Blue Pencil no. 12—Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig

Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig
Steven Heller and Elaine Lustig Cohen
San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2010

Book design by Tamar Cohen

This is not the usual Blue Pencil post. The book examined here has very few errors, whether typographical or factual. Most of the commentary is about its lack of context. Although most of Lustig’s career took place during the Great Depression and World War II these momentous events are ignored. I was unaware of this lacuna until I came to p. 151 and the photograph of the Roteron helicopter designed by Lustig in 1945. Suddenly, I wondered if the war was behind the impetus to design the helicopter. And then I realized how fortunate Lustig was throughout his career in his patrons and clients.

Regarding the Roteron helicopter other sources say that William H. Thomas, engineer and owner of the company, was its designer. Thomas studied helicopter aerodynamics at the University of Southern California at the beginning of World War II and founded his company in 1943. See the March 1946 issue of Popular Mechanics (available on Google Books), the obituary for Thomas in the Los Angeles Times (12 March 1995) and the websites and aviastar.orgThe information on the latter website comes from Helicopters and Autogyros of the World by P. Lambermont (1958). To appreciate the Roteron, look at the other helicopters from the 1940s on the same website.

The other missing context in the book is the narrower one of American graphic design during the period 1930–1955. Throughout the book the shadow of Paul Rand, the most famous American designer of the 1940s and 1950s, hovers over the story. Lustig is constantly being measured against him (pp. 11, 16, 34, 87, 92, 191) but there is never any in-depth comparison of the two men’s work or design philosophy. Here are the most detailed references:

p. 16 “By the late ’40s… he [Lustig] was certainly on [a] par with Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Herbert Matter, Will Burtin and others in the design pantheon of American Modernism.”

p. 34 “Other contemporary American designers from the late ’30s and into the early ’60s were similarly inspired [by the twentieth century European avant-garde]—E. McKnight Kauffer, Paul Rand, George Giusti, and Leo Lionni established models for modern book jacket and cover design.”

p. 87 “Although not as prominent as Paul Rand in the advertising universe, Lustig was an inventive advertising designer.”

p. 92 “Lustig’s ads are reminiscent of those designed by Paul Rand, Lester Beall, Leo Lionni, Alexey Brodovitch, and Erik Nitsche, but they are not imitations. They were often more spare or playful in a painterly way.”

p. 191 re: Lustig’s articles on graphic design “On the graphic design side, fewer designers were publishing. Paul Rand was an exception with Thoughts on Design, published by Wittenborn in 1947….”

Although Lustig is described as being influenced by European avant-garde design there are no detailed discussions of exactly which designers, design movements or design works.

p. 22 “Where did he [Lustig] acquire this aptitude, talent, and expertise?” re: May 1933 cover of Touring Topics, the magazine of the Automobile Club of Southern California (see illustration on p. 23).

This is a question that really applies to Lustig’s work in general, especially his early works. The authors make no attempt to find work that might have influenced Lustig. This is true not only of his early career but of his entire career. Lustig is treated as a genius sui generis.

p. 25 “In 1933, he also enrolled in a printing class with Richard Hoffmann, a fine-press printer….”

Richard Hoffmann, a Los Angeles (Van Nuys) private press printer, published A Decorative Divertissement in 1980. It is a showing of the decorative material from Linotype and Monotype (metal) that he had accumulated over many decades. Along with the classical ornaments by Robert Granjon and the modern ones by W.A. Dwiggins are Art Deco or moderne elements (see especially p. 76). Could Hoffmann have played a role in sparking Lustig’s interest in designing with type case material?

pp. 29–30 “These signature type case constructions [see pp. 26, 28 and 29; and pp. 34–49], while reminiscent of earlier Russian Constructivist compositions, were decidedly novel in the arena of ornamental designs being done in the United States.”

