Elaine Lustig Cohen Interview
by Michael Barron
I first met the artist and designer Elaine Lustig Cohen through the website dedicated to her former husband, the legendary designer Alvin Lustig. Back in 2006, I had been asked to get in touch with the estate regarding his jacket designs for New Directions: we were hoping to replace intermediate designs on some of our books with the original Lustigs. I was an editorial assistant at the time; New Directions was still going through a generational change. Emails were considered unofficial. One senior editor told me to type a letter, “preferably with a typewriter.” Another told me to call. But I had neither an address nor an number. So I emailed the webmaster of the Alvin Lustig site and hoped for the best. Elaine herself answered my inquiry—it was the first contact she had had with New Directions since its founder James Laughlin passed away in 1997.
That was almost seven years ago. Yet over the years, Elaine and I have teamed together in promoting the legacy of Alvin Lustig. Many of New Directions’ classic titles now proudly wear their original Lustig jackets. This May, New Directions will issue an Alvin Lustig postcard collection: 50 of his best ND designs in a box.
Since our first meeting, I have also come to discover Elaine’s incredible body of work. A couple of years after our initial contact, she invited me to her opening at the Julie Saul Gallery. The exhibit was called, “The Geometry of Seeing” and it displayed the sort of opus only a designer cum artist could develop—a prototype for a sewing kit, a giclée of a geometric Alphabet, a collage made from old train tickets, and a wooden box adorned with colored cubes, among other pieces.
In the course of this Alvin Lustig revival, Elaine has also garnered widespread attention and acclaim as an artist. She began as a book designer for New Directions and Meridian Books. Architects such as Eero Saarinan and Philip Johnson hired her to do the lettering for their buildings. In the 1960s, Elaine worked as a designer for the Jewish museum, producing some of her most opulent and iconic designs. For the catalog cover of Primary Structures, a full-bodied “P” is cut neatly in two by a red line that folds below it into the curvature of an “S.” In the layout for Kinetic Sculptures the two words look as though caught in an eddy. Around this time, she began showing her artwork outside of design—collages and paintings that nod ever so slightly to Dadaism. Elaine’s recent exhibitions in the Julie Saul Gallery, the Adler and Konkright Gallery, and the AIGA Gallery, where her work was shown alongside Alvin’s, are a testament to her success as an artist. In 2011, she was awarded the American Institute of Graphic Arts medal.
This interview took place at Elaine’s Upper East Side home. The interior of her townhouse is touched with a designer’s sensibility—everything in its right place, from the curation and layout of art to the selection and placement of furniture. Speaking with Elaine is like cracking open a volume of 20th-century American design history. At 85, Elaine’s memory is as sharp as her knowledge is erudite. She speaks with a modest firmness, doubtless in her affirmation of fact, but humble about her accomplishments.
Michael Barron How did you get your start as a designer? Was it in Alvin’s studio?
Elaine Lustig Cohen Well, for a long time he was the only designer in the studio.
MB What was the impetus for him allowing you to do some work?
ELC Alvin had been losing his sight for a long time from diabetes. What happens with young diabetics—Alvin had been diabetic since he was a teenager—is that the capillaries break behind the eyes, and the vision becomes foggy.
MB Near the end of his life, how did he continue to design?
ELC He dictated what he wanted us to do for him—he referred to colors he knew. Very specific colors.
Elaine’s memory is as sharp as her knowledge is erudite. She speaks with a modest firmness, doubtless in her affirmation of fact, but humble about her accomplishments.
MB Something like Van Gogh’s sunflower yellow, for instance.
ELC Right. And typography—he would give very specific instructions, for instance: 24-point Caledonia with 1-point spacing and placement. For the design for Dylan Thomas’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, his instructions were, “Put a portrait of Thomas above a portrait of a dog with a cigarette in it’s mouth.” So that’s what we did.
MB Did Alvin and Laughlin have a good relationship?
ELC Yes, they did, especially early on. Have you ever seen all the letters Alvin wrote to Laughlin?
MB I’ve seen a few, but not many.
ELC But you have seen some?
MB Yes, though I don’t remember where . . . maybe in The Way it Wasn’t.
