who in the Folk, Roots & Blues worlds. Sadly, while I write this Michael is in hospital and according to his brother, he is not doing well. We send our best wishes to Michael and his family at this difficult time.

If you’re reading this you are invited to participate too. Leave a comment with some of your personal favourite Canadian album covers and designers and what they mean to you.