Alvin Lustig was born into poverty in Denver, Colorado in 1915 and was not initially destined for greatness in the field of graphic design. An unremarkable student as a child, it wasn't until he became inspired by French modern art and poster design during his high school years that he became interested in graphic design and began to understand the power of great design. If we look at the Alvin Lustig Wiki we see that he was an "American book designer, graphic designer and typeface designer". He was also a fabric designer and architect, although his preference was to not be labelled. His career, however, was short-lived and in 1955 he unfortunately passed away from diabetes and kidney disease at the age of 40, but not without leaving behind a legacy of modernist graphic design that still influences graphic artists today.
Great design leads to creativity and innovation
Alvin Lustig is best known for his book covers, but he also worked on his own modular typeface in 1939 entitled Euclid, always following his principles of simplicity and geometry. Unfortunately this was never completed, or was partly lost, but his approach remained consistent, using principles of mathematics and modernism to create the geometric font. He also worked with Paramount Furniture to create the Alvin Lustig lounge chair, circa 1950. Using the modern technology of molded plywood with a colorful soft fabric cover, the chair rests on contrasting angular metal legs. The shape of the chair was possibly inspired by his admiration for Miro, and also echos many of the book covers he designed with New Directions Publishing, which I will talk about. In all his work, Lustig followed the belief that great design inspires the mind and leads to further creativity and innovation. In the spirit of mid-century modern design, his mission was to bring this great design to the suburban American people.
Lustig studied at the Los Angeles City College, followed by three months under Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin East. In 1937 he began to design book jackets, which is where he would leave an indelible mark. By 1944 he became Director of Visual Research for Look Magazine. It is his career with New Directions Publishing between 1941 and 1952, however, where he is best known and which he was able to realise his individual approach to modernist design.
Up until the time of Lustig, paperback design used traditional illustration, with a single image to describe and sell the book as quickly as possible. Lustig took a more considered approach, using symbolic designs, based on the Modernist ideas coming out of Europe at the time. He first read the book to acquire a complete understanding of its meaning. He would then condense this down, in much the same way as did his modernist contemporaries such as Saul Bass and Paul Rand, in order to express what the book meant to him, subjectively.
According to AIGA, Lustig "believed in the curative power of good design when applied to all aspects of American life". We see this consistently with his chair, his typeface and his book jackets and magazine covers. This was not design for design sake, and he would not be a slave to Modernism, but would follow rigidly his own Bauhausian principles of good design, combining technology and creativity, to solve a design problem. He never let Modernist principles overwhelm the book cover, and still respected the art form whether or not it would be considered completely Modernist or not. In Ghost of the Underblows (1940) for Ward Ritchie Press, he experimented with constructivist typeface which had a clearly 1920s Bauhausian style as well as native American influence, which is something he would have picked up during his time at Taliesin East.
Lustig's European Modernist influences can be seen in how he experimented with fragmented images, especially photographic montages, which he would turn into symbolic compositions of photographic still-life arrangements with minimal typography. The cover for Lorca: Three Tragedies, is considered Alvin Lustig most famous work, from which many subsequent book covers can trace their roots. It is formed of a grid of five separate photographic images, of the moon, the sea, the writing in the sand, a cross on the wall, and some crumpled paper which carries the title. The apparent incongruence of the five images for the three tragedies draws the reader's curiosity by forming a puzzle in the mind as to what is the meaning. The images are symbols, but they each have multiple meanings that demand to be deconstructed into a narrative that is different yet personal to each reader, including, perhaps, romance, loneliness, passing of time and domesticity. The crumpled paper, pushes the question further, asking for context and reason in keeping with a need to find relatable narrative for the inexplicable signifiers that surround us all, continuously.
We can also see complex symbolism in Lustig's magazine covers, such as for Fortune Magazine, where again he sought to invoke a considered meaning that would require some thought on behalf of the reader. His cover for costume jewelry shows three separate images on a mysterious rainbow-like background, with no copy included at all. One is a cutout photographic closeup of a complex pearl and diamond brooch, appearing, with its shadowing effect to float above the rainbow pattern. Another to the left is a much simplified drawing or draught of a simple string of six white circles, representing pearls, upon a black square, whereby the string links them to the photograph of the brooch. A third pattern at the top of the cover, touching the title are two conjoined black and a white coil shapes, perhaps suggesting further iterative approaches to jewelry design, or symbolising the coiled snake, which was a popular choice in Victorian jewelry design, signifying eternity.
Alvin Lustig was not a designer to be taken at face value and demanded interpretation and thought provocation in his work. Drawing upon traditional motifs and symbols, he entwined this with his Modernist ideals of simplicity and clarity of expression to produce exquisite art upon his book and magazine covers. His work was personal and subjective but it was also central to extending the work of the American Modernist movement.
Following his untimely death in 1955, his wife Elaine continued his studio, becoming a renowned graphic designer in her own right including in book covers. Interestingly, in 2013, Elaine Lustig, in collaboration with designer Craig Welsh, also developed further his geometric typeface design with the Euclid Elements font.
What I like about Lustig is the personal approach he takes to design, both in his non-literal, interpretation of Modernism and in the idealism and democracy that is at the heart of his creativity. Yes, we can place the Alvin Lustig style firmly in the pantheon of Modernist design, but it is his subjective individualism that sets him apart from his contemporaries. We can only wonder at what might have been had he lived on further than he did.
And what is my own favorite design? I suppose I have to return to the Alvin Lustig book jackets that he created at New Directions Publishing. I studied a lot of French literature when I was younger, so the covers for Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire and Madame de la Fayette appeal to me a lot. In particular I love the scary Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil) cover, with its alien-like flowers with tentacles, like a virus. Just like the pearls on a string on the Fortune Magazine cover it is interesting to see this continuing theme of inter-connectivity between the different elements on the page, which we see in a lot of the covers. I suppose this design doesn't follow all the Modernist principles, such as use of white space, or geometric shapes, but still it reaches out to me. Lustig really was a genius when it came to mid-century modern graphic design, yet he was still himself. That is why I think he is awesome. What do you think? Are you more purist when it comes to modernist graphic design, or do you prefer a personal interpretation to shine through? Let me know in the comments below.
Alvin Lustig graphic design mid century modern