by Steven Heller
Pioneering graphic designer, artist and archivist, Elaine Lustig Cohen is recognized for her body of design work integrating European avant-garde and modernist influences into a distinctly American, mid-century manner of typographic communication.
When Elaine Lustig Cohen assumed ownership of her husband’s midtown Manhattan design practice after he died at the age of 40, most of his clients—among them the architect Philip Johnson—expected her to complete his unfinished commissions. Little did they realize that Alvin Lustig, a totemic force in the field of the modern design, never offered to include her in his own projects. “As a rule, no one in the Lustig office designed except Alvin himself,” Elaine recalls. In fact, she and his assistants, including (for a short time) Ivan Chermayeff, would do the so-called “dirty work” while Alvin, dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie, sat at his immaculate marble desk with only a tracing pad, making thumbnail sketches for others to render.
Few female American designers ran their own studios at that time. Indeed, this would have been difficult for anyone, but to fill Alvin’s large shoes required true grit. Nonetheless the 28-year-old Elaine, who had no formal training as a designer, accepted her trial by fire and emerged as a remarkable talent in her own right. She eventually specialized in book cover and jacket design, museum catalogs and building signage, adhering initially to Alvin’s aesthetic until she developed her own modernist style.
Few female American designers ran their own studios at that time. Indeed, this would have been difficult for anyone, but to fill Alvin’s large shoes required true grit.
Although Elaine was one of the few high-profile women working in the graphic design field at the time, she insists it was not a defining issue. Instead, she says, running a small business was her biggest challenge. “My gender may have been an issue for other designers,” she says, “but not for my clients.” Her impressive roster includes proposals for TWA signage, airport identification for the Federal Aviation Administration, and the signage for General Motors’ technical campus in collaboration with Eero Saarinen. And up to the day in 1962 when she closed the studio, Elaine continued to earn commissions from museums, architecture firms and book publishers, including Noonday Press, whose co-founder, Arthur Cohen, she later married.
From 1948 to 1955, though, Elaine was married to—or as she puts it, was “a blind disciple” of—the charismatic Alvin Lustig. What she learned from him during their seven-year relationship is the key to understanding her own distinct practice. Alvin wed abstract and surreal principles of modern painting and sculpture to commercial design, which during the 1940s and early ’50s contributed to the look of American modernism. By 1950 his childhood diabetes was ascendant, and by 1954 he was blind. Yet even in an impaired state he directed Elaine and his assistants through every design detail.
Elaine Firstenberg was born in Jersey City in 1927. She and a younger sister were raised by Herman Firstenberg, a plumber, and Elizabeth Loeb Firstenberg, his bookkeeper. Her mother and father encouraged their daughter’s creativity, so Elaine was enrolled in art lessons, where she learned to draw from casts. At 15, she wandered into Peggy Guggenheim’s short-lived but influential Art of This Century gallery, where Guggenheim had exhibited a collection of Kandinskys in an installation designed by Frederick Kiesler. That chance visit ignited Elaine’s lifelong passion for modern art. Soon thereafter, Elaine enrolled in the art department of Newcomb College at Tulane University. One of her art classes was based on basic Bauhaus fundamentals. Her favorite painter at the time was the proto-pop artist Stuart Davis. In those days women were not encouraged to study art as a profession, so she took art education courses at the University of Southern California to prepare for a teaching career. She then taught in a public school during the first year she was married to Lustig.
Elaine was 20 when she met Alvin, then 32, at the opening of a new Los Angeles art museum in 1948. They were a handsome couple. A whirlwind courtship was followed by marriage and a job as the “office slave,” she recalls. Alvin presumed she would work in his office, though he had no intention of teaching her graphic design. “Teaching me was not even an issue,” she says. “It was, after all, a different time.” He did however encourage Elaine to research materials for interior design projects. Meanwhile, she made collages for prospective children’s books and sketches of fantasy furniture.
In the late 1940s the California economy was weak, with hardly enough industry to support local designers. So in 1950, when Josef Albers invited Alvin to establish a graphic design program at Yale, the couple immediately left for New York. Professionally things were looking up, but Lustig’s health was deteriorating and his reliance on Elaine increased. Nonetheless, when the end came about, she was unprepared for what would happen next.
About a week after Alvin’s funeral, Philip Johnson, who had earlier commissioned Alvin to design the Seagram Building signage, called Elaine to tell her that the job was hers. He then asked her when the official alphabet would be complete. That call was like ice water thrown on her face. “When Alvin died nothing had been done on Seagram,” Elaine recalls. “Eventually my schedule of the lettering and signs were incorporated into the architectural working drawings.” In addition to signs, she designed New York Times ads for the building. Johnson recognized her remarkable efforts, which helped to forge an important bond between them. Seagram next hired her to do a catalog for the rental of spaces in the building.