ELC The complete letters are stored in the New Directions archive at Harvard. There are many of them.
MB Why all the correspondence with Laughlin, specifically?
ELC Because Alvin was in Los Angeles and Laughlin was in New York. They didn’t meet that often. During the mid-1940s, Alvin was constantly traveling between New York where he worked for Look, and Los Angeles where he lived. So he would write to JL while he was traveling. This was an important time because Alvin was figuring out who he was as a designer, and Laughlin offered him freedom to explore. Alvin knew JL believed in him, and that really bolstered his confidence.
MB There was no design solution that Alvin was not able to consider. He did everything from interior decorations, buildings, and even a helicopter, which is so wonderfully random. Where do you think his designs were headed had he stayed alive?
ELC Who knows? Alvin believed so much in the power of design that he would try anything at least once. One of my favorite stories was we were sitting in a friend’s living room and our friend said to Alvin. “You know, it’s very dark in this corner. I need to buy a new light.” And Alvin said, “I have no idea what light to buy, but if you want me to redesign your room, I will.”
ELC When Alvin realized he was losing his sight, he decided to throw a party to announce that he would continue to design. Some of the people who attended were the architect Philip Johnson, a representative from the Girl Scouts of America, and the publisher for Meridian Books, Arthur Cohen. I married him after Alvin passed away.
Soon after this party, Alvin passed away. The clients who attended called me and said, “We want you to continue to do these projects.” So that was my in. I had training. I could do it.
MB You had an arts degree?
ELC Not only that, but my first two years at college I had a really remarkable teacher who taught a fantastic design course—he later wrote a book in the ’50s called The Fundamentals of Design—but his course wasn’t design like graphic design, it was design in the Bauhaus sense, where you study form, color, shape, and making three-dimensional objects.
I had also studied art education. The first year I was married to Alvin I taught junior high school, which was an awful experience—I was too young to teach 14-year-olds. I left teaching to work in the studio. I learned to set type and prepare mechanicals. After Alvin died, I felt confident enough to take over his projects.
“I left teaching to work in the studio. I learned to set type and prepare mechanicals. After Alvin died, I felt confident enough to take over his projects.”
MB You certainly didn’t disappear from the design scene once he passed away. Did the work keep coming in?
ELC It did. The shift to being on my own was a little frightening, but because of the support I had I went ahead with the work. Alvin died in December, and I was working by January to finish these commissions. I did the architectural lettering for Philips’s Seagram Building, and I designed brochures for the Girl Scouts and book jackets for Meridian. That kept me going. I started to build a group of clients from recommendations of architects and other publishers. It wasn’t until the ’60s that I really came into my own. It was at that time that I did all the catalogs and design work for the Jewish Museum.
MB Did these last commissions include any New Directions covers? Like In the Winter of Cities?
ELC Yes. Laughlin came to me and said, “I’d like you to do some jackets,” right after Alvin died. I think the first one was In the Winter of Cities and then I did Baby Doll and I did Hard Candy and then I did the book Sorrows of Priapice, and there was a Meridian/New Directions co-publication.
MB Oh, the New Directions Anthology 15.
ELC Yes, I think that’s it . . .
MB When you started freelancing graphic design work, were there a lot of female graphic designers at that time?
ELC There were no female freelancers. There were many good female designers, but they either worked in fashion, publishing, or advertising. But these were salaried positions. I started in the ’50s, but it wasn’t until the ’60s that this became more commonplace.
MB Did you feel any prejudice about being one?
ELC Not from clients. I had many recommendations from architects and other clients I worked for. There were certainly many male designers that didn’t take me seriously. I wasn’t part of their conversation, even though I was included in many AIGA publications. It didn’t matter to me. I never thought about design as a business—the visual was my life.
“There were certainly many male designers that didn’t take me seriously. I wasn’t part of their conversation, even though I was included in many AIGA publications. It didn’t matter to me. I never thought about design as a business—the visual was my life.”
MB Who were some of your biggest supporters?
