Bibliophiles beware: an upcoming exhibition of the work of Alvin Lustig and Elaine Lustig Cohen will likely frustrate you. It is sure to trigger pangs of belletristic acquisitiveness and perhaps even launch you on a new book-buying addiction—yet even the most dedicated collector will find it difficult to match the quality of the books displayed in this design show.
Opening September 20 at the College of Visual Arts Gallery in Saint Paul, Minnesota, “The Lustigs: A Cover Story” could be the definitive gathering of design by the two midcentury modernists. It collects more than 500 covers—of paperback and hardcover books, magazines, and catalogs—by Alvin, who died in 1955, and Elaine, who carried on her husband’s practice and quickly became an equally accomplished designer. According to Lustig Cohen, the exhibition marks the first time that their work has been shown side by side. (Each has had major individual exhibitions, Alvin at the Walker Art Center in 1950 and at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955; Elaine at the Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum, in 1995.)
The show was a delight for this reader’s eyes. Gazing at the bold and colorful use of art and typography in each cover, I found myself wanting to read all of the books in the collection. And such heavy-hitting authors! There are titles by William Carlos Williams, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce, to name just a few.
Curated by two members of the College of Visual Arts graphic design faculty, Michael Skjei and Kolean Pitner, the show spans major runs of literary book series such as New Classics and New Directions, and publishers like Knopf, Meridian Books, and the Museum of Modern Art. It is an impressive body of work that shows how consistent and consistently creative the two designers were—especially during a particularly prolific period in the mid-1940s, the ’50s, and into the ’60s.
In Steven Heller and Elaine Lustig Cohen’s book, Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig, the authors describe his cover-design process:
Lustig seldom relied on literal solutions [for his cover designs]. His method was to read a manuscript to get the feel of the “author’s creative drive,” then restate it in his own graphic terms. This approach could easily be confused with art for art’s sake, or style for style’s sake, since the cover designs were so far from providing any literal clue to the plot or content.
For example, Lustig’s book cover for The Final Hours, by José Suárez Carreño (Knopf, 1953—see it here), is a strong composition of unequal quadrants—red in the lower left, yellow in the upper right, and white in opposite corners—split down the middle by a spiky black form that suggests a chasm pushing back the edges of the cover. The title, in lowercase italic white type, is stacked vertically against this chasm; the author’s name, also in lowercase italics, is shoved up to the very top edge, with “josé” separated from the author’s surname by a spike of black. With simple, efficient means, the composition sets up a jangling anticipation of the book’s contents.
Although the early examples in the show are of Lustig’s covers dating from 1933 to 1955, a major portion of the work on display is by Lustig Cohen, with her 90 covers for Meridian Books, 33 covers for other publishers, and 24 books and catalogs for the Jewish Publishing Society.
Many of the books on display are from the collection of co-curator Michael Skjei, but a good many are on loan from the Rochester Institute of Technology archives, Elaine Lustig Cohen’s personal collection, and other private collections.
The exhibition preview takes place on September 19 with a lecture by Print’s own Steven Heller. “The Lustigs: A Cover Story” is part of the College of Visual Arts’ annual Leaders of Design series, with support from the AIGA Minnesota and local design firms.
For those who can’t make it to Saint Paul, here is a selection of book covers from the show: