The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Elaine Lustig Cohen, Pioneer

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Elaine in 1964, photographed by Naomi Savage (1964)

Elaine Lustig Cohen, photographed by Naomi Savage

I was sad to hear that designer Elaine Lustig Cohen had died aged 89 last week. She will forever be associated with her more famous husband Alvin Lustig, but she was a remarkable designer in her own right and her influence, as Steven Heller notes at Design Observer, extended far beyond her studio:

Elaine’s professional standing far outlasted her years of practice because beyond being a pioneer, she was also the benefactor in so many ways for graphic design history, and an advocate for so many other historians, practitioners—and especially women. It is this enduring integrity and generosity that ultimately defined her highly treasured life.

Following Alvin Lustig’s death, Elaine specialized for some time in designing book covers and jackets, initially following her late husband’s aesthetic, until finding her own style and vision. For over a decade she earned commissions from museums, architects, and book publishers—including Noonday Press, whose publisher, Arthur Cohen, would become her second husband. Her own studio closed in 1967, although Elaine continued to design catalog covers for Ex Libris (the antiquarian bookstore she and Cohen ran together) focusing on avant-garde modernist books and documents. She turned instead to making art—inspired in part, by Constructivism, Dada, and the Bauhaus—and continued to do so until the end of her life.

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In a profile of the designer for Eye magazine in 1995, Ellen Lupton noted what made ELC’s book covers so distinctive…

In her covers for Meridian Books and New Directions, designed from 1955 through 1961, Elaine Lustig Cohen used abstract structural elements, expressive typography, and conceptual photographs to interpret the books’ contents. Working at a time when most book covers employed literal pictorial illustrations, Cohen visualized titles in contemporary literature and philosophy through a rich variety of approaches, from stark abstractions and concept-driven solutions to obtuse evocations that bring to mind the recent work of Chip Kidd and Barbara de Wild for Knopf.

Elaine Lustig Cohen’s cover for the journal ‘The Noble Savage’ 4 (1960) features a time-worn classical statue festooned with a typographic moustache and blasted with a star-burst pull-out quote from Darwin. For Yvor Winter‘s ‘On Modern Poets’ (1959), Cohen photographed a loose arrangement of plastic letters, while she used a field of pebbles to obliquely represent ‘The Varieties of History’ (1957). If such solutions are suggestively poetic, Cohen could also be brilliantly blunt, as in her choice of oversized, cello-wrapped bonbons for Tennessee Williams’s ‘Hard Candy’ (1959).

…A point echoed in the New York Times obituary:

She designed museum catalogs and furniture. As a book-cover designer, she followed in Mr. Lustig’s precisionist footsteps but eventually established her own, more free-form style.

“I tried to reflect the spirit of the books,” she said in a video made by AIGA, the graphic arts organization, when she was awarded its medal in 2012.

Her jacket for “Yvor Winters On Modern Poets” looked as if plastic letters had been placed on a tabletop, then jostled by a passing child. A book about St. Augustine featured his name twice, as the arms of a cross. The jacket for Tennessee Williams’s short-story collection “Hard Candy” showed extreme close-ups of cellophane-wrapped sweets, seeming to fall through the air.

You can see a selection of ELC’s book covers on her website, and the video referenced above is here:

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