Elaine Lustig Cohen
The Art of Modern Graphics
by Patricia Belen & Greg D’Onofrio
In April 2012, Elaine Lustig Cohen was awarded the 2011 AIGA Medal, the most distinguished honor offered by the AIGA, the American professional organization for design. The celebratory event and ceremony, which took place in New York City, highlighted her exemplary design work and career, citing her as a “pioneering graphic designer, artist and archivist”. In all of these roles, Elaine has made lasting contributions to the visual profile of design, art and education. A recurring interest throughout all aspects of her career is early 20th-century European and Russian modernism – as an artist practicing painting and collage and as a rare book dealer, selling important ephemera of the avant-garde. But it was her work as a graphic designer in the 1950s and 60s which laid the foundation. Her over 150 designs for book covers and museum catalogs, many of which are featured here in print for the first time, are often overlooked in the graphic design canon. However, they play a significant role in the evolution of American modernism, a unique blend of experimentation and ideas of the avant-garde. Today at the age of 85, Elaine continues to be an influential presence in the design world and a significant link to the modernist lineage.
Born in 1927, Elaine Firstenberg had planned on being an art teacher. She studied art at Newcomb College of Tulane University (New Orleans, Louisiana) and art education at the University of Southern California (Los Angeles, California), where she completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts. It was the experience with her first husband, the distinguished designer and modernist Alvin Lustig (1915–1955), whom she married in 1948, which set the course for her graphic design career. She says, “All of my training at college and later with Alvin was all about the avant-garde of the 20th-century. Even what I saw as a teenager in New York City – the Museum of Modern Art [MoMA] and Peggy Guggenheim’s museum [Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum] excited me at the time and set the modernist seed in me which took years to absorb and make my own”. Elaine is particularly inspired by abstract artists and designers Kurt Schwitters, Sophie Täuber Arp and Sonia Delaunay with a special affinity for Täuber Arp and Delaunay, referring to them as “my special women”, artists working in the same field as their husbands (Jean Arp and Robert Delaunay, respectively) but whose work is less frequently recognized.
Elaine’s marriage was short-lived as Lustig succumbed to diabetes in 1955 at the age of 40. He left behind a prolific body of work inhabiting all fields of design, including the renowned book jacket designs for the New Classics series, New Directions Books. Lustig’s book jacket designs for the series were abstract representations, mostly in two colors, based on interpretations of the book. They were highly successful and increased sales of the books which greatly pleased James Laughlin, publisher of New Directions, “His beautiful designs are helping to make a mass audience aware of high quality reading” (James Laughlin: Bookjackets by Alvin Lustig for New Directions Books, Gotham Book Mart Press, 1947).
Under Lustig, Elaine was an assistant, an “office slave” as she recalls – rigorously executing his concepts and designs, particularly in the midst of his failing eyesight. One of Lustig’s last clients was Meridian Books published by The Noonday Press. The young publisher Arthur Cohen turned to the Lustigs for guidance in designing his small but imaginative list of paperback titles in literary and social criticism, intended for the college market. Between 1951 and 1955, Lustig designed approximately 26 book covers for the publisher. “When Alvin designed the first Meridians there were few quality paperbacks. He saw it as a series that could be seen together. In fact, we used to go around to bookstores and line them up. At the time he was looking at 19th century type”, says Elaine. Lustig’s book cover designs were purely typographic – dramatic juxtapositions of new and old faces, composed in rational, modern layouts on colored backgrounds, “I think with his failing eyesight the solutions were something he felt comfortable doing, plus he had a long interest in type.” The Meridian covers were a quiet departure from, yet also a continuum of Lustig’s earlier, innovative book jacket designs. These modern covers also differed greatly from other book covers in the paperback field which mostly used pictorial illustrations.
At the time of his death in 1955, Lustig was in the middle of unfinished commissions. One in particular was for architect Philip Johnson who hired him to design the signage system for the acclaimed Seagram Building in New York City, designed by Mies van der Rohe in collaboration with Johnson. Undeterred by the fact that Lustig had not started any work, Elaine successfully completed the signage, as well as other assignments such as advertising and catalogs for the building.
