Elaine Lustig Cohen, XXXII International Biennial Exhibition of Art, Venice, 1964. Catalog cover published by the Jewish Museum, New York. (Image courtesy of LACMA)

Exhibitions that feature graphic design are few and far between, but that may soon be changing now that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has put forth an initiative to collect and exhibit graphic design. Case in point, the new exhibition “Vitality of New Forms: Designs by Alvin Lustig and Elaine Lustig Cohen” (through July 4, 2016), with 56 works divided equally between AIGA Medalists Alvin Lustig and Elaine Lustig Cohen. The pieces are arranged more or less chronologically, starting in the 1930s with six spreads from The Ghost in the Underblows, an intricately composed letterpress-printed book by Alvin, and ending in 1990 with a dynamic collage on an Ex Libris catalog cover by Elaine.

Alvin’s broad approach to design is revealed on his side of the gallery through magazine, book, and album covers, as well as brochures, ads, and various ephemera. While he endeavored to find a graphic language that measured up to the vitality of new forms that signified “modern,” Lustig experimented with decorative motifs composed from elements in the type case, illustration, stylized graphic forms, biomorphic shapes, abstraction, and symbolism. He explored the creative potential of photography, photomontage, typography, and combinations thereof. Many of his methods were influenced by modern art, similar to the pieces from LACMA’s collection that are exhibited in adjacent galleries.

Some of his work hints at other aspects of his diverse design practice, such as furniture, interior, and fabric design, like the 1947 advertisement for Laverne Originals that includes a photograph of his Incantation fabric. And his teaching receives a nod in the April 1946 special issue of Design magazine that features Black Mountain College.

The exhibition reaches a subtle turning point with three typographic book covers designed by Alvin in 1955 for Meridian Books. He died later that year of complications from diabetes; he was just 40. He and Elaine had been married only seven years. During their marriage, Elaine managed Alvin’s design studio but never designed anything herself. “Nobody in Alvin’s office ever designed anything. Everybody executed his designs,” Elaine told Steve Heller in an interview. When Alvin’s eyesight became “foggy” from diabetes, he gave explicit instructions regarding type, color, and layout to Elaine and others so they could complete his designs.

Elaine’s half of the exhibition—comprised of book covers and exhibition catalogs along with several ads and pieces of ephemera—begins with a 1955 vibrant red, yellow, blue, and white striped catalog for Lightolier. Having learned design from her husband, she became one of the few female freelance graphic designers in the United States, and set up her own practice following Alvin’s death. She went on to design book jackets for New Directions and completed nearly a hundred covers for Meridian Books, seven of which are exhibited. She also worked with institutional clients, mainly galleries and museums. Six typographically bold exhibition catalogs for New York’s Jewish Museum are shown along with some spirited pieces for the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Washington Gallery of Modern Art.

As opposed to her husband, Elaine’s work reveals a more concentrated approach. Also influenced by modern art, she relies primarily on “abstract structural elements, expressive typography, and conceptual photographs to interpret the book’s contents,” as noted by Ellen Lupton. And Elaine often worked with collage, as shown in the 1990 Ex Libris catalog cover, Futurist Photography. This piece also references her position from 1973-1998 as a dealer of early 20th-century European avant-garde books and ephemera, together with Meridian Books publisher and longtime friend, Arthur A. Cohen, whom she married. The Cohens “played a critical role in building archival and museum collections across the United States,” said Staci Steinberger, assistant curator in LACMA’s Department of Decorative Arts and Design.

Steinberger consulted with Elaine to select the pieces in “Vitality of New Forms,” which were whittled down from a collection of 275 pieces donated to the museum by her daughter, Tamar Cohen. This body of work exemplifies LACMA’s 2014 initiative to collect and exhibit graphic design, which was set into motion by the museum’s department of Decorative Arts and Design, headed by curator Wendy Kaplan, and the department of Prints and Drawings, headed by curator Britt Salvesen.

Staci Steinberger, assistant curator in LACMA's Department of Decorative Arts and Design, discusses “Vitality of New Forms: Designs by Alvin Lustig and Elaine Lustig Cohen” with Susan Merritt in the gallery. Steinberger curated the exhibition in consultation with Cohen. (Image courtesy of Calvin Woo)
Staci Steinberger (left), assistant curator in LACMA’s Department of Decorative Arts and Design, discusses “Vitality of New Forms: Designs by Alvin Lustig and Elaine Lustig Cohen” with Susan Merritt in the gallery. Steinberger curated the exhibition in consultation with Cohen. (Image courtesy of Calvin Woo)

Steinberger told me that since starting the initiative 1,150 objects have been added to LACMA’s graphic design collection, including a collection of rare California travel posters dating from 1896–1970, the Marc Treib Collection of over 500 posters, works by Takenobu Igarashi, and Katherine and Michael McCoy. An upcoming installation in 2016 in the Pavilion for Japanese Art will include Kiyoshi Awazu and in 2017 an exhibition of fliers and drawings by Ed Fella is planned.

In 2015, the museum inaugurated the LACMA Study Center for Photography and Works on Paper. To make an appointment, contact studycenter@lacma.org.