Building out an entire typeface from a dozen characters developed in the 1930s is a project that would intimidate most designers, especially when those original letterforms were created by AIGA Medalist Alvin Lustig. But when graphic designer Craig Welsh was presented with this rare opportunity, he took it one step further and created a Kickstarter campaign to launch a new typeface called Lustig Elements in collaboration with Elaine Lustig Cohen, Alvin’s widow and business partner (and fellow AIGA Medalist).
Nearly six years ago, Welsh was reading Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig by Steven Heller and Elaine, when he became intrigued by the words “Euclid A New Type” on page 35, set in a unique and memorable typeface. According to Elaine, Alvin’s inspiration was Oliver Byrne’s 1847 geometry book, The First Six Books of The Elements of Euclid, whose colored graphic illustrations of geometric principles prefigured the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements. “Alvin used geometric pieces from the metal type case in his personal letterpress shop to form a few words,” Elaine says. “He was just fooling around, created a couple of letters, and called it Euclid. I always loved it and wanted to expand those little words.”
Developing the complete alphabet was a spirited back-and-forth process between Welsh and Elaine. Welsh says, “As soon as we got the underlying grid going, we figured out there wouldn’t have been any clear diagonals—a limitation until we made sense of it. Some of it was really tricky; the Z tended to feel like a 2. At one point we had five different 8s in play and six different @ symbols. I’d go to Elaine’s place with blank grid printouts and we’d sit there and color in blocks on the grids and talk about alternate ways of how the forms might work.”
In addition to the digital version, Lustig Elements will be available as wood type, cut at the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum. Why wood type? “Letterpress is close to the roots of Alvin’s sensibility,” says Welsh. “In the 1930s, wood type would have been the most viable commercial application of the font, just as digital is the likely outlet for commercializing a font created now.” In recognition of the importance of this project, Hamilton will cut the font using “legacy wood” from the last existing batch of milled and dried Wisconsin rock maple in their inventory, approved for very few uses as it’s a limited, nonrenewable commodity.
Asked what the historical and practical value of Lustig Elements might be, Welsh doesn’t hesitate. “It’s a story of endurance on a number of fronts. Wood type endures alongside polymer plates, letterpress endures. Hamilton has weathered all the shifts in technology as well as physical location changes. But if anybody has an enduring spirit, it’s Elaine. She just turned 89 and is still active and involved in design projects. She deserves a collective high five from the design community for who she is in the world of graphic design and for what she accomplished at a time when there weren’t a lot of female graphic designers.”