Elaine Lustig Cohen, 2015. Photo by Prem Krishnamurthy
Elaine Lustig Cohen (1927–2016) was an artist, designer, and collector who made enormous contributions to art and design. She found her way to graphic design through her marriage to the legendary American modernist Alvin Lustig (1915–1955). She managed her husband’s design studio from 1948 until his death, serving as a secretary, production assistant, and draftsperson—the “office slave,” as she recalls. As Lustig lost his eyesight to diabetes, he increasingly relied on his wife to execute his concepts.
After Lustig died, Cohen established her own design practice, carrying on work with many of the studio’s clients. Her book covers for Meridian Books and New Directions employ abstract structural elements, expressive typography, and conceptual photographs to interpret the books’ contents. At the time, book covers typically employed traditional pictorial illustrations and classic type. Cohen inventively visualized works of contemporary literature and nonfiction. Her techniques ranged from subtle abstractions to photomontage and staged photography.
Cohen worked for corporate and institutional clients during the 1960s, including General Motors, the Jewish Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro. She pioneered the practice of architectural signage, collaborating with Philip Johnson, Richard Meier, Eero Saarinen, and other leading architects. With Johnson, she designed signs for the Seagram Building, the Kline Geology Laboratory, and other projects. She established a visual identity for the Jewish Museum in 1963, using a distinctive square format to unify the museum’s catalogs.
Elaine married Arthur Cohen, publisher of Meridian Books, in 1956. They later opened Ex Libris, a rare bookstore specializing in publications and documents from the European avant-garde. Their daughter, Tamar Cohen, became a prominent graphic designer.
By 1969, Elaine focused her visual talents on painting, while also designing historically attuned catalogs for Ex Libris. Her meticulously constructed paintings and collages are represented by Julie Saul Gallery in New York City.
In 1995, Cooper Hewitt devoted a one-woman exhibition to Elaine Lustig Cohen’s pioneering design work. Her work has been displayed in the museum many times since and is proudly featured in our permanent collection. Cooper Hewitt worked with Elaine and Princeton Architectural Press in 1996 to publish the book Letters from the Avant-Garde, a history of modernist letterheads selected from Elaine’s personal collection. In 2015, typographer Craig Welsh collaborated with Elaine to create Lustig Elements, a typeface based on modular letterforms designed by Alvin Lustig in the 1930s.
Everyone who knew Elaine Lustig Cohen admired her talent, generosity, intelligence, and grace. Many of us at Cooper Hewitt knew and worked with her personally over many decades of her inspring creative life. We will miss her always.