This is not entirely true. See the work that Albert Schiller of Advertising Agencies’ Service Co., Inc. in New York City was doing from 1924 on. (See “Typographic Pictures: How an insert was composed, and something about silhouette ornaments as a basis for lettering and design” by Albert Schiller in The American Printer (December 1927) which comments on an AAS insert in the September 1927 issue, “Typosignets: The Work of Albert Schiller” by Harold B. Waite in the Gutenberg-Jahrbuch for 1952 and typocurious) Admittedly, Schiller’s “pictorial” images using type material are kitschy in comparison with Lustig’s abstract designs, but they show the possibilities inherent in the material. In Germany Georg Goedecker, Ernst Aufseeser and Wilhelm Wörner were using geometric type ornaments to create stylized figures and other designs that are closer in spirit to Lustig’s. Their work was reproduced in Gebrauchsgraphik where it is possible that Lustig may have seen it since the magazine was sold in the United States. Some of this work is reproduced in Advertising Art in the Art Deco Style selected by Theodore Menten (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1975): figs. 201–212 and 220-221 for Goedecker (profiled in Gebrauchsgraphik June 1929); figs. 213–219,242-243 for Aufseeser (Gebrauchsgraphik December 1932); and fig. 235 for Wörner (Gebrauchsgraphik September 1930).

This image is of Interchangeable Type Borders from the Bauer Type Foundry of Frankfurt. Bauer had a New York office and alongside selling Futura and Bauer Bodoni they sold type material like this. Could Lustig have been using their geometric elements? Perhaps he discovered them when he went to order Futura type? Futura seemed to be his favorite typeface, showing up in his work from the beginning to the end. The author’s never comment on this. Yet, Lustig was not the only American modernist who had a fondness for Futura (e.g. see the work of Paul Rand and Bradbury Thompson). This is one thing that separated them from their European counterparts who preferred Akzidenz Grotesk and other industrial sans serifs.

p. 31 “Since his studio was not large enough to allow him to pull proofs, he worked out a deal with the printing instructor at Beverly Hills High School to use its letterpress in return for designing commencement programs using his metal type ornamental method—these programs were doubtless unmatched by any other high school in the United States.”

Many American high schools had letterpress print shops in the decades before 1960. They provided essential vocational training for one of the leading industries in the country. An advertisement in Industrial-Arts Magazine (vols. 3–4, 1915), p. viii by Barnhart Brothers & Spindler, the Chicago typefoundry, says, “The number of school printing outfits is rapidly growing. Everyone recognizes the educational effect of a printing outfit in a school.” It then goes on to list printshops in schools in Indiana (Terre Haute, Mishiwaka, South Bend, Indianapolis), Illinois (Oak Park, Winnetka), Washington (Bellingham, Monroe, Ellisburg), Iowa (Goldfield, Sioux City), Wisconsin (Racine), Kansas (Salina), New York (Niagara Falls, New York City, Westchester County, Brooklyn), Missouri (St. Louis), Nebraska (Omaha, Genna, Lincoln), South Dakota (Pine Ridge), Texas (El Paso, Austin), and New Jersey (Skillman, Newark, Park Ridge, Trenton, Asbury Park, Jersey City, Montclair). In 1915 printing was offered at Washington High School in Manhattan. In 1925, the New York School of Printing was established as a special high school for the industry. It is now the High School of Graphic Communication Arts.

p. 34 “When he began designing book jackets in the late 1930s, Alvin Lustig retained as much overall control as possible, which was not at all the standard operating procedure in the publishing industry. Jacket designers were not usually afforded much freedom; their role was often an afterthought.…”

“The designer of the text pages and binding was rarely the designer of the jacket—purists celebrated the former as a craftsman, while the latter was disparaged as a ‘commercial artist,’ or advertising hack.”

Lustig was not unique in this. W.A. Dwiggins, George Salter and Ernst Reichl retained near complete control over the jackets they did. And all three designed interiors as well.

p. 35 “Euclid A New Type, late 1930s.”

There should be a green dot between this caption and the one above.

