Alvin Lustig: Born Modern
Recently, I was invited by the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco to give a Design Gallery Chat on Alvin Lustig, one of the designers represented in the Museum’s exhibition, Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism.
Lustig, the subject of Steven Heller and Elaine Lustig Cohen’s monograph, Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig, blossomed in the post-World World War II era when the U.S. was bursting with optimism and opportunity.
After years of deprivation from the Great Depression and the sacrifices of World War II, there was pent-up demand for consumer goods, many of which are represented in the exhibition. Those goods required packaging and advertising, and the companies that made them needed to convey a contemporary image. These conditions meant opportunities for designers of all disciplines, as well as manufacturers.
Among those designers who emerged after the War–including George Nelson, Saul Bass, Charles and Ray Eames, and Paul Rand (featured on the blog last week)—Alvin Lustig was someone whom I would call an uber-designer.
Though trained as such, he exceeded the norms of what we think of as a graphic designer. In addition to book covers and record sleeves, he designed textiles, lighting, furniture, signage, interiors, and even a helicopter.
Lustig chair, designed for Paramount Furniture, 1949 | Pendant Light fixture, ca. 1953
Roteron helicopter, 1945 | LP album cover, for Columbia Records, 1953
In Los Angeles, where he grew up and was educated at Art Center, Lustig gravitated toward kindred spirits, designers such as Saul Bass, Rudolph de Harak, and Lou Danziger. They formed an affinity group, the Los Angeles Society of Contemporary Designers. According to de Harak, it was a matter of solidarity, being a continent away from New York, then, as now, the center of publishing and the nascent media.
Among his multi-faceted design interests, it’s Lustig’s book cover design that he excelled at and is perhaps best known for. His covers for New Directions are a case in point: many are still in print and have recently been celebrated in a set of postcards.
Lustig’s work had a European sensibility, one brought to this country by emigres who fled Europe while they could and settled in population centers: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. They worked, they taught, and they influenced young American designers.
The elements that comprised his covers: stark typography–some hand-lettered–image fragments, vernacular photography, references to modern art (Klee, Miro, Rothko, et al) can be found in book cover design today.
At the time Lustig began to design covers, the tendency was toward the representational or illustrative of a scene taken from the book.
Lustig was an iconoclast: he broke with that tradition and transformed cover design into an art form, one based on pure art and typography.
Contemporary cover designers Chip Kidd and Peter Mendelsund do today, what Lustig did then: he read the text to get the feel of what the author is driving at–then he restated it in his own graphic terms.
It’s this abstraction of a book’s editorial thrust that makes Lustig’s covers compelling.
The book covers are suggestive, not literal. They whet your intellectual curiosity. New Directions publisher James Laughlin was the patron who gave Lustig the opportunity to explore the boundaries of what constituted book cover design.
Also worth noting in this day and age of full color printing, almost all of New Directions’ New Classics were executed in two colors. Photography was the technology of the day and Lustig employed various photographic techniques in his designs. That was a breakthrough at the time for works of literature.
But these were not merely design exercises. The designs had a positive impact on sales.
Publisher James Laughlin said as much, too. He had a few of his New Classics in print before he commissioned Lustig to do more: “They were jacketed in a very conservative, ‘booky’ way. Sales were pretty dreary. Then we brightened the books up with the Lustig covers. Immediately, they began to move…it is perhaps not a very good thing that people should buy books by eye. In fact, it’s a very bad thing. People should buy books for their literary merit. But since I have never published a book which I didn’t consider a serious literary work–and never intend to–I have had no bad conscience about using Lustig to increase sales. His beautiful designs are helping to make a mass audience aware of high quality reading.” (James Laughlin, “The Book Jackets of Alvin Lustig,” Print, Oct/Nov 1956, as seen in Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig.)
In due course, seeking work and a place in the hub of the design world, Lustig moved to New York and became a visual research director at LOOK magazine. He also began designing interiors and continued his own graphic design practice.
Teaching was another facet of Lustig’s professional life. In the late 1940s he taught at Art Center, and, at the invitation of former Bauhaus professor Josef Albers, taught at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Among his fellow faculty members were Buckminster Fuller, John Cage and Robert Motherwell.
Later, Albers invited Lustig to Yale as a visiting critic. While there he proposed a curriculum for an “Experimental Workshop in Graphic Design”.
The diabetes that afflicted Lustig as a youth eventually claimed his life. By 1950 his vision began to fail and he directed his wife Elaine to complete work he could no longer clearly see. He died in 1955 at age 40.
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