March 14, 2016

New Documents #1: Alvin Lustig & the Direction Series

Hello and welcome! This month New Documents is trying something new ... an email newsletter dedicated to exploring the world of twentieth century graphic design, with topics ranging from popular industry leaders to esoteric ephemera. Each month (or so) I'll dig into my archives of printed matter to share important moments in design history. This month we will look at a handful of Alvin Lustig designs that are often overshadowed by his more popular New Classics series of book covers: the Direction Series.

In 1947, James Laughlin hired Alvin Lustig to design simple wraps in black ink on colored-paper for the launch his Direction series. An offspring of Laughlin's short-lived literary arts journal "Pharos," Direction titles were published by New Directions between 1947 and 1952 in an attempt to gain a wider audience for the "advance guard" literature the publisher championed. The series is comprised of 23 titles in total, of which all but two were issued with covers designed by Lustig.

The first six titles were produced using an economic design. Unlike the vibrantly illustrated New Classics series, for which Lustig began illustrating covers only two years earlier, wraps for the Direction series employed the same simple line drawing with only the typography and paper color changing from book to book. However humble they may seem on the surface, over time these books have proven to be an important intersection between authors at the forefront of avant-garde literature, a publisher who is almost single-handedly responsible for bringing literary modernism to the American public, and one of the most influential graphic designers of all time.

By mid-1949, Laughlin asked Lustig to update his design for the Direction Series, to accommodate the small hardbound format that Laughlin preferred. This "wave" style dust jacket took many cues from the first six titles: each used the same layout, only altering the text and colors. Unlike the first series, this new design employed printed ink instead of the paper itself to provide the color. This gave these wraps a greater visual impact due to the vibrancy that could be achieved. These dust jackets were used until the series was discontinued in 1952.

There has been some discussion over the years regarding the attribution of these "wave" style jackets to Alvin Lustig, primarily because none are signed. Lustig was a zealous self marketer, and his work is virtually always prominently credited. In this case, however, we need to look only as far as the New Directions archives to find a Lustig connection. In 2008, Will Hall Books released Published for James Laughlin: A New Directions List of Publications, 1