Textile: Incantation. Designed by Alvin Lustig, 1947. Printed cotton. Gift of Max Finkelstein. 1973-9-1.

Alvin Lustig’s Incantation

Although his career was tragically short, Alvin Lustig was among America’s most influential mid-century graphic designers. Textiles like Incantation (1947) reflect a rich multidisciplinary practice that encompassed furniture, graphics, architecture, and animation. After studying design and printing at Los Angeles Junior College, Lustig started creating geometric patterns in the medium of letterpress in the early 1930s. Fitting together typographic rules and symbols into tightly wrought abstractions, he used the time-worn mechanics of metal type to produce arresting cards and letterheads. He soon extended his taste for order and abstraction to furniture, lamps, signage programs, and office interiors, as well as to the poetic book covers for which he is best remembered.

Incantation, produced by Laverne Originals in New York, is at once simple and mysterious. The lines and shapes wandering across the surface suggest eyes, limbs, and runic markings yet refuse to converge into complete or recognizable figures. Covering the fabric in an interlocking scrawl both primitive and controlled, these enigmatic markings recall the paintings of Paul Klee and Joan Miró. Lustig used the fabric for floor-to-ceiling drapes in his Los Angeles office from 1947 to 1950.

Lustig began losing his eyesight in 1950, owing to diabetes. He moved to New York shortly after, opening a studio on East 58th Street and working for publishers including Alfred Knopf, New Directions, Meridian Books, and Noonday Press, producing some of the most iconic graphic images of our time. Nearly blind by 1954, he continued designing stunning visual works through his last year of life, verbally instructing his assistants to implement ideas that he could still see in his mind’s eye. Chief among his collaborators was his wife, Elaine Lustig Cohen, who went on to have a long career as a designer, painter, and collector. Alvin Lustig died in 1955 at age 40.

Learn more about the life and work of Alvin Lustig

Museum Number: 
1973-9-1