Alvin Lustig

When one thinks of the field of graphic design and the designers that established what it is today, the name Alvin Lustig is undeniably included on that list. Although Alvin Lustig lived a short life, he had an immensely prolific career that took him across multiple sectors of design, revolutionizing each along the way. How did one man create so much quality work in the span of 40 years? Because he was a multitasker that was passionate about creating, forming, experiencing, innovating, and pushing the boundaries of design. As a man that worked for the sake of working, and not for money or fame, Alvin was able to establish an honorable career that has shaped art and design and paved the way for younger generations. Alvin severely disliked limiting one’s potential to a term like ‘graphic designer’ or ‘industrial designer’ and so on. He stated in Interiors Magazine that “the words graphic designer; architect; or industrial designer stick in my throat, giving me a sense of limitation, of specialization within the specialty…” However, for the sake of this biography we will refer to Alvin as such as to be able to identity the different phases in his life regarding design. He is primarily known as a graphic designer, specifically as a book jacket and cover designer. This biography will honor all of the metaphorical hats he wore and how his upbringing brought him to his notability in design.

 

Alvin Lustig was born in 1915 in Denver, Colorado to Jewish parents who were certainly not very artistic. Multiple sources cite that Alvin said his family had “no pretentions to culture.” His father, Harry Lustig, only later landed a career with The Warner Brothers as they were childhood friends. When Alvin was 5, before his sister, Sarabelle, was born, the family relocated to Los Angeles, California. Alvin was never quite taken with the fine arts but was obsessively interested in puppetry. He created his own puppets and mini puppet theaters by hand where he put on his own productions. He was about 10 years old at the time. Shifting towards magic, Alvin began to perform live magic shows for his high school’s assemblies and he started to gain some traction within the local magic community. Perhaps he was always destined to be famous, no matter the medium? Everything changed when he took an art class in high school taught by, Aimee Bourdieu. She opened his eyes to posters, sculptures, advertisements—the line where art meets design—and his perspective was changed forever. Acting as the ‘Big Bang’ for his career he set off on a path to create his own universe.

 

At 18 years old, Alvin served as the art director for the Touring Topics, a monthly automobile magazine, after he designed the cover in 1933. This is to be known as his first periodical work, the first of many. During this same year, Alvin was being taught by two local printers the technical skills of printing and letter pressing in hopes of creating his own studio to teach other his passions. The following year he enrolled in the Art Center School in Los Angeles, where he received formal training and gathered more inspiration. Interestingly, architecture was his passion and he decided to get his education first hand by studying under Frank Lloyd Wright for a lengthy three months. Upon returning to Los Angeles, Alvin began to do freelance commissions works for local firms primarily designing and printing letterheads, business cards, and other stationary. He had his own studio at the time and designed the prints himself. His design style at this time was highly decorative with very simple, sans serif typography and abstracted, modular geometric shapes and bold colors. While in this studio space, which had been relocated multiple times, he also pursued designing furnishings, motion pictures, textiles, and modular houses.

 

Though Alvin Lustig has an immense portfolio to display, this essay is going to focus on his work with book covers and periodicals. The first book cover that Alvin designed for New Directions Publishing, was for the Henry Miller novel, The Wisdom of the Heart. The cover features bold, geometric shapes that are derived from an icon of symbolism. The background being a bright yellow with a dull blue, geometric decoration and a red arrow right through the middle. It was clear from this design that his root style is modern but the viewer also gets the sense that he is inspired by the avant-garde movement and, surprisingly, American folk art. The image makes the viewer questions its meaning and route of abstraction. The type on the cover is precisely set and an all caps, sans serif type. The convention and precedent of book covers and jackets of the time were mainly utilitarian and not visually appealing. Then came Alvin Lustig. His ideology was to read the novel and get acquainted with the novel and translate all the information into graphic terms. He also believed that book covers should be both visually enticing and representative of the novel in order to draw in potential readers. Libraries and bookshops of the time were also more likely to display the book. His in-depth design process created lots of revolutionary designs and led to a major increase of book sales.

