Five Questions with Steven Heller About Alvin Lustig

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In the American Grain, William Carlos Williams (New Directions)

Six months ago, I wrote to Steven Heller about an idea I had for a book on the subject of designer Alvin Lustig. I asked if he would write the introductory essay, outlining Lustig’s role in modern design history. Readers of Print may remember Steve’s homage to Lustig from the Jan/Feb 2004 issue.

Not surprisingly, it turned out Steve was already working on a biography (formatted like a monograph) about Lustig’s short but illustrious career—co-authored with Lustig’s widow, Elaine Lustig Cohen. He informed me that Chronicle would be publishing Born Modern, his biography of Lustig, this fall. Now, I can’t think of anyone in the world of design who has written more books than Steve. Yet, somehow, Born Modern took him almost 10 years to complete.

“Time goes too quickly when you’re having a good time,” he told me recently. “I started working with Lustig material awhile ago. Elaine and I gave a few talks together. But writing a professional biography, as I did with Paul Rand, is not easy for me. It requires being part of someone else’s life for a while. I did get distracted by other interests, but am pleased with the outcome. I’ll say this, however, had it not been for Elaine and her extensive archive of letters and documents, this could not have been accomplished. Having his letters to quote from enables Lustig’s voice to be heard. With the Rand book, even though I never planned to do it when he was alive, at least I knew him and taped many hours of conversation. Alvin died in 1955. I was a baby then.”

Personally, I discovered Lustig’s work by accident. His book jacket designs for New Directions, the avant-garde publisher of modern literature and poetry started by James Laughlin in 1936, caught my attention in high school. Until Born Modern came into existence, no book had compiled Lustig’s work in one collection, despite his obvious influence on design, especially in the arena of book jackets.

Customarily on the interviewer-side of a conversation, Steve was gracious enough to take the time to answer some questions about Lustig’s design sense and extraordinarily brief life.

The Ghost in the Underblows, 1940. Interior illustrations.

J.C.: In your introduction to Born Modern, you wrote that, “Lustig seized the opportunity and developed a distinct, innovative graphic language combining abstract art and modern typography, conceiving a style that we will call expressionistic Modernism, which was unlike anything else seen at the time in the literary marketplace.” Did Lustig’s literary bent help him stand out or was it just coincidence?

Steve: It was nothing like anything seen. I did not get the impression that Lustig went into the book jacket biz with a literary bent. He did, however, have the temerity to try just about anything. And since, as a kid, he was interested in designing his way, he just, well, designed his way. So, I guess “confidence” is the right word. It was ballsiness. He had a vision—wherever it came from—and he pursued it. He was largely self-taught.

J.C.: Do you think his “rejection of literalism” drove his creativity?

Steve: I think this rejection was somehow psychologically engrained in his mind. But, he was a magician as a kid—and a fairly accomplished one by the age of twelve. Magicians try all sorts of ways to disrupt our patterns of seeing and thinking. That’s their job—they must fool, deceive, trick but otherwise provide their audience with an alternate reality. So, magic drove his creative mind.

Poems, Wilfred Owen (New Directions

J.C.: How do you think Lustig initially developed his geometric/typographical style—what you refer to, quite aptly, as “witty glyphs”?

Steve: He seems to have appreciated abstract art. Judging from his library, he was aware of Klee. He always kept a pre-Columbian statue in all his offices. He appreciated the past and wanted to engage the present and future. The geometries I believe came from his interest in Frank Lloyd Wright. But also, as a magician, he enjoyed the tools of the trade. When he turned to type, the tools were the type-case components and typesetting furniture.

J.C.: When Lustig moved back to L.A. in the mid-’40s, he branched out into architecture, furniture, fabric design, etc. Had he become bored with book design? Or was he just challenging himself to work in other media?

Steve: Lustig was not bored. He was just not bound by restrictions. He wanted to be a designer, not a book cover designer. His interests were what we’d call renaissance. He saw design as his calling—he had a curious religious bent, although born into a Jewish family. One of his friends said he had a Messianic complex. Elaine Lustig Cohen, with whom I did this book, and was his wife, did not see it. But others saw the missionary in him.

J.C.: Of his architectural work, what still exists? I know the Beverly Carlton Apartment Hotel is now the Avalon Hotel, one of my favorite places to stay in Los Angeles. On the contrary, the Northland Mall no longer exhibits any of Lustig’s design identity.

Steve: There are not many or any physical structures left. Some of the furniture and lighting and a Paramount chair exists. Bill Segal, who published American Fabrics and Gentry, had his office and apartment designed by Lustig, but all that remains is a bunch of furniture pieces in Segal’s widow’s apartment. The stuff looks like it should be in MoMA. Modern furniture doesn’t wear well. It has a patina like old Bauhaus objects. It’s funny to see mid-century “Modern” age. It is not as graceful as Biedermeier. It’s the way I think of Bridget Bardot having aged versus Kate Hepburn.

Lustig interior, 1951-52; Living room in Lustron rental house, Croton-on-the-Hudson.

Steven Heller talks about the life of Alvin Lustig at 6pm tonight at School of Visual Arts. More information here.