Having only recently been exposed to the work of Alvin Lustig I was very excited to learn of the publication of the monograph Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig chronicling his life as a designer, teacher and author. I was only aware of some of his earlier experimentations with printers’ ornaments, but I was already extremely interested. I had high hopes of learning much more about the work, the man behind it, and the environment in which it was created.
The book did not disappoint.
Written by Steven Heller and Elaine Lustig Cohen, the book details the many aspects of the life of Alvin Lustig including his work in both graphic and interior design, how he evolved as a designer, his interest in education and his passion for changing the world through his creations. The breadth of his understanding of design covered many mediums and from the very beginning of the book you begin to understand that every aspect of his career was intertwined.
If the heights of professional practice are measured on total output and sheer innovation, then Lustig reached the zenith, even in his short lifetime. The prodigious cross-disciplinary work he produced—from book jackets to a helicopter design, textiles, furniture, magazines, logos, trademarks, sign systems, advertisements, and office and home interiors—equaled the output of others who lived for twenty, thirty, and even forty years longer.
The book openly states that the seminal work of Lustig’s career was the line of book covers he created for New Directions. However, the book is not limited to, or even seem to place a higher importance on, that portion of his career. The roughly 200 pages inside are lusciously illustrated with a great deal of work from his entire life. It is neatly organized into five sections, each focusing on a different period of his life and career. The sections, in order, cover his early career, his print work, his three-dimensional work, his work as a teacher, and his writings.
You get a great sense of how much his professional life mixed with his personal life and throughout the book there are in-depth insights into many aspects of the personal relationships he held. The book is co-authored by Elaine Lustig Cohen, who was his wife from early on in his career until he died an early death after developing Kimmelstiel-Wilson syndrome, an incurable kidney disease related to diabetes. There are no details spared and the emotion of the latter portion of his career are evident in the inclusion of the fact that he continued to work even after he had gone blind.
In an undated letter to a friend he wrote, “to be rather blunt I have not been able to see at all since the first of October. Starting around the end of June…the good left eye began to grow foggy and daily grew dimmer until now I can only distinguish dark from light…Only one or two people were aware of the situation and I was doing some rather fancy faking to carry on.”
The consistent interjection of the details of his personal life provide great insight into his approach as a designer, as well as his philosophy of the role a designer should play in society.
I will admit that at first I was daunted by the overall size of the book, it seemed very much like a textbook and I am not interested in reading textbooks. I have read plenty in my life already. I was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of the book layout and the pacing of the writing. The page layout changes quite often in order to accomodate for, and compliment, the large number of illustrations of work presented. The text is nicely laid out and the writing of Steven Heller borders on a conversation. It turned out to be a quick read and I finished it in two days. I have already mentioned it several times, but I want to mention once more how nice the amount of work within the book is, the great number of illustrations help visually tell the story being presented. I went in with little knowledge of Alvin Lustig and came out with the understanding of just how expansive his short career really was. The addition of the insight of his personal life rounded the book out perfectly.
If I had any complaint to make about the book it would be that the cover and binding left something to be desired. I am not usually of the opinion that the dusk jacket is more beautiful than the actual book cover, but in this case it definitely is. That small nuance aside, this book was the perfect combination of the history, lifestyle and visual work of Alvin Lustig. I am already on the lookout for other monographs of this quality.
About the Reviewer Dominic Flask is a designer by nature, a teacher by application and a thoughtful companion by friendship. You can find his work here, his thoughts here, and his passion on Design is History.