Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig

Born Modern BY Steve Heller, Elaine Lustig Cohen. Chronicle Books. Hardcover, 208 pages. $50.

The cover of Born Modern

When looking back at the modernist design revolution of the mid-twentieth century, Alvin Lustig doesn’t immediately jump to mind, despite the fact that his influence is all around us. Lustig’s career was cut short by diabetes developed as a teenager while he was growing up in Los Angeles. A year before his untimely death in 1955 at the age of forty, he lost his ability to see, yet he continued to work, dictating instructions to assistants and his wife, Elaine Lustig Cohen.

Now, along with Steven Heller, former art director of the New York Times Book Review and prolific design writer, Cohen has coauthored Born Modern, the first book to document the forward-thinking life and work of this California dreamer, who, as the authors note, had “little opportunity . . . to reach the same professional heights as other contemporary designers who were arguably of the same stature, including Paul Rand, Saul Bass, and Charles and Ray Eames.” Nevertheless, he “developed a distinct, innovative graphic language,” Heller writes in the book’s introduction. Cohen, an artist and designer herself, provides valuable firsthand accounts of Lustig’s creative process and also granted Heller unprecedented access to Lustig’s writings, correspondence, and sketchbooks. (Her daughter, Tamar Cohen, designed the book.)

I discovered Lustig’s work as a teenager in the early 1990s. His book jackets for New Directions spoke to me in the way intriguing album artwork did; by drawing me in visually, they opened my head up to new ideas from modernist writers like William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Dylan Thomas. There was something intoxicating about Lustig’s whimsical covers, which Heller refers to as “witty glyphs.” Lustig’s “rejection of [the] literalism” prominent in the book design of the time had the result of boosting sales of New Directions’ New Classics line by 300 percent, because bookshops “felt more compelled to display them.”

Lustig’s education was “principally informal,” except for brief stints at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin East studio in Wisconsin and at Art Center in Los Angeles. He went on to teach at Art Center, the University of Georgia, Black Mountain College, and finally Yale, but for the most part, he developed his oeuvre in isolation. By the mid-’40s, after a position at Look magazine in New York City had run its course, Lustig returned to his native Los Angeles. His office specialized in architectural, furniture, and fabric design; still, he continued to keep up with work on books. Several times, Lustig found himself in the right place at the right time, producing projects as diverse as the title sequence for the animated series Mr. Magoo and the graphic identity for one of the first outdoor shopping malls, J. L. Hudson’s Northland in Detroit, built in 1954.

In the epilogue of this handsome art-book hybrid, cataloguing the breadth of Lustig’s design aesthetic across all media, both authors allude to the larger “role of the iconoclast—the individual designer—in the larger popular culture,” and how Lustig’s philosophy is the “underlying rationale for much of the practice today.” James Laughlin, the late founding publisher of New Directions and a longtime friend of the designer, summed up the allure of Lustig’s work and why it endures, noting that “whatever the medium, he could make it do new things, make it extend itself under the prodding of his imagination. I often wish that Lustig had chosen to be a painter. It is sad to think that so many of his designs must live in hiding on the sides of books on shelves.” Thanks to Born Modern, at least now they can all reside in one place.