the lost adman and his forgotten ads

by Steven Heller - Baseline 2004, no. 44

Advertising may be the mother of graphic design, but during the early 20th century graphic design in the United States was an unwanted child and remained that way until the late 1930's when Paul Rand became art director of the Weintraub Advertising Agency in New York. Only then did newspaper and magazine advertisements rise above stultifying graphic conventions (i.e. verbose headlines, crammed body text, and romantic illustration). Rand's conceptually eye-tickling ads for such products as Disney hats, Frazier cars, and Air Wick air fresheners stood above the commonplace both for their typographic simplicity and pictorial wit.

However, these were anomalies, since few art directors/designers were as powerfully situated at the other major agencies until a decade later. In an industry where copywriters ruled the roost, design was usually an after-thought. Yet from the mid-to late-1940's, just prior to the Creative Revolution of the 1950's, sophisticated ads for various consumer products and institutional messages designed by modern designers started appearing in American newspapers and magazines, which altered the state of the art.

One of the most inventive - though least remembered - contemporary advertising designers was Alvin Lustig. Celebrated then as he is now for his strikingly modern book and book jacket designs (as well as for his signage and interior design), today he is barely recognized for his contributions to progressive advertising.

Lustig was not an adman in the strict or even liberal sense. He never worked at an agency. He never designed the same mass-market campaigns that Rand did. But he gathered an impressive client roster, many in the furniture and interiors industries, who understood that being modern was essential to capturing the interests of their customers, and Lustig had an ideal aesthetic sensibility. For clients like Knoll, Paramount Furniture, Menasco Manufacturing Company, Lansing Sound, Laverne Fabrics, and Miller Lighting Co. he produced elegant ads that exuded the modern virtue of economy. Of course, these were design related companies, but he also developed a light-hearted ad in 1945 for the Jayson shirt company and the occasional New Directions seasonal book announcements. Although the license Lustig was given by his more rarified clients was decidedly broader than if he had worked for an agency, nonetheless not every designer in his place could have employed modern graphic forms as successfully, even with all the freedom in the world.


Knoll Ad, 1945

Jayson Shirts Ad, 1945

Container Corporation of America, 1951
Force and Freedom, Meridian Books, 1955

Viewed individually, each Lustig advertisement is consistent with the abstract mannerisms found in his book and magazine work. For instance, his 1951 Container Corporation of America showed growing interest in 19th century woodtypes later used on Meridian book covers. Viewed as an oeuvre these ads further define the soft-sell experimental stage of American advertising just prior to the full-scale blast of the Big Idea throughout mainstream media.

Why go into advertising? When the young Lustig started his Los Angeles design practice in the late 1930s he could hardly afford to make prejudiced distinctions between the design of advertising genres. California offered only enough business for a handful of prominent designers to eke out their respective livings. Designers had to take in advertising, like so much extra wash, to stay viable, and film and home and office furnishing industries where among the few big clients. In addition to his covers and jackets for Ward Ritchie Press and New Directions, by the early 1940s Lustig was running a small type shop - setting and composing metal type - to make ends meet, so advertising was a blessing. Nonetheless, he was always a perfectionist who applied the same principles - clarity, economy, and acuity - when designing the printed page, whatever the purpose. Creating advertisements may have required a slightly different mindset but demanded the same refined compositional flair. Of course, he understood that an ad would always have to fight with other design elements, hence reduction was not just a modern language, it was a functional necessity.

Lustig's ads are reminiscent of those designed by Rand, Lester Beall, Leo Lionni, Alexey Brodovitch, and Erik Nitsche (among the few modern designers who routinely produced advertisements for agencies), but they are not imitations. 'The ads are not at all like Rand,' says Elaine Lustig Cohen, Lustig's wife and office manager before taking over the Lustig design studio after his untimely death from diabetes in 1955. 'Usually they were more spare, or playful in a painterly way. Frankly he was not very fond of Rand's (El Producto) cigar ads (which were too coarse for Lustig). He did admire Beall. But I don't think his influences were really from other designers. Although Lustig's advertising work has pretty much fallen through the historical cracks and is overshadowed by his more "heroic" accomplishments, it is not because they were derivative of other designers or followed fashionable designers. Modernism, as practiced at the Bauhaus, permeated the air in the United States and like a psychic medium Lustig hosted its spirit. If this sounds a little like mumbo jumbo, perhaps it is. But he truly believed that his destiny was to be modern and was devoted to the concept of holistic design. He was incapable of designing piece-goods - an isolated component of anything - but rather had to work on the totality, which explains why he designed advertisements for clients who could otherwise hire an agency.