These two images are not discussed in the text and the caption only describes them as “type experiments”. In fact they are experiments along the lines of the Kombinationsschrift aus Glas alphabet that Josef Albers designed in 1931. See pp. 184–185 in Das A und O des Bauhauses edited by Ute Brüning (Berlin: Bauhaus Archiv and Edition Leipzig, 1995.

Did Lustig use this “alphabet” for the masthead of Arts & Architecture magazine in 1948? See the two covers on p. 80.

p. 37 “His [Lustig’s] inspirations were the rule-breaking typographers who literally turned pieces of lead upside down to make intaglio impressions. The upstart Dadaists used stock printers’ ‘cuts’ in their ad hoc compositions, and the revolutionary Russian Constructivists made the most of limited typographic availability by building letters and geometric ornament out of type case ‘furniture.’… The Dutch typographer H.N. Werkman, who published a small typographic journal called The Next Call, made what he called ‘drucksels,’ which combined with wood and metal letterforms with metal typesetting furniture.”

This is the usual litany of avant garde typographic figures, but none of them seems relevant to Lustig. His work, despite Heller’s reluctance to use the term, is more Art Deco and perhaps that is where we should search for examples that may have inspired him in his early years. It is likely that he was reading The American Printer, The Studio, Gebrauchsgraphik and perhaps even Arts et Metiers Graphiques. He may have been aware of the publicity material that Douglas McMurtrie designed for Ludlow Typograph’s range of Art Deco fonts (Ultra Modern, Stygian Black, Stellar). Either Ward Ritchie or Jake Zeitlin may have introduced him to the work of W.A. Dwiggins, though his decorative designs were created using stencils rather than type case material. Even the Art Deco architecture of 1920s and 1930s Los Angeles (e.g. the Eastern Columbia Building, 1930, or Bullocks Wilshire, 1929) may have provided inspiration.

p. 39 “Robinson’s 58, late 1930s. / Cover, purpose unknown.”

This was probably designed for J.W. Robinson’s, a “carriage trade” Los Angeles department store. I have no idea what the 58 stands. See departmentstoremuseum. Note the Futura Black/Display-like r made of type material.

p. 40 “To announce and pay for the book [Ghost in the Underblows], Lustig designed an elaborate twelve-page prospectus containing testimonials and a ‘plea’ for sponsors to contribute funds. The responses, including this from the poet William Everson, were triumphant: ‘You get the conception of an infinitely sensitive and intelligent man laying his ear to the earth and writing verbatim every delicate response and flux that twitches his being.’”

Heller’s implication is that Everson is complimenting Lustig on his design when in fact it is more likely that his praise is for Alfred Young Fisher, the poet who wrote the book.

p. 41 “Typographic experiment, late 1930s. / A progressive sequence of letterpress impressions.”

These are not shown in the sequence in which they were likely made. The large image at top (the book eschews numbers for the images) is the final print while the two smaller ones below are stages leading to it. The one at the left with black was probably the first of them. Unfortunately, all three are reproduced at different scales so that matching them up properly is difficult.

pp. 42–49 images

Heller makes no mention of the fact that many of Lustig’s typecase experiments/works seem indicative of the Art Moderne or machine age art that characterized the 1930s in America. For instance, the double-page title of Ghost in the Underblows suggests a streamlined locomotive such as the 1931 Locomotive no. 1 designed by Norman Bel Geddes; and two of the Beverly Hills High School commencement covers suggest carburetors, pistons, cam shafts and—in one instance—electrical wiring. Lustig’s double-page design is also evocative of contemporary modern architecture such as Richard Neutra’s Lovell House, 1929.

p. 43 “Lustig used geometric typecase shapes to create the abstract designs [re: interior of Ghost in the Underblows]. The process was arduous, but the results were unique in American book design.”