ELC Eero Saarinen, the designer of the St. Louis Arch, was one. He commissioned me to do building identification—things like signage to identify buildings. I met him through his wife Aline, who was an art critic for the Times. Saarinen also recommended me to the Federal Aviation Agency—they wanted a new look. It was a wonderful project—it was never completed. Philip Johnson was another supporter. I worked with Philip on his museum projects doing catalog designs and lettering. In 1960, five architects worked on the Lincoln Center project. Half of the architects wanted me to do the architectural lettering, and the other half wanted Chermayeff & Geismar to do it, so we split the work. In the end, none of the designs we completed were used.
MB Ah, I would have loved to see them.
ELC The only thing I think still exists is an alphabet I designed for Philip Johnson’s New York State Theater Building.
MB How’d you become friends with Philip?
ELC I knew Philip from the MOMA. During the ’40s and ’50s, MOMA was a small institution. I knew Mildred Constantine who was the curator of design, and Alfred Barr, the director. Alvin had studied under Frank Lloyd Wright for a very short time at Tellies and East. While he was there, he met Edgar Kaufman Jr. who was also a student there. Edgar became the architectural curator at MOMA. Philip took over from Edgar, which is where I met him.
MB How did Ex Libris get started with all this freelancing work coming in?
ELC A lot of things were changing in my life during that time. I had finished up a long-term freelancing job as a designer for the Jewish Museum. Arthur sold Meridian to World Publishing Company in 1960, which turned out to be not a good fit for him. At that time, we both thought we could live off of our freelancing incomes. We quickly found out wasn’t true. So that’s when Ex Libris started.
MB Ex Libris wasn’t exactly a publisher. It was something different, right?
ELC Right. Ex Libris was an antiquarian establishment that sold “Rare 20th Century Art and Architecture Books and Periodicals.”
MB What started this idea?
ELC I was at an antiquarian bookstore one day, and I saw a Marinetti book with typographic fold-outs. The reason I knew this book was because I had seen reproductions of these pages in many graphic design magazines. I bought it because it seemed rather inexpensive. This started the collection of avant-garde books and ephemera.
MB Where did you find most of this material?
ELC At the time you could go to Europe and buy this material from antiquarian books and from the artists themselves—many of them from the ’20s were still alive. If we saw something we hadn’t come across before, we bought it regardless of its condition. If we saw it again in a better condition, we bought that too. The prices for this material were all in an affordable range, and eventually the collection got out of hand. Always needing money we decided to sell some of the duplicates. Arthur put a little ad in the Times that said, “send for my list of Dada, Surrealist, Avant-Garde periodicals and ephemera.” The response was very good. That was the start of Ex Libris. There were two things that really put us on the map: our location and our catalogs. When we started, Ex Libris was one of the only establishments of our kind in the United States—most other places were in Europe. So our catalogs were of immediate interest here to American buyers. You’ve seen all those, haven’t you?
MB A couple. They’re fantastic.
ELC We sent them out to every museum in the world.
MB And this was all original material?
ELC All original material. In other words, it included things like the Schwiters’s Dada publications, Picabia’s magazines, ephemera for every exhibition that was done in the teens, and the twenties, and the thirties. Today people buy conceptual books, or they buy Fluxus. But we were lucky because it was a time when museums and libraries had very little of this material.
MB Why was that? This kind of art is so revered today.
ELC The antiquarian book audience is very different from the arts scene. In other words, if you spend a great deal of money on one book, you put it in a closet. Where as with a painting, it’s on the wall. Everyone knows how much you spent on it.
MB Where is all this Ex Libris material now?
ELC I still have a small collection, but most of it has been sold in the last few years.
MB I keep looking at one of your own collages behind you. Did all the Dada work have an influence on your work?
ELC No, that came out of a series of postcards. Years ago, in the early part of the century, people wrote on the photo on the front of the postcard—there was no place to write on the back. There was only space for the address. So, say, if you had a picture of a woman, you wrote all over her. I bought one of those old postcards, and it had writing on the front, and so I decided that I would write something on it as well. It became a dialogue between all of these people: me, the person who wrote the original message, and the person who took the photograph. So I did a number of these postcards. They were mostly from Europe. Then I started to work on Japanese postcards, but that didn’t apply in the same way—I finally decided to do kimonos around those postcards. The wonderful thing about being an artist is you never know exactly where you are going with a process.
