Spring 2011

A passion for graphic expression

Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig

Steven Heller and Elaine Lustig Cohen, Chronicle Books, $50, £35

A passage in Born Modern recounts how the 39-year-old graphic designer Alvin Lustig invited his clients to a cocktail party to tell them that his eyesight had deteriorated to such an extent that he was effectively blind (he had been diagnosed with diabetes as a teenager). Knowing that Lustig’s vision and passion for design were ingrained in his psyche and would remain unchanged, his clients were undaunted. In what was to be the last year of his life, Lustig found that he was just as busy as ever.

Born Modern makes one wonder what might have happened had Lustig lived longer, to a time when contemporaries such as Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Will Burtin and Charles and Ray Eames had all gone on to shape and further the course of US design. To their credit, it is a theme with which the joint authors, the prolific Steven Heller and Lustig’s widow, the designer Elaine Lustig Cohen, have chosen not to define his life and career. More important to them is the wealth of design that Lustig managed to achieve in such a relatively short creative life and its lasting influence.

Although only 40 when he died in 1955, Lustig had achieved considerable notoriety and an outstanding body of work, which is firmly documented by the book. He was a pre-eminent presence in US design circles as a practitioner and spokesperson as well as a passionate educator. He had been featured in a joint exhibition at MoMA in New York with the Italian designer Bruno Munari and had been negotiating to write a wide-ranging book on design for the publishers Knopf (a précis of which is included in the book), which would have gone some way to fill the vacuum in design publishing in America after Paul Rand’s 1947 book Thoughts on Design.

The book’s co-authors split Lustig’s career into its component parts: separate chapters explore work in print, three-dimensional design, life as an educator and his writing. To Lustig these areas would have been inseparable. Design was a holistic exercise that could not be compartmentalised, and as a creative polymath he was prepared to take on any design project, from fabrics to helicopter design to architecture, in a seamless fashion. He also saw commenting on and teaching design as being intrinsically linked to his profession. I suspect though that even Lustig would have to agree to some sort of organisation for the purposes of this book, and the text is significantly cross-referenced to remind the reader of the differing aspects of his work at any single point in his life.

His fame justifiably rests on the strength of his graphic design work, especially the exemplary book jackets for publishers New Directions, Meridian and Knopf (among others), which are well represented in this lavishly illustrated book. However his work as a jobbing young designer in Los Angeles armed only with a small selection of metal ornaments and a proofing press provide some of the most vibrant and dynamic images in the book. Lustig’s less celebrated 3D design shows how committed a Modernist he was; the spaces he designed for his own studios and homes demonstrate the way he conceived nearly every fitting and piece of furniture.

The book draws on a wealth of material, including letters, personal recollections and unpublished essays, which not only helps to build a picture of Lustig as a designer and person but also gives an important glimpse into the business of design in the mid-twentieth century. Correspondence with New Directions publisher James Laughlin provides an insight into the day-to-day issues of Lustig’s jacket designs and the passion he had for finding new graphic expressions. This is demonstrated by his change from a lyrical, hand-drawn aesthetic to the more hard-edged photographic collage typified by his influential and iconic cover for Lorca’s 3 Tragedies.

Born Modern places Lustig as a linchpin of American twentieth-century design and provides a more than fitting record of his work and life that needs to be an essential part of any design library (next to Heller’s history of Paul Rand). It is a book that needs to be read not to wonder at what might have been, but to marvel at what was achieved in such a short creative life.

First published in Eye no. 79 vol. 20 2011

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.