The abstract designs are truly amazing, but how did they relate to the poem—“a means of padding out the text” p. 40 does not fully tell the story—and what was the reaction in the printing and design world? It would have been nice if Heller and Tamar Cohen would have provided a detailed analysis of one of Lustig’s typecase designs. An explanation of exactly what went into their making—as these must be very foreign to contemporary readers and designers—with diagrams showing the different elements and print runs would have been illuminating. Ghost in the Underblows was called “another pretension to the great American poem” by John Hay in Poetry (vol. 57, no. 6 March 1941 pp. 391). The online snippet of the review does not mention Lustig’s contribution. Kevin Starr, author of Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s (Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 379, says that Fisher worked on the “massive poem” throughout the 1930s and that The Ghost in the Underblows was only a fragment that Ritchie convinced him to publish. The book, subsidized by Dr. Elmer Belt, “fizzled”. “Despite advance testimonials from Robinson Jeffers and William Everson,” writes Starr, “and a lengthy, somewhat overwrought introduction by [Lawrence] Powell… The Ghost in the Underblows earned one regional review, then receded from sight.” And, “…his poem rumbled and roared sonorously—but with an obscurity that even academic commentators found impassable.” See inbetweennoise for some context of the images on pp. 44–45 (that is, the verso side of the spreads the designs come from, e.g. The Dying Phoenix or Through a Glass Darkly). They are set in Futura naturally.)

p.47 “Printed on a yellow background, the blue-gray decorative slugs, the bold red arrow, and the sans serif typography offer no clue whatsoever to the content of the book [The Wisdom of the Heart by Henry Miller].”

But see the image on p. 49 and it is clear that the cover suggests two breasts and that the arrow can be interpreted as a penis or as Cupid’s, thus giving the design an erotic element. Perhaps Lustig did not read the book and assumed the book, in keeping with Miller’s reputation, was erotic in content instead of being a collection of essays. As a sidenote, it is worth mentioning that Ivan Chermayeff, who worked with Lustig, did a jacket for this book for New Directions in 1960. His design replaces the head of a man with a heart. See The Wisdom of the Heart.

p. 47 “Media, A Design and Production Center, early 1940s.”

In the image the text says, “Alvin Lustig and Allison McNay announce the formation of MEDIA, a design and production center.…” Who is Allison McNay? She appears nowhere in the biography, not even in the caption to the image. A little bit of online sleuthing reveals that Allison McNay was a member of the Curriculum Division, Los Angeles City Schools in in 1948 and that she was the co-author with Ruth Quinn of Classroom Radio Production (1948). See the article (only partially available on Google Books) by Franklin Fearing in Hollywood Quarterly vol. 3, no. 4 1948 summer, pp. 456–459. The McNay and Quinn book is not viewable on Google Books. Perhaps Lustig met McNay while at Beverly Hills High School and later joined with her because she had media expertise he lacked. Whatever happened to the partnership?

p. 49 “Rounce and Coffin Club, 1940. / Invitation for the 500th anniversary of the invention of printing.”

The caption is wrong. The invitation is actually for a meeting to discuss plans to display the exhibition on the 500th anniversary of printing—which was prepared by AIGA members on the East Coast in collaboration with the New York Public Library (with a logo designed by W.A. Dwiggins)—not an invitation to the exhibition itself.

p. 50 “Lustig seldom relied on literal solutions [for his New Directions jackets]. HIs method was to read a manuscript to get the feel of the ‘author’s creative drive,’ then restate it in his own graphic terms.”

This was the same method used by several other jacket designers such as George Salter, though the results were very different. Lustig’s jackets fit into Salter’s no. 6 category (as written in 1939): “Pictorial design that elicits the atmosphere of the book while not necessarily depicting concrete or realistic scenes. This category is the most suggestive and stylistically abstract, and often includes symbolic or psychological imagery.” Quoted from Classic Book Jackets: The Design Legacy of George Salter by Thomas S. Hansen (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005), p. 12. Lustig’s work may also fit into category no. 5: “Pictorial design that suggests the atmosphere of a book by depicting specific details of its contents. Here the lettering supplements or explains the imagery.” For some of Salter’s work that is in these two categories see Schacht, Hitler’s Magician (1939), no. 120 in Hansen; The Tower of Babel (1947), no. 142, Dr. Faustus (1948), no. 143, and See How They Run (1951), no. 158. It should be noted that Salter liked Lustig’s work and included it in his teaching at Cooper Union (along with the work of Paul Rand and Ladislav Sutnar.)

p. 55 “New Classics succeeded in the marketplace and also in the history of design for its ingenuity where other popular literary series, such as the Modern Library and Everyman’s Library, failed, because of inconsistent art direction or dreary design.”