MB It sort of leads you unexpectedly . . .
ELC Right. You’re always opening another door and finding something unexpected. I’ve always tended to be more of a collagist from my earliest paper dolls. I like the idea of all these pieces of paper all with a history of their own coming together.
“The wonderful thing about being an artist is you never know exactly where you are going with a process.”
MB Do you ever use modern materials? Like plastic?
ELC I don’t use plastic, no. In the ’80’s, before plastic became the eternal ephemera of today, I used to find pieces of wood at construction sites. I’d paint them and combine them with other things—again, it’s a collage technique. I have boxes and boxes upstairs of collage material from when I used to go through all the European flea markets and find ticket stubs from the ’20s, antique paper, envelopes, postcards, etc.
MB What do you think about this whole surge of interest that’s kind of happened in the last six years or so with you and Alvin’s work—
ELC That’s been unbelievable.
MB Did you see it coming or did it bloom out of nowhere?
ELC Look, for years no one was interested in Alvin’s work. In the ’70s, I still had his whole archive here, and I gave a large part of it to the Archive of American Art. In the ’80s, the Rochester Institute of Technology started a collection of graphic designer’s archives. This design collection is one-of-a-kind in the United States.
MB I came to discover Alvin’s works through the website, and that’s actually how I met you. What was the impetus for creating a site for Alvin’s work?
ELC For years I had been getting requests from people looking for Alvin’s work for publishing and design books. Or sometimes from collectors who wanted to see the whole archive. There was no comprehensive place for them to see the collection. Then I was approached by two designers, Greg D’Onofrio and Patricia Belen. They have a firm called Kind Company that, among other things, designs websites. As admirers of Lustig’s work, they offered to build a website. The site launched in 2006 and the response was enormous.
MB How so?
ELC Well, suddenly the archive was available to everyone. Word got around through blogs and magazines. One thing led to another—there was show at the International Art + Design Fair in 2007 sponsored by Bard. The time finally arrived to do a book on Alvin Lustig. Steve Heller and I had been talking about putting this together for years. Born Modern was published in 2010 designed by my daughter, Tamar Cohen. In the fall of 2012, the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul put together an exhibition of Alvin’s work which traveled to the AIGA in New York. And now, New Directions is finally doing a postcard collection, which will be available in May.
MB Yes, finally. It’s been a great project to work on. People are very excited about them.
ELC And you’ve been putting Alvin’s jackets back on the books, too.
MB Yes, we’ve been rediscovering Lustig’s ND designs and bringing them back into print—In the American Grain, The Flowers of Evil, The Princess of Cleves, A Season in Hell, etc.—those all wear their Lustig jackets again. And people recognize them! Yet, if we had tried to do a Lustig postcard collection in, say, 2006 when I first met you, I don’t think it would’ve got anywhere.
ELC Well, it’s good you are bringing them out. And I think these will do really well. I mean with all the blogging and social networking. It’s his time.
MB Was there ever a time when Alvin was, well, forgotten?
ELC He was never really forgotten, but his work didn’t have the young audience it has now. This is really the first generation to venerate him. That’s the difference. I remember putting together a show of Alvin’s work back in 1977 at the AIGA when it was on 3rd Ave. But outside of that little exhibit, there was no attention for years. When Alvin awarded the AIGA medal posthumously in ’93, they published an article about him. Not much happened after that, until now.
MB I’m curious, who’s going to take care of your work and legacy when you are gone? Have you thought of putting together an online archive? Perhaps a website like Alvin’s?
ELC It’s all scanned and organized for archiving. But I’d want to include everything, not just my designs. All my collages and art and whatnot. I have drawers full of work going back fifty years or so. It would be a big undertaking to figure out what to put on the site, and what to leave out. I don’t think I should include everything; it would be best to curate it a bit. We’ll see.
Michael Barron is a writer and associate editor for New Directions living in New York City. This article was originally published at bombmagazine.org on May 8, 2013.