Elaine Lustig Cohen is a pioneer. Not only did she pick up where her late husband, Alvin Lustig, left off after his passing at just 40 years old, but she blazed her own trail in a male-dominated world of modern design, navigating all the prejudices that went with it. Greg D’Onofrio and Patricia Belen of Kind Company and founders of Display, are the creators of the Alvin Lustig website. They’ve made a similar living history site devoted to Elaine, which launched recently. I asked D’Onofrio to talk a bit about Elaine and the site.
What is the site going to tell us about Elaine Lustig Cohen?
Elaine has had an exemplary life, making lasting contributions to the visual profiles of design, art and education. She’s had multiple careers and accomplishments, beginning in the 1950s as Alvin Lustig’s assistant and then as an independent graphic designer after he passed away. From 1969 to the present, Elaine has been a practicing artist in painting and collage. In between, she specialized in 20th-century avant-garde books at Ex Libris, the celebrated bookstore she owned with her second husband, Arthur Cohen. Her work encompasses a variety of fields: book jacket design, catalog design, advertising, building signage, collage, painting, prints, and the list goes on. After working for over six decades, Elaine continues to be an influential presence.
What materials are unique to this site?
Many people are familiar with her book jackets, especially from her AIGA Medal in 2011 and the wonderful exhibit The Lustigs: A Cover Story 1933–61 at AIGA and the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul, MN. But even within her graphic design work, there is a lot to be discovered and rediscovered. In the 1960s, she designed important catalogs for the Jewish Museum’s groundbreaking exhibitions for Jasper Johns, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, Sol Lewitt, Donald Judd and more—all young artists at the time. Throughout the 400+ examples on the site, you can see Elaine’s recurring interest in early 20th-century European Modernism, particularly in the collage portraits where she pays tribute to her heroes including Sonia Delaunay, László Moholy-Nagy and Kurt Schwitters, among others.
Where does Elaine stand in the design continuum?
She is a pioneer of American graphic design and a significant link to its Modernist lineage. The knowledge she absorbed from Alvin and the ideas she inherited from avant-garde art movements including Constructivism, Dadaism, Futurism, Surrealism and the Bauhaus enabled her to experiment freely. Her typographic, abstract and photographic book jacket and catalog designs are a unique style of American modernism characterized by inventiveness and clarity.
How will you grow the site over time?
If we uncover items that are not included but fit within the website, we’ll determine where and how to add them. With such a wide range of work, it’s impossible to include everything but we’ll do our best to make the website an inspirational and educational resource for students, practicing designers/artists, collectors and scholars. In addition, if there are new articles, publications or exhibitions about Elaine’s work, we will include them. For example, P! Gallery has recently been exhibiting some of her paintings that are generating a renewed interest. We hope her work will continue to be discovered by new audiences.
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