Heller is right about the quality of jacket design for the Modern Library, but not about its popularity. Despite its jackets it remained a standard into the 1960s. For images that support his judgement of the quality of Modern Library jackets see and In 1955 Modern Library began issuing its books in paperback as well as hardcover.

Where did Lustig’s love of scripts come from and why did he use them in his designs? They are a signature—no pun intended—part of his aesthetic.  In The New Classics series from New Directions, see:

p. 50 A Room with a View by E.M. Forster (1944) and Three Tales by Gustave Flaubert (1945) p. 54 The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (1949)

p. 55 The Wanderer by Alain Fournier (1948)

p. 56 Amerika by Franz Kafka (1945)

p. 60 The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James (1944)

The captions provide book title and date but not author. These have to be deduced from looking at the images.

p. 72 Three Tragedies by Gabriel Garcia Lorca (1948)

p. 89 Anatomy for Interior Designers (1946)

p. 92 advertisement for New Directions (1945)

p. 95 advertisement for H.G. Knoll (1944–1945)

p. 96 Ninth Graphic Arts Production Yearbook (1950)

Lustig’s use of script was not unique. Paul Rand and Alex Steinweiss were also turning to it in many of their designs during the same period. For Rand see Paul Rand by Steven Heller (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1999), pp. 26–30, 58, 66, 73, 75, 81, 98, 99, 101, 103, 106–107, 109–110, 115–116, 123, 173 and 187—but, oddly enough, never for any of his childrens books. For Steinweiss see For the Record: The Life and Work of Alex Steinweiss by Jennifer McKnight-Tronitz and Alex Steinweiss (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000), pp. 35, 64–65 (Steinweiss Scrawl alphabet), 73, 99, 100, 106–108, 114–116, 118–120, 123–124, 126–129, 136 and 144. Heller has written about the Steinweiss Scrawl in Eye 76 eyemagazine.

I suspect script—meaning handwriting or casual writing not the scripts of a lettering professional—were a means of making modern designs more accessible to the average person, of making them friendlier. This, like the ubiquitous use of Futura by these designers (Rand and Steinweiss and Bradbury Thompson as well as Lustig), is another visual trait that distinguishes American modernism from its European counterpart. It should be noted that Lustig seems to have deliberately avoided Futura in his Meridian book covers 1954–1955 (pp. 116–119) done at the end of his life.

Lustig’s use of Futura is distinguished by a preference for setting text in lowercase only in many of his designs (see pp. 50–53, 56–57, 60, 64–65, 77–79 and 93–95. Was Lustig influenced by the arguments and work of Herbert Bayer?

p. 61 “…the English critic C.F.O. Clarke…focused entirely on Lustig’s book work. ‘[They] were originally his private symbols, fruits of his own esoteric vision,’ he wrote. ‘The task, as he [Lustig] conceived it, was to find a series of symbols that could rapidly summarize the spirit of each book and give it an appropriate visual form.’”

Lustig’s covers for New Directions remain fascinating and cryptic because of his use of private symbols—though several are fairly transparent such as the dollar sign for The Great Gatsby (p. 60), the labyrinth for The Longest Journey (p. 53) or the barbed wire for Poems by Wilfred Owen, the British poet who died in World War I. But what neither Clarke nor Heller investigates is where Lustig may have gotten his symbols, what influences there may have been on him. Freudian psychology? Jungian? Anthroposophy? African art? One common trait is the use of pictograms (see Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre p. 53, A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh p. 56, The Man Who Died by D.H. Lawrence p. 59 or Exiles by James Joyce p. 60). The one cover that Heller does discuss in detail is the famous Three Tragedies by Lorca (see p. 62).

p. 70 “On the whole, Laughlin was duly respectful of Lustig’s choices.”