Beginning in 1956, now operating her own studio, Elaine was hired by Meridian to design additional covers. By this time, competition had entered the paperback field. Bookstores no longer displayed the Meridian titles together, decreasing the power and coherence of the series as a whole. Each book cover had to stand alone and communicate effectively. “I knew that when I started to design the Meridians there were more quality paperbacks available and the image would have to be more expressive of each title. Most of the list was about history, philosophy, religion, and reprints of famous out of print titles unavailable to the college market at reasonable prices. Meridian also commissioned original titles on Existentialism and Sartre. They were not novels to fully read. So, I usually tried to come up with a feeling for the subject”, Elaine recalls. Her book covers range from the photographic, to the abstract, to the typographic and various combinations thereof. The knowledge she absorbed from Lustig and the ideas she inherited from avant-garde art movements including Constructivism, Dadaism, Futurism, Surrealism and the Bauhaus enabled her to experiment freely.
Elaine’s photographic book covers are cleverly symbolic using images to evoke the book’s contents with nearly all of the original photographs taken by her. A composed black and white photograph of stones in various sizes, shapes and shades represents Fritz Stern’s The Varieties of History (1957). For Witchcraft (1958) by Charles Williams, she took wood from her fireplace, formed the pieces into the shape of a “W”, set it on fire and photographed it. Along with the vibrant orange title, the book cover leaves the reader with a powerful impression of this mythological practice.
In other photographic designs, Elaine combined the image with color and typography to create the book cover’s concept. The Noble Savage (1959)was a literary periodical of contemporary short stories, poetry and essays, edited by writers Saul Bellow and Keith Botsford. For Issue 4, she used her own black and white image of a worn statue and playfully decorated it with the editors’ names in the shape of a moustache, a nod to her Dada influences. Her choice of purple (a noble color), animated starburst and wood type make this cover witty, eye-catching and amusing. In The New Architecture of Europe (1960), Elaine assembled a more Swiss modern design, a functional interpretation of the postwar architecture featured in the book. The objective photograph of a building in the background, the block of transparent vivid color and lowercase Akzidenz-Grotesk type form an asymmetrical, grid-like layout.
Unlike Lustig’s Meridian book covers – driven by type and precision, Elaine’s typographic designs were more organic, less restrictive, yet still modern. She layered letters and words and used a variety of typefaces to give the book covers their own eclectic personalities. In The Book of Jazz (1958), numerous letter “J”s were sliced, flipped and arranged to form a brightly colored, improvised composition to reflect the musical style. Elaine had few restrictions when it came to experimenting with letters, words and their meaning. In Harold Lasswell’s Politics: Who Gets What, When, How (1958), exclamation points and question marks become shapes that dominate the book’s cover, a playful execution and visual pun to further communicate the book’s title.
The subjects of Meridian books are often enigmatic theories. For Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung’s Answer to Job (1959), subtitled “The Problem of Evil: Its Psychological and Religious Origins”, Elaine designed a purely typographic composition. This functional design uses a sparse set of styles, ample white space, all capital sans-serif type and a cool blue background. The opposing black (author) and white patterned text (title) and vertically positioned publisher’s imprint form a visually balanced and impactful solution for a book with such an obscure theme. On Love (1957) by the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset is another Meridian book with abstract subject matter. Elaine’s light-hearted design combines cropped, rotated, colorized statues resembling cupids with hand-drawn type, a whimsical and charming solution.
For her abstract book covers she predominantly used form, shape and color. The emotionally intense color of irregular shapes, energetic blue background and sweeping, exaggerated serifs in Mario Praz’s The Romantic Agony (1956) form an imaginative, expressive cover. Other abstract designs are deliberately geometric in their flat color and straight lines. The Logic of the Sciences and Humanities (1959) could almost be interpreted as an information diagram, mapping the book’s cover from the center up towards the title and down towards the author’s name, inviting the reader to participate.
In 1960, Arthur Cohen, who became Elaine’s second husband, sold Meridian to devote himself full-time to writing and scholarship. Working for Meridian until 1962, Elaine designed over 100 book covers including an additional 50 (until 1969) for publishers such as Doubleday, George Braziller, Holt Rinehart & Winston, the Jewish Museum and New Directions. Her book covers are neither mass market or overly conceptual – they thrive somewhere in between. Yet, her designs are a high point of book publishing of the 1950s and 60s, a unique style of American modernism characterized by inventiveness, playfulness and clarity.
“A great book jacket never
sold a dreadful book.”
Perhaps it is this collaborative relationship with Meridian books which contributed to the success of her designs. Most publishers at that time let their salesmen have a large input in the book covers, “I was fortunate that we did not have a large sales force. In fact, there was just one man and he liked my work”, she says.
