by Steven Heller | AIGA: Inspiration
Pioneering graphic designer, artist and archivist, Elaine Lustig Cohen is recognized for her body of design work integrating European avant-garde and modernist influences into a distinctly American, mid-century manner of typographic communication.
When Elaine Lustig Cohen assumed ownership of her husband’s midtown Manhattan design practice after he died at the age of 40, most of his clients—among them the architect Philip Johnson—expected her to complete his unfinished commissions. Little did they realize that Alvin Lustig, a totemic force in the field of the modern design, never offered to include her in his own projects. “As a rule, no one in the Lustig office designed except Alvin himself,” Elaine recalls. In fact, she and his assistants, including (for a short time) Ivan Chermayeff, would do the so-called “dirty work” while Alvin, dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie, sat at his immaculate marble desk with only a tracing pad, making thumbnail sketches for others to render.
Few female American designers ran their own studios at that time. Indeed, this would have been difficult for anyone, but to fill Alvin’s large shoes required true grit. Nonetheless the 28-year-old Elaine, who had no formal training as a designer, accepted her trial by fire and emerged as a remarkable talent in her own right. She eventually specialized in book cover and jacket design, museum catalogs and building signage, adhering initially to Alvin’s aesthetic until she developed her own modernist style.