Elaine Lustig Cohen (b. Elaine Firstenberg, 1927 Jersey City - d. New York City, 2016) was a painter and a prolific graphic designer. She studied art at Sophie Newcomb College, part of Tulane University, in New Orleans, and then transferred to the University of Southern California to major in art education, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1948.
Her first husband was the design pioneer Alvin Lustig. Cohen worked in his office as an office manager and secretary. But when he died prematurely in 1955, at the age of 40, Cohen almost inadvertently became a designer as well. At the time of his death, Lustig had been in the middle of a project for the Seagram Building in Manhattan. Phillip Johnson called shortly after his death to ask when the work would be ready. Cohen took over the project, designing nearly every piece of signage for the building, which opened in 1958.
Cohen then turned to making art. Her abstract paintings - geometric abstractions - were influenced by a modernist architectural aesthetic. In the 1970s, the work was characterized by a radical simplicity and subtlety. Over the years, it became more lively in its compositional construction.
Her work was shown in the 1970s by John Bernard Myers Gallery, and in 1979, she was the first woman to have a solo exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery downtown. Throughout the 1980s, her work was also exhibited by Janus Gallery, Los Angeles. She was also the subject of a solo exhibition at Exit Art in 1985.
Her design clients included the Jewish Museum, General Motors, the Museum of Primitive Art, the Federal Aviation Administration, Rio de Janeiro’s Museum of Modern Art and the 1964 World’s Fair. She created new type faces and signs for buildings by Philip Johnson and Eero Saarinen.
She also began designing museum catalogs, furniture, and dozens of book-covers for Meridian Books. She initially followed in her husband’s precisionist manner, but eventually established her own, more free-form style. She brought together abstraction, photography, and a playful use of conceptual ideas reflecting the books’ themes.
In 1956, she married Arthur A. Cohen, an author and the founder of Noonday Press and Meridian Books. In 1973, the couple founded Ex Libris, which sold antiquarian books and periodicals specializing in avant-garde art and architecture on the ground floor of their East 70th Street townhouse.
In the last ten years of her life, she brought together design, photography, and painting in a series of collage works on paper. 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.”