Soon Elaine moved the studio into her apartment. “I knew that with an office I’d be working only to keep my employees occupied, and I didn’t want that kind of headache,” she says. Around the same time, Arthur Cohen, book publisher and the Lustigs’ best friend, insisted that Elaine design Meridian Books’ new line of paperbacks. Alvin designed the first 25 and Elaine went on to do more than 100 more. Those jackets helped distinguish her more freeform style from Alvin’s late-period precisionist approach.
In 1956, Elaine married Arthur Cohen, who convinced her that having a real office could earn her more ambitious and remunerative commissions. Against her better instincts she opened Lustig and Reich, with former Lustig studio member Jack Reich. After a year the business was disbanded, and Elaine returned to her sole proprietorship at home.
In addition to jackets and covers, Elaine designed lobby signs and catalogs for the Jewish Museum, the Museum of Primitive Art, Rio de Janeiro’s Museum of Modern Art, Lincoln Center (in conjunction with Chermayeff & Geismar, on signage that was never adopted) and the 1964 New York World’s Fair, creating graphic design for the architectural firm Harrison & Abramovitz. For Johnson, she designed signs for two Yale buildings. Johnson also used her for other projects: “Much work came from Philip,” says Elaine, “as he would recommend me to people he was working for, like John de Menil and his Schlumberger oil company.” Further commissions came by way of other architect friends. Elaine designed building interiors and, with Richard Meier, designed and did the graphics for Sona, an Indian government-sponsored handicrafts store on New York’s East 55th Street. In 1963, she launched a fruitful relationship with the Jewish Museum, designing catalogs, invitations, bags and exhibition installations for such groundbreaking artists as Jasper Johns, Yves Klein and Robert Rauschenberg.
Elaine was not an ideological modernist but she favored clarity and simplicity, and used functional typography with asymmetry as a guiding principle. She preferred pure geometry. Half-jokingly, she says she was “brainwashed” into wanting to design everything. Indeed, she maintained an exhausting schedule, even after the birth of her daughter, Tamar (now a graphic designer too).
Building on her knowledge of forgotten 20th-century avant-garde typography, she paid homage to the past without mimicking it. A knowing eye might notice telltale signs of The New Typography and modernist painting, curiously meshed together and interpreted separately. Eclecticism reigned. She developed her own palette, type preferences and personal glyphs. She savored the meditative pleasure of assembling paste-ups and refining the details. Her work depended on accidents. Her design was akin to creating a painting or collage—it was a puzzle, and playfulness was evident even in her most rationalist work. Book title pages extended over spreads, unconventional at the time. The pages were modeled on film, building up speed and motion as type stretched over pages. Elaine had found her design comfort zone.
She developed her own palette, type preferences and personal glyphs. She savored the meditative pleasure of assembling paste-ups and refining the details.
Yet she had also reached a dead end. As the sole proprietor of her home studio, she was “confined” to the same clients with whom she began. “It had backfired on me that I didn’t have [a real] office,” Elaine says. “Working alone I couldn’t do large projects.” So in 1969 she decided to turn her attention almost exclusively to painting. Coincidentally, her husband left the publishing world, which triggered some financial woes, forcing them to sell off of their modern art and ephemeral collections.
The silver lining came in their founding of Ex Libris, a rare-book dealership. For many private and institutional design collectors, Ex Libris became a wellspring of newly appreciated European avant-garde documents, and a boon to the burgeoning design history movement. Although she still accepted the occasional client, Elaine primarily did the Ex Libris catalogs, which she would design in an appropriate historical manner. Those catalogs, rare today, are incredible resources for design research. (Her daughter, Tamar, designed some of the later catalogs.)
By 1970, Elaine saw painting and design as separate but equal practices. She turned to collage and printmaking, combining type and image where possible, but not in a commercial manner. In 1995, Elaine’s designs were featured in an exhibition, curated by Ellen Lupton, at the Cooper-Hewitt, and her artwork continues to be shown at New York’s Julie Saul Gallery, among other venues.
For her 80th birthday, 52 years after first taking the reins of her design practice, Elaine produced a series of five giclée prints, in a limited edition of five each, celebrating her life in graphic design. The series came about, she says, “as I became involved in creating alphabets in Adobe Illustrator, which led to a series of letterform landscapes.”
Elaine Lustig Cohen began in her husband’s shadow, yet emerged among her male counterparts as an exemplar of contemporary graphic design and typography. Through Ex Libris, she became a fount of design history and a wise and generous resource for scholars and students of design. She is a living link between design’s modernist past and its continually changing present.