In Elaine Lustig Cohen’s (1927 – 2016) own words, she was “an all-purpose secretary, production assistant and draftsperson” for her husband Alvin Lustig ― the famed American graphic design pioneer. Elaine was only 28 years old when Alvin died at the age 40 due to complications from diabetes. Out of financial necessity, after Alvin’s death in 1955, Elaine launched her own career as a graphic designer. Towards the end of her life in 2015 she told ArtForum magazine:
“I had never designed anything on my own in my life” (Campbell).
The graphic design world in 1950’s America was filled with male artists. This significant list included Paul Rand (American art director, graphic designer), Saul Bass (American graphic designer, Oscar – winning filmmaker), Milton Glaser (American graphic designer) and David Klein (American illustrator, graphic designer) and others. Many American graphic designers and illustrators owned their own studios or worked for advertising firms as art directors and designers. This is the world that Elaine Lustig Cohen found herself suddenly propelled into in 1955.
“There were no female freelancers. There were many good female designers, but they either worked in fashion, publishing, or advertising. But these were salaried positions. I started in the ’50s, but it wasn’t until the ’60s that this became more commonplace” (Barron).
Her first graphic design project was to finish her late husband’s work on the new Seagram Building in New York City situated at 375 Park Avenue. The 38-floor skyscraper designed by German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and American architect Philip Johnson was completed in 1958 and is still considered a testament to minimalist architecture today. Architect Philip Johnson asked Lustig Cohen to complete the signage project for Seagram’s which included graphic design signage for the address, the restaurants and other utilitarian functions inside and outside the building. Johnson was so impressed with Lustig Cohen’s work that he hired her to create advertisements and catalogues for the Seagram Buildings’ rental spaces in the years that followed.
Looking back on her life, Lustig Cohen reflects on her pioneering contributions to the world of graphic design in the 1950’s:
“During this period I was also a pioneer in the field of architectural identification, creating new type faces and signs for buildings by Philip Johnson and Eero Saarinen. The Seagram building at 375 Park was one of the first to establish a complete identity program throughout the building” (www.elainelustigcohen.com).
In the years, to follow Elaine Lustig Cohen would create over 150 book covers for New Directions and Meridian Books working with a diverse and extensive list of authors ― including playwrights, poets, critics and historians. Her designs drew on her belief in Modernist principles, and Lustig Cohen experimented with abstract forms, photography and text ― a contrast to the more literal approach of her contemporaries.
In 2018 the Jewish Museum in New York City did a retrospective of Lustig Cohen’s work titled Masterpieces and Curiosities: Elaine Lustig Cohen. The exhibition’s catalogue described her early influences and design practice:
“For book jackets, she described her process as one of distillation in which she would identify the central ideas of the text and render them abstractly with bold lettering, expressive forms, and playfully collaged photographic elements” (The Jewish Museum).
Between 1956 and 1970 the breadth and width of her work was astonishing. She designed company logos, museum and art gallery catalogues, advertisements and furniture.
Lustig Cohen’s other passion was painting and later in life she combined her love of design, photography and painting to create a series of collage works. Her series of portraits created in 2008-2009 included portrayals of Wassily Kadinsky, John Heartfield, Alexander Rodchenko and Paul Klee.
The range and variety of Lustig Cohen’s work is staggering and her influence was wide reaching across disciplines. For this reason it is hard to categorize Elaine Lustig Cohen. This only strengthens her legacy as a multitalented, multidisciplinary artist. She paved the way for her female peers and the next generation of female graphic designers and artists in America.
“There were certainly many male designers that didn’t take me seriously. I wasn’t part of their conversation.” (Barron)
Therefore, in this present and “different” time of 2020, this female pioneer of 1950’s American graphic design should be taken “seriously” and finally be part of the “conversation” ― recognized in graphic design text books and studied by art students around the world.
Stephen J. Eskilson’s next and fourth edition of Graphic Design A New History must include Elaine Lustig Cohen and her artistry ― finally making her part of his “conversation!” Eskilson should start this “conversation” in Chapter 8 The Triumph of the International Style under Eskilson’s heading on page 287 ― American Innovators. With sixty years of contribution to graphic design and the larger world of American art, Elaine Lustig Cohen would appear next to her husband ― Alvin Lustig on page 288. Lustig Cohen’s caliber and volume of work, and her influence in paving the way for female graphic designers, earns her a place in the written history of women artists, where they are sadly under represented.
Barron, Michael, Elaine Lustig Cohen by Michael Barron, BOMB Magazine, May 8, 2013. https://www.bombmagazine.org. Accessed March 31, 2020.
Campbell, Andrianna, Elaine Lustig Cohen reflects on her career and exhibition at the Glass House, Artforum, August 11, 2015. https://www.artforum.com. Accessed March 30, 2020.
Eskilson, Stephen J., Graphic Design A New History, Third Edition, Yale University Press, 2007 and 2019.
Gates, Anita, Elaine Lustig Cohen, Designer Who Left Her Mark Everywhere, Dies at 89, New York Times, October 7, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com. Accessed March 31, 2020.
Lustig Cohen, Elaine,https://www.elainelustigcohen.com. Accessed March 30 & 31, 2020.
The Jewish Museum, “Wall Text for Elaine Lustig Cohen Exhibition at the Jewish Museum”, https://www.thejewishmuseum.org. Accessed March 29, 2020.