Elaine Lustig Cohen began her design career as a self-described “office slave.” Having married the modernist graphic designer Alvin Lustig in 1948 (when she was 21 and he was 33), she went to work in his studio, helping manage the day-to-day affairs and serving as a de facto production assistant and draftsperson, executing his designs alongside a handful of other assistants. Although she had studied art at Tulane University and the University of Southern California, and took a great interest in the aesthetics of Constructivism and the Bauhaus, she had no formal design background and Lustig had little desire to teach her the graphic design trade. As she would later recall, “It was, after all, a different time.” Yet Lustig’s deteriorating health and failing eyesight from diabetes made him increasingly reliant on her skills, and his early death at age 40 thrust Lustig Cohen into her own design practice.
Before starting her own graphic design practice, Lustig Cohen served as an “office slave” in her husband Alvin Lustig’s studio. Image, 1949, via elainelustigcohen.com
Not that she had much say in the matter. Just two weeks after Lustig’s passing in 1955, Lustig Cohen received a call from the architect Philip Johnson, who told her to “Get on with it! Do it.” “It” was the signage for the Seagram Building in New York, which Johnson had previously commissioned Lustig to design (he died before starting work on the project). So at Johnson’s urging Lustig Cohen took on the project and began a longstanding collaboration with the famous architect. “I had never designed anything on my own in my life, but I did every piece,” she told Artforum last August, “the 375 address outside, the Brasserie sign, the firehose connections, switches, even things that wouldn’t be seen. It helped me survive for three years. I did all the catalogues for every museum he designed, every piece that had lettering on it. Philip was very fast and always had three ideas for every one idea you showed him, but if I stuck to my guns he would always go with my instincts.”
Lustig Cohen’s alphabet for the Seagram Building’s signage, 1957, via elainelustigcohen.com
Lustig Cohen’s design for the Seagram Building’s exterior signage at 375 Park Avenue in New York, 1957, via elainelustigcohen.com
From this first project, Lustig Cohen’s solo practice flourished and she received graphic design commissions from other architects, including Eero Saarinen and Richard Meier, as well as from a number of cultural institutions and book publishers. Her designs for a series of Meridian Books paperbacks are perhaps her most recognizable. Lustig had designed the first 25 covers to much acclaim; Lustig Cohen carried on the commission, designing more than 100 additional covers for the publisher. Using collages, photographs, found illustrations and playful typographic treatments, she created witty juxtapositions that each expressed an “idea that tells the flavor” of the book.
Book cover for Witchcraft by Charles Williams for Meridian Books, 1959, courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Book cover for Politics: Who Gets What, When, How by Harold Lasswell for Meridian Books, 1958, courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Book cover for Hard Candy by Tennessee Williams for New Direction Books, 1959, courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Another important client was the Jewish Museum in New York, for which she created a visual identity in 1963 as well as more than 20 museum catalogues, invitations and other printed materials. Because of the breadth of her designs and the high caliber of her clients, it’s easy to take Lustig Cohen’s work for granted, but as she pointed out in an interview with BOMB magazine, “There were no female freelancers [in graphic design]. 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.”
Invitation for the Jewish Museum, New York, 1964, courtesy Museum Associates/LACMA
Lustig Cohen worked independently from her home studio, a setup that she says later “backfired” because she never had the capacity to take on larger projects. Instead of growing the studio, she turned to painting in 1969 and began working exclusively on her fine-art practice. A few years later she also established a rare-book dealership called Ex Libris with her second husband, Arthur Cohen, publisher of Meridian Books, whom she had married in 1956. Their collection focused on printed materials and ephemera from the European avant-garde. To advertise Ex Libris’s holdings, Lustig Cohen designed a series of catalogues that have become collector’s items in their own right.
Ex Libris Catalogue 16, 1989, courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum