On an island in the middle of the Hogsmill River, a little tributary of the River Thames running through leafy suburban Kingston, Surrey, is not where you would usually expect to find the work of a pioneering American Modernist. But Kingston University’s Stanley Picker Gallery proved the perfect venue for the first British exhibition dedicated to the graphic designer, artist, and all-round creative polymath, Elaine Lustig Cohen.
The show, titled Looking Backward to Look Forward, runs from September to November, and is the first installment of “P!CKER” a two-part collaboration between the Stanley Picker Gallery and P!, the Manhattan exhibition-space (2012–17) curated by Prem Krishnamurthy, founding partner of the design studio Project Projects. This transatlantic partnership came about through the gallery’s curator Stella Bottai and Krishnamurthy’s shared interest in work that straddles the boundaries between art and design, with Lustig Cohen fitting the bill perfectly.
It was the way that Lustig Cohen moved between “graphic design, art, archiving, art dealing and more” which made Elaine such a compelling figure to Krishnamurthy. He first met Elaine at a design conference where she showed her paintings, which aren’t nearly as known as her design work. His interest piqued, Krishnamurthy resolved to spotlight her “activities outside of design,” and the two became colleagues, working together until she passed away in 2016. Although Lustig Cohen is now best known as a pioneering female graphic designer of the mid-century era, she “can’t be reduced to just a ‘graphic designer’,” Krishnamurthy explains. “As the show only scratches the surface on, she was also an artist and much, much more.”
The range and variety of Elaine’s work mean that she defies easy categorization, and Krishnamurthy suggests that perhaps this impacted her position and relative fame, explaining that “the art market, as well as those who write history, tend to prefer figures who can be easily reduced to a single soundbite.” But, as the exhibition proves, Lustig Cohen’s standards were always incredibly high and her influence was wide-reaching across disciplines.
Lustig Cohen, born Elaine Firstenberg in Jersey City, 1927, developed an interest in modern art young. At only fifteen she visited Peggy Guggenheim’s first gallery in Manhattan, seeing works by the pioneering abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky. Her passion ignited, she later studied arts education at the University of Southern California. Unfortunately, the prejudices at the time saw a woman’s place in teaching rather than practice. It was in Los Angeles, in 1948, at the opening of a modern art gallery that Elaine met Alvin Lustig. Romance and marriage quickly followed. Alvin was twelve years her senior and already an established designer, working on architecture, furniture, textiles and the book jackets for which he found fame.
Elaine worked as an art teacher for the first year of her marriage, although she quickly became frustrated by the confinement of high-school education. Inevitably she began to work with her husband, but in his office, nobody but Alvin did any real design. Elaine and fellow assistants only ever implemented Lustig’s sketches rather than working on ideas of their own. Elaine’s creativity was limited further as the secretarial and administrative work also fell to her, but she did learn a lot of practical design skills while working for her husband. Sadly, their marriage would only last eight years as Alvin’s health, long affected by diabetes, steadily worsened. His eyesight deteriorated and his reliance on his wife increased until his sight failed completely. With Elaine’s help and Alvin’s keen visual memory, the studio functioned through Alvin’s blindness until he died in 1955, at only 40, leaving Elaine a 28-year-old widow.
Elaine was shocked when Alvin’s former clients approached her to ask if she would continue his work, some almost immediately after the funeral. Rightly they trusted in her ability to continue the “good design” which Alvin, a Modernist at heart, like Elaine, believed in so strongly. Supposedly these clients didn’t know how limited her previous role in the studio had been when Alvin’s health was better. As the Lustig’s had always been a very sociable couple, many of their clients were also close friends who would have been well aware of Elaine’s intelligence and talents. Alvin’s sight problems were no secret, and many of his clients knew that the work produced towards the end of his life was as much Elaine’s as his own. Elaine’s surprise at being asked to continue Alvin’s work shows that despite her obvious talents, she was a modest person. Krishnamurthy remembers her as someone with a great “humility and generosity” who “tended to downplay her own work in favor of others.” But, it is also fair to say that without Alvin, Elaine had a chance to excel in her own right, and took it.
After completing Alvin’s unfinished projects posthumously, Elaine started a partnership with another former Lustig studio member Jack Reich. She formed the duo partly out of fear that a lone female designer lacked credibility, rather than a lack of confidence in her own talents, but the pair parted after a year. Lustig Cohen worked from her home studio independently and very successfully for the rest of her career, for many clients, including the architects Philip Johnson and Eero Saarinen, the Jewish Museum, and Meridian Books, whose founder Arthur Cohen became her second husband.
As the graphic design work on show in Looking Backward to Look Forward proved, Lustig Cohen emerged from the considerable shadow of her first husband. She developed an aesthetic which, although at times influenced by Alvin’s, was distinctly her own: it was harder, rougher, and more serious, but playful and bright too when it needed to be. Thrust into the limelight by a dreadful situation, Lustig Cohen through her work proved herself a graphic designer every bit as capable, rigorous, and creative as any of her male contemporaries.
Still, Lustig Cohen’s ability as a graphic designer was just one aspect of the exhibition, which manages to drive home her varied and influential career. Lustig Cohen was undoubtedly destined to become an artist until gender roles pushed her towards obscurity in education, a fate she escaped first through marriage then loss, but graphic design was always something of an accidental pursuit. In the 1960’s Elaine also found acclaim as a painter, initially in a Modernist, minimalist style, which later morphed into more freeform work blending collage and typography. An abiding characteristic of her work was a willingness never to settle.
Her influence also expanded through Ex Libris, an antiquarian shop established with Cohen which sold rare and avant-garde 20th Century Art and Architecture books and periodicals, increasing exposure of European Modernism in America. Designing the catalogues for Ex Libris, some of which featured in the Kingston show, was one of Lustig Cohen’s final series of graphic design projects after she focused more on art in the late sixties.
Krishnamurthy proposes that it was Lustig Cohen’s “polymathic nature” that led to periods of obscurity; explaining that “those who move between ideas and change their approach are rarely rewarded, at least in their own lives.” Looking Backward to Look Forward, with its combination of graphic design, art, and biography, all displayed innovatively and engagingly, is undoubtedly just reward for a figure worthy of celebration and exposure.