Heller details Laughlin’s (and his staff’s) reactions to Lustig’s often enigmatic cover designs for the New Directions books, but says nothing about contemporary reaction—if there is any to be found. Did book reviewers mention the covers? Did the authors themselves say anything? Dwiggins and Salter both got feedback—usually positive but not always—from authors about their covers. See correspondence in the Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. archives at the University of Texas.

pp. 62 and 63 “The Makers of Modern Literature and Directions Series, 1940s.”

The bold type in the caption on p. 63 referring to p. 62 is misleading since there are two distinct series being shown: 1. The Makers of Modern Literature; and 2. Directions. Two of the covers share the same image, a stylized hand holding a pen with a pointed nib. This image is reminiscent of the work of Karl Schulpig (1884–1948) for the BDG (Bund Deutscher Gebrauchsgraphiker) c. 1924: a stylized hand in a circle holding a pencil. See A Treasury of German Trademarks vol. 1: 1850–1925 by Leslie Cabarga (New York: Art Direction Book Company, 1982), opposite title page and on front cover.

p. 69 “He worked hand-in-glove with photographers, who executed his vision for the first time (paying them $25 a photograph, and cosigning the work with them).”

This refers to Lustig’s covers for the Modern Reader series of books from New Directions. The photographers—George Barrows (see The Confessions of Zeno, p. 68), J. Connor (only an initial) (see Death on the Installment Plan, p. 74) and Quigley (no first name given) (see Journey to the End of the Night, p. 70)—are not discussed. They were important enough to Lustig that he signed their names with his on the covers. But who were they? How did they meet up with Lustig? Were they just carrying out his vision or were they collaborating on the design? Barrows is mentioned in Art in Our Time: A Chronicle of the Museum of Modern Art by Harriet Schoenholz Bee and Michelle Elligott (New York: Museum of Modern, 2004) in the footnote to p. 120. MoMA apparently has some of his photos. There is also a lead online that suggests Barrow was associated with Frank Lloyd Wright at one time. Perhaps Lustig met him during his brief stay at Taliesen East.

Lustig’s 1946 Ski Alta catalogue cover (p. 78) is reminiscent of the early 1930s work of Herbert Matter such as the cover of TM foto 5 (1933) p. 92, the cover of SVZ Revue no. 1 (1934) p. 55 or the brochure for Gebr. Fretz AG (1934) p. 58. See Herbert Matter: Foto-Graphiker: Sehformen der Zeit: Das Werk der zwanziger und dreissiger Jahre by Markus Britschgi and Adrian Bättig (Baden: Verlag Lars Müller, 1995.

Lustig’s Paramount chair (1949, Paramount Furniture) (p. 152) is reminiscent of the 1941 plywood armchair by Eeron Saarinen and Charles Eames for Haskelite Corp. and Heywood Wakefield Co. See Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century by Pat Kirkham (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The MIT Press, 1998), pp. 207–210 and Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future by Eero Saarinen, Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, Donald Albrecht (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006). Its metal rod frame, though, is like those on the Eames dining and lounging chairs (initially made in 1946 with wooden legs). See and There is a reference to Lustig’s admiration for the chairs of Eames and Harry Bertoia on p. 160.

Lustig’s floating furniture (desks, bookcases, cabinets) (pp. 128–139) are reminiscent of the architecture of Richard Neutra (the Lovell House, 1927–1929) and Frank Lloyd Wright (Fallingwater 1935–1936); and the desks by Donald Deskey (1929) (fig. 8.11, p. 282), Gilbert Rohde (8.61, p. 312) and Frank Lloyd Wright (Steelcase 1935–1939) (fig. 8.58, p. 311). See The references above are to pages and images in The Machine Age in America 1918–1941 by Richard Guy Wilson, Dianne H. Pilgrim and Dickran Tashjian (New York: Harry Abrams and the Brooklyn Museum, 1986).