born modern

He proclaimed that he was “born modern”. Alvin Lustig and a feature image that looks somewhat inspired from the Henri Matisse cutouts from his post-war period.Or maybe it was Matisse was inspired by Lustig for his “Jazz” series. quite possible.Other work seems connected to a post-Bauhaus look.  Lustig:”As we become more mature we will learn to master the interplay between the past and the present and not be so self-conscious of our rejection or acceptance of tradition. We will not make the mistake that both rigid modernists and conservatives make, of confusing the quality of form with the specific forms themselves.”

Art Chantry: Alvin Lustig was one of the most inspiring and prolific (and maybe among the very best) graphic designers of the last half century. He designed countless book covers, advertising, magazines (including the peculiar “gentry” magazine). Unfortunately, he had the misfortune of dying before graphic design became such a popular sporting activity. The result is that nobody seems to remember him. Like William Golden or Bradbury Thompson, he’s been remaindered to that heap o’ exquisite designers thrown in the closet (and the landfill) so that we may worship at the shrine of Paul Rand (who managed to outlive all of his more talented competitors.)

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Thank god that Steve Heller is working right now to save his legacy and output in a book project he is in the process of completing right now. hooray for Steve Heller, patron saint of lost designers.

A number of years ago , Steve ( Heller) hosted a series of conferences devoted to rediscovering ‘lost; design history. Sadly, I can’t remember the name of the conference series (i think it might have been “modernism & eclecticism”). At any rate, during one of those conferences I was fortunately enough to see Ivan Chermayeff give a presentation about his work and a question & answer exchange with the participants. It was marvelous to watch him and actually take the measure of him. He’s a wonderful guy.

One of the things that came up during his exchange was the interesting (and seemingly unknown) fact that Ivan apprenticed under Alvin Lustig when he was just starting out. Ivan’s father was an extremely well known and successful and cultivated modernist architect, so getting a intro the biz through a designer as accomplished as Lustig was not so big a deal to them. The way that Ivan causally mentioned it and the way that the audience seemed to quietly gasp was extremely interesting.

Alvin Lustig design. Read More:

Even more startling to me, downright shocking even, was Ivan’s little story about how he worked with Lustig. It was fascinating. Ivan would kick back and – in his minds eye – design the piece at hand. he would then dictate to the young Ivan EXACTLY what it was to look like: “an 8 /2 x 11 sheet of white uncoated paper, start at the top, drop down 6 picas. indent 12 picas, flush left. use 10 on 12 futura gothic extended lower case….” Lustig would work through the entire design and Ivan simply recreated it! amazing, really.

The funny part of the story was when Lustig started to work out the color in his mind. Ivan said that Alvin wasn’t such a great colorist. So, he would just change it and never tell him about it. He got away with that because, at this point in his career, ALVIN LUSTIG WAS COMPLETELY BLIND!

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---i have been meaning to do a post on alvin great are these dust jackets?!---Read More:


ok, ok. That seems pretty weird, right? We all know that Beethoven was deaf late in his career. We know that Herb Lubalin worked in b&w because he was color blind (a color blind designer is pretty mind boggling, too.) But a completely blind visual artist? amazing!

Over the years I’ve encountered many “disabled” artists, sculptors with paralysis, painters with Parkinson’s. I actually met a man who was the master sign painter – the sign painter that was the greatest in Tacoma’s history, the guy who built the industry and established the standard of extremely high quality in the area. He was even the sign painter for the mob (locally very powerful.) The guy who is still, to this day revered by sign painters as the grand master of the ages. He was in his 80′s when I met him. He seemed to have had a stroke and was essentially paralyzed on one side. I asked about it later and found out he was hit by a train when he WAS 19!. He spent his entire career as a one-armed sign painter!

---Fantastic book cover designs by Alvin Lustig, who had a remarkable career in his too short life (1915-1955) Images via Will Kane on Flickr. Read More:

I was in a record store in Bellingham, Washington about 30 years ago.It had a really cool logo hand painted in their picture window. Being a young design student, I commented on how much I liked their window. the woman behind the counter beamed and said that it was done by  an artist with no hands and legs. He painted it with a brush stuck in his TEETH!!!

So, whenever I feel sorry for myself, start to complain about how tough it is to do this, how others are blessed with such talents and feel envious, all I have to do is think of old Alvin Lustig, design guru par excellence. blind as a bat. I feel much better about myself.

