Alvin Lustig was an American designer who was born in 1915 and died in 1955. He studied design at Los Angeles City College, Art Center, and, independently, under the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Though he did work in type design, interior design, and industrial design, he is most well known for his unique and groundbreaking book jacket covers. Between 1945 and 1955 he designed more than 70 covers, primarily for New Direction’s Publishing’s New Classics series.
His covers soon become iconic for their use of bold colors, geometric shapes and patterns, and small set type– a style of jacket design that was highly unusual for the time. While the current trend was to design covers that essentially summarized the book’s story, Lustig instead tried to capture the conceptual direction of each novel. He did not believe in “designing down” for the general public and better sales, and as a result, treated each cover as a work of art in itself.
His innovative designs raised the bar for commercial design and still,directly or indirectly, inspires the work we see in book covers, movies posters, and other commercial design today. He was among the first to treat commercial design as a form of art– not just a form of marketing. His book covers captured not only the surface of a book, but it’s deepest themes. With his designs, jacket designs became a true artistic asset to a book, as well as artistic pieces in their own right.
“There was no need to ‘design down’ as there had been no ‘writing down’ in the books selected,” wrote Lustig, of his New Directions book cover designs. “Still it was necessary to attract and hold the roving eye of the potential buyer. To do this, a series of symbols that could quickly summarize the spirit of each book, were established. The personal and subjective concept of each book was taken and the attempt was made to objectify and project it in visual form. Sometimes the symbols are quite obvious and taken from the subject itself. Others are more evasive and attempt to characterize the emotional content of the book. The jackets were always planned for maximum visual effectiveness when displayed together, as well as when shown singly against the confused background of the average bookstore.”
Lustig battled diabetes since he was a teenager, and, near the end of his life, was mostly blind as a result. He died in 1955 at the age of 40, of diabetes complications.
Lustig wrote extensively about design, but today many of his essays and speeches are difficult to find except in limited printed quantities. This excerpt from Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig, reprinted in The Design Observer, however, summarizes many of his design philosophies.