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Pioneering Graphic Designer Elaine Lustig Cohen Dies At 89

The modernist designer, artist, and archivist, best known for her design work in the 1950s and '60s, has passed away.

Pioneering Graphic Designer Elaine Lustig Cohen Dies At 89

[Photo: Prem Krishnamurthy/P! gallery]

Pioneering graphic designer, artist, and activist Elaine Lustig Cohen died yesterday, according to the graphic designer Prem Krishnamurthy, her friend and collaborator.

Married for seven years to the influential graphic designer Alvin Lustig, Elaine Lustig Cohen was a fierce graphic design talent in her own right. After Alvin's death in 1955, Lustig Cohen began her own practice at the age of 28; she has since developed her own voice, produced a significant body of work and will leave a lasting influence in the graphic design world.

Euclid typeface. via AIGA.org

In the late 1940s she enrolled in the Newcomb College at Tulane University where she studied art and trained on basic Bauhaus fundamentals. Discouraged from pursuing a career in art as a woman, she went on to University of Southern California to study art education.

In 1948 she married Alvin Lustig and taught junior high school for a year before quitting teaching to work in Alvin's studio. There she learned to set type and prepare mechanicals, and when Alvin began losing his eyesight to chronic diabetes at age 40, she took over the design work, executing the concepts that he dictated. After Alvin's death in 1955, Lustig Cohen continued to run the studio, completing the architectural signage for Philip Johnson's Seagram Building, designing brochures for the Girl Scouts of America, and going on to produce many iconic book jackets for Meridian Books and New Directions from 1955 to 1961.

Illuminated Hebrew Manuscripts, The Jewish Museum, 1965. via The Jewish Museum

Designing book jackets helped her develop a more freeform style that distinguished her from Alvin's more precise aesthetic. In a 1995 article for Eye magazine, graphic designer, writer, and curator Ellen Lupton wrote of Lustig Cohen's book covers:


Working at a time when most book covers employed literal pictorial illustrations, Cohen visualized titles in contemporary literature and philosophy through a rich variety of approaches, from stark abstractions and concept-driven solutions to obtuse evocations that bring to mind the recent work of Chip Kidd and Barbara de Wild for Knopf.

In the 1960s, Lustig came into her own working on a prolonged freelance job for the Jewish museum, where she developed their visual identity and produced some of her most well-known designs for the catalogs for artists like Jasper Johns, Yves Klein, and Robert Rauschenberg. In addition to Philip Johnson, she also worked for Eero Saarinen, Richard Meier, and many other leading midcentury architects, designing signage for their buildings and printed promotional material that reflected their architectural styles. She also designed proposals for TWA signage, created work for the Federal Aviation Administration, and designed the signage for General Motors' technical campus along with Saarinen.

Masada, The Jewish Museum, 1968. via The Jewish Museum

At the time, Lustig Cohen was one of the only female graphic designers running her own studio. "There were certainly many male designers that didn’t take me seriously. I wasn’t part of their conversation, even though I was included in many AIGA publications. It didn’t matter to me. I never thought about design as a business—the visual was my life," she told Michael Barron, a former editor at New Directions, in a 2013 interview for Bomb magazine.

In the 1970s, she began an artistic practice that included collages and paintings that mix her modernist graphic style with Dadaism. In 1969, after deciding to turn her attention almost exclusively to painting, Lustig started a rare-book dealership called Ex Libris with her second husband Arthur Cohen, the founder of Meridian Books. The catalogs they produced of their incredible collection of Dada, Surrealist, and avant-garde books and ephemera are now used as valuable resources for design research.

In 2006, Lustig Cohen launched a website that made the archive of Alvin Lustig's work available to the public. It led to a resurgence of interest in his work: a show at the 2007 International Art + Design Fair sponsored by Bard, a biography by Steven Heller, and a traveling exhibition put on by American Institute of Graphic Arts.

In 2011 she was awarded the AIGA medal for her extensive body of design work. Her work has been featured in an exhibition, curated by Ellen Lupton, at the Cooper-Hewitt, and continues to be shown at New York’s Julie Saul Gallery, among other venues.

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