 

Still working with New Directions, Alvin embarked on an inventive path that gave him space to explore his art form. He was tasked by James Laughlin, founder of New Directions, to create a series of designs for their New classics reprint campaign. Each cover he made was unique to the classic novel but were held all together with common stylistic choices like 2-color print jobs, consistent type treatment, and objective symbols from the novel. In this series, Alvin pushed past his typographic letterpress experimentations and created modern works of art. This phase in his career is clearly influenced by modernist painters before him, including Miro, Klee, Matisse, and Rothko. This new style was a testament to his range of ability and style. After creating all of these hand drawn covers, Alvin Lustig ventured into photography and the works of European modernist of this medium.

 

While developing his career in Los Angeles, California, Alvin and a few other like-minded designers felt that the local design scene was rather limited and insufficient for their thirst of design. Together they formed the Los Angeles Society for Contemporary Designers, which included: Saul Bass, Rudolph de Harak, John Foli and Louis Danziger. A majority of design from this time were developed by European artists inspiring new movements. Alvin Lustig’s American contemporaries were fascinated with the European typography being produced, sadly they were hard to come by in America. Alvin sought to order books with typographic examples in them and then he would photostat the page and reorder the type or simply redraw the type.

 

In 1944, Alvin decided to take his career forwards and he moved to New York City. He began working in the design department of Look Magazine creating magazine covers, promotional advertisements, and other designs of the sort. For the two years that Alvin worked for Look, he created covers with photomontage that had more depth and detail than ever before. This was a big change from his early works with large, flat, abstracted geometric shapes. While in New York, Alvin further pursued his love for interior design, industrial design, and architecture. It was there in New York that he exposed his ‘composing room’. An innovative exhibition on how Alvin viewed spaces. He believed that in his interior decoration, the space should be highly creative as it makes the people inhabiting the space more imaginative and creative in return. Later in 1946, Alvin returned to Los Angeles to open a firm that dealt with architecture, interior design, furniture design, and textile design. He created many noteworthy designs that established his name in the field. Thankfully, he was good friends with local architecture firms from his freelance start making letterheads and business cards.

 

Alvin Lustig was also passionate about design education and taught multiple courses on his passions. He taught courses at The Black Mountain College, an experimental art and design school in the mountains of North Carolina. Alvin also developed design courses at Yale University. This biography has touched many of Alvin Lustig’s design accomplishments, but has barely covered his extensive portfolio. He was successful in an impressive amount of fields, from typographic design and advertisements to industrial design as he designed and created a helicopter. In the later years of his life, his diabetes began to take his eyesight. He continued his design career, despite going blind. His wife recounts her experience helping Alvin create the designs that were thought up in his head and dictated to his team with precise details. The team the recreated what his had commanded, thus allowing his design presence to live on. In 1955, Alvin passed away leaving behind a remarkable legacy that changed graphic design and other fields of design for decades to come. Alvin also gave the world an amazing collection of works that will continue to push young designers to be a total designer, thinking about the product throughout the entire process.

 

 

“Alvin Lustig.” Alvin Lustig, Modern American Design Pioneer 1915-1955, Kind Company LLC, www.alvinlustig.com/index.php.
“Alvin Lustig | Biography, Designs and Facts.” Famous Graphic Designers, www.famousgraphicdesigners.org/alvin-lustig.
Carabetta, Michael. “Alvin Lustig: Born Modern.” Chronicle Books Blog, 12 Sept. 2014, www.chroniclebooks.com/blog/2014/09/01/alvin-lustig-born-modern/.
Flask, Dominic. “Alvin Lustig.” Design Is History, www.designishistory.com/1940/alvin-lustig/.
Heller, Steven. “Alvin Lustig.” AIGA | the Professional Association for Design, AIGA, www.aiga.org/medalist-alvinlustig.
Heller, Steven, and Elaine Lustig Cohen. Born Modern: the Life and Design of Alvin Lustig. Chronicle Books, 2010.