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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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).
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
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
The distinguished AIGA Medal is awarded to individuals in recognition of their exceptional achievements in the field of design.
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