Each of Lustig's jobs was interrelated. For example: with one of his interior commissions (an aspect of his practice that had become more frequent during the late 1940s) Lustig contracted Paramount Furniture, a custom chair manufacturer, to make him some chairs. In turn, they took a keen interest in his work and he agreed to produce for them a new comfortable chair to rival the recently released Saarinen womb chair, which was very expensive. Lustig reasoned that an upholstered plywood molded chair in two parts rather than one would solve the manufacturing cost problem, and could be sold at half the price. Once his chair was in production he insisted on designing his own advertisement for trade magazines. Similarly, while working on yet another interior design project Lustig met the Lavernes, owners of Laverne Co. in New York, and producers of fabric. In turn, they commissioned him to do a basic fabric titled 'Incantation' based on the witty glyphs on his New Directions jackets. Of course Lustig being Lustig, he insisted on designing the advertisement for his own product. Elaine Lustig recalls he despised their horsy horse logo 'but cleverly managed to work it in to his handmade three dimensional structure in the ad.' Such was his hubris.


Chair for Paramount Furniture, 1949

Paramount Furniture Ad, 1949

Incantation Fabric for Laverne Co., 1947
Laverne Co. Ad, 1947

Lustig rarely made formal pitches to clients. 'He also never went out looking for ad work,' recalls Elaine Lustig. Instead clients came to him and he had free reign. He would completely realign the client's attitude about an entire project, and it was this charisma that brought the client in the first place. Clients found him either because they saw something that he had done, or mostly it was by recommendation through clients or from architects, art critics, museum curators, etc.' Architect Philip Johnson, one of Lustig's most ardent supporters, introduced him to the owners of Miller Lighting Co, which resulted in Lustig designing a small-space typographic ad campaign (in fact, one of the few he did not sign) that was a masterpiece of design conciseness.

Designing advertisements did not, however, generate enough income to be more than a sideline, James Laughlin, publisher of New Directions, never wanted to spend much money, so it was not often that he asked Lustig to design anything besides jackets. Nonetheless, the new seasonal book announcements that Lustig did produce helped establish the visual identity of the small publishing house, and for bargain basement prices, too. More important than money, though, the advertisements advanced Lustig's graphic ideas that were percolating at the time. The 1942 ad for Menasco, manufacturers of power and hydraulic machines, prefigured Lustig's most innovative montages for New Directions books. While the more typographically subdued ad for the Screen Actor Magazine (the cover for which Lustig designed) echoed the minimalist type play of later Noonday and Meridian book covers (created in the early 1950s).


Miller Lighting Ad, 1951

New Directions Ad, 1945

Menasco Ad, 1942
Screen Actors Magazine, 1942

Lustig's earlier ads between 1942 and 1950 were decidedly more surreal and conceptual than subsequent ones. 'The later work is cooler and I wonder if this had anything to do with his vision,' speculates Elaine Lustig about her husband's failed eyesight, which started deteriorating at age 38 and by 39 he could only distinguish lights and darks, 'or if he became less interested in the personal mark.'

One of Lustig's great strengths, which made it possible for him to continue to work despite his blindness, was his honed ability to visualize the problem before him in both two and three dimensions. Even at the end of his life he was actively designing everything he could, including advertisements, by dictating what he saw in his mind's eye to his assistants who transcribed his words into concrete form. This remarkable ability to conjure the prefect color, type, and image continues to make his design so compelling. His forgotten advertisements are an important missing link in his short life's work.

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