Elaine had other successful client relationships. In addition to her book covers, corporate identity and building signage projects, she also excelled in museum catalog design. From 1963–68, Elaine designed approximately 20 catalogs for an innovative art program at the Jewish Museum in New York City. Beginning in the early 1960s, under the direction of Alan Solomon, the museum organized groundbreaking contemporary exhibitions with a focus on young New York artists. She recalls, “Solomon was fabulous to work with and it is a shame no one talks about the innovative program at the Jewish Museum in the 60’s. The other museums had never shown Jasper Johns, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, conceptual sculpture, etc.“
Elaine’s ability to think conceptually and experiment with type and form made her an apt choice for designing the catalogs to compliment the Jewish Museum’s commitment to contemporary art. Her designs are as minimal and abstract as the work they represent. Instead of solely displaying the name of the artist or exhibition, she used the catalog covers as mini canvases to reflect the spirit of the exhibition or pay homage to the artist’s style. Knowingly or not, Elaine created a unique and vibrant graphic personality for the museum.
One technique she continued to use was her abstract representational approach practiced in her book cover designs. Primary Structures was the Jewish Museum’s landmark, somewhat controversial, 1966 exhibit that defined minimalist artists working in contemporary sculpture, notably Donald Judd, Robert Smithson, Sol Lewitt, Dan Flavin and Ellsworth Kelly. On the catalog cover, a stripped-down white “P” and integrated red “S” on an intense yellow background, are interpretations of the fluorescent light installations and the shiny, smooth sculptural forms included in the exhibit. For 2 Kinetic Sculptors (1966), Elaine used a photostat machine to repeatedly photograph the typeset words to convey motion, a characteristic closely associated with kinetic art. Her choice of warm red, neutral type for the artists’ names, Nicolas Schöffer and Jean Tinguely, act as a strong contrast to the blurred “moving” image.
On other instances, Elaine constructed geometric, colored shapes created from type, evident in Ben Benn: Painter (1965) and VI Bienal Do Museu De Arte Moderna Sao Paulo (1961). As an homage to the American abstract painter, Kenneth Noland (1965), she arranged his last name in a symmetrical “V” shaped pattern in two colors. It’s a minimal, “mini” painting, not unlike Noland’s own diamond / chevron paintings where the edges of the canvas are as structurally important as the center. The catalog cover is a superb example of design interpreting art.
“Doing the catalogs for the Jewish Museum was exciting. Not only did I have all the modern art to reflect the cover spirit, but a museum director who wanted to present catalogs that established the new program at the museum.”
When reminiscing on the difference between working for a museum versus a book publisher, she affirms, “Working for one man, the director, cannot compare to working for a publishing house with everyone having an opinion on what sells.”
Elaine’s graphic design practice continued until 1969 when she decided to focus on art. In 1972, she and Arthur Cohen, who both shared a fascination with avant-garde art and design, became rare book and art dealers at their business, Ex Libris. They operated this specialty bookstore and gallery out of their New York City townhouse until the late 1990s. Ex Libris was renowned for their collection of books, magazines, posters and ephemera featuring both the acclaimed and lesser known works of seminal figures of modernism such as Sonia Delaunay, Marcel Duchamp, Ladislav Sutnar, Jan Tschichold and Piet Zwart, to name a few. To this day, Ex Libris catalogs are highly sought after by collectors and researchers for their content, making Elaine an invaluable link to modern art and design history.
Elaine has earned numerous awards dating back to the 1950s. In addition to the 2011 AIGA Medal, among her many other accolades was a 1995 retrospective of her graphic design held at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York. Today, her interest in the field has not diminished. An avid reader, Elaine’s enthusiasm for books and their design continues, “Even though I have a Kindle I still look at books and the field is still uneven as ever. Certainly there are many more interesting jackets and publishing will continue”, she hopes.
From her homes in New York City and Mallorca, Spain, where the interview for this article took place, Elaine still produces – collages, digital prints, photographs and other artwork. As recent as 2009, she had a solo show at Adler & Conkright Fine Art Gallery, New York. The exhibit titled “My Heroes: Portraits of the Avant-Garde” featured her collages of artists who have deeply influenced her such as El Lissitzky, F.T. Marinetti, Kazimir Malevich and Alexander Rodchenko. And, later this year, Alvin Lustig and Elaine’s book jacket and book cover designs will be exhibited at the College of Visual Arts, Saint Paul, Minnesota. So, her creative journey endures, “What is great about being an artist – painter, designer, sculptor, photographer or in other visual media – is that throughout your life you can keep opening doors that you never knew existed.”
This article was originally published in The Shelf Journal, Issue 2, 2012.