This is one of his great book cover/dust jackets. I assume he wasn’t yet blind when he did it. But, you never know.

Heller:Lustig's first jacket for Laughlin, a 1941 edition of Henry Miller's Wisdom of the Heart, eclipsed the jacket designs of previous New Directions books, which Laughlin described as "conservative" and "booky." At the time, Lustig was experimenting with non-representational constructions made form slugs of metal typographic material, revealing the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright, with whom he studied for three months at Taliesin East. The most interesting of these slug compositions was for Ghost in the Underblows (1940) for Ward Ritchie Press, which echoed Constructivist typecase experiments from the early twenties yet revealed a distinctly native American aesthetic. Though these designs were unconventional, some years later Laughlin noted that they "scarcely hinted at the extraordinary flowering which was to follow." Laughlin was referring the New Classics series by New Directions that Lustig designed from 1945 to 1952. With few exceptions, the New Classics are as inventive today as when they premiered almost fifty years ago. Lustig had switched over from typecase compositions to drawing his distinctive symbolic "marks," which owed more to the work of artists like Paul Klee, Joan Miró and Mark Rothko than to any accepted commercial style. Although Lustig rejected painting as a being too subjectivized and never presumed to paint or sculpt himself, he liberally borrowed from painting and integrated the abstract sensibility into his total design. Read More: image:


Steven Heller:Alvin Lustig’s contributions to the design of books and book jackets, magazines, interiors, and textiles as well as his teachings would have made him a credible candidate for the AIGA Lifetime Achievement award when he was alive. By the time he died at the age of forty in 1955, he had already introduced principles of Modern art to graphic design that have had a long-term influence on contemporary practice. He was in the vanguard of a relatively small group who fervently, indeed religiously, believed in the curative power of good design when applied to all aspects of American life. He was a generalist, and yet in the specific media in which he excelled he established standards that are viable today. If one were to reconstruct, based on photographs, Lustig’s 1949 exhibition at The Composing Room Gallery in New York, the exhibits on view and the installation would be remarkably fresh, particularly in terms of the current trends in art-based imagery.

Heller:Lustig's work reveals an evolution from an experimental to mature practice-from total abstraction to symbolic typography. One cannot help but speculate about how he would have continued had he lived past his fortieth year. Diabetes began to erode his vision in 1950 and by 1954 he was virtually blind, yet even this limitation did not prevent him from teaching or designing. After learning that he was losing his vision, he invited his clients to a cocktail party in order to announce it to them, and give them the option to take their business to other designers. Most remained with Lustig. Philip Johnson, a key client and patron, even contracted Lustig to design the signs for the Seagram's building. His wife, Elaine Lustig Cohen, recalls that he fulfilled his obligations by directing her and his assistants in every meticulous detail to complete the work he could no longer see. He specified color by referring to the color of a chair or sofa in their house and used simple geometries to express his fading vision. Read More: image:

Lustig created monuments of ingenuity and objects of aesthetic pleasure. Whereas graphic design history is replete with artifacts that define certain disciplines and are also works of art, for a design to be so considered it must overcome the vicissitudes of fashion and be accepted as an integral part of the visual language. Though Lustig would consider it a small part of his overall output, no single project is more significant in this sense than his 1949 paperback cover for Lorca: 3 Tragedies. It is a masterpiece of symbolic acuity, compositional strength and typographic craft that appears to be, consciously or not, the basis for a great many contemporary book jackets and paperback covers.

The current preference among American book jacket designers for fragmented images, photo-illustration, minimal typography and rebus-like compositions can be traced directly to Lustig’s stark black-and-white cover for Lorca, a grid of five symbolic photographs linked in poetic disharmony. This and other distinctive, though today lesser known, covers for the New Directions imprint transformed an otherwise realistic medium-the photograph-into a tool for abstraction through the use of reticulated negatives, photograms and still-lifes. When Lustig’s approach (which developed from an interest in montage originally practiced by the European Moderns, particularly the American expatriate E. McKnight Kauffer) was introduced to American book publishing in the late 1940s, covers and jackets were mostly illustrative and also rather decorative. Hard-sell conventions were rigorously followed. Lustig’s jacket designs entered taboo marketing territory through his use of abstraction and small, discreetly typeset titles, influenced by the work of Jan Tschichold. Lustig did not believe it was necessary to “design down,” as he called it, to achieve better sales. Read More:

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