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Elaine Lustig Cohen (1927–2016)

Elaine Lustig Cohen, artist, graphic designer, and AIGA medalist known for her book jackets, exhibition catalogues, and pioneering typographic works, has died at the age of eighty-nine.

In her artist’s statement, Cohen said, “My life as an artist has been shaped by two passions: for graphic design created in the public sphere on the one hand, and by the exploration of a related private vision in painting, on the other.”

Born Elaine Firstenberg in Jersey City in 1927, Cohen found her passion for modern art at the age of fifteen after a visit to Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery. While attending Newcomb College at Tulane University, she studied art and learned about design “in the Bauhaus sense.” At twenty years old, Cohen met Alvin Lustig, an American graphic designer whom she later married. She worked as a teacher for a short period of time, but left arts education to work in Lustig’s studio. After her husband’s death in 1955, Cohen took over his projects. She designed the architectural lettering for the Seagram Building, brochures for the Girl Scouts, and book jackets for Meridian Books.

In a 2015 500 Words for, Cohen discussed an exhibition of early paintings that was on view at Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. She said, “When I was doing graphic design in the postwar period, architecture was going to save the world! We were all going to be good in life because of the space we lived it in. It’s a wonderful dream, but that was the mind-set of the time.” She added, “Postwar expression for me was not about individualism or the freedom of a Jackson Pollock; it was about cultural renewal in an architectonic expression.”

In 1956, she married Arthur Cohen. She designed lobby signs and catalogues for the Jewish Museum, the Museum of Primitive Art (whose collections are now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), Rio de Janeiro’s Museum of Modern Art, Lincoln Center (in collaboration with Chermayeff and Geismar, but the signage was never adopted), and the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

“It wasn’t until the ’60s that I really came into my own. It was at that time that I did all the catalogs and design work for the Jewish Museum,” Cohen told BOMB magazine. Cohen added, “I never thought about design as a business—the visual was my life.”

In a statement, Prem Krishnamurthy, founder of P!, called Cohen “a friend, collaborator, mentor, and endless source of inspiration.” He continued, “Through her matchless work over the past seven decades, she gave us an image of what it means to do everything—whether as an artist, a designer, a dealer, an archivist, a thinker, or something else beyond professional names—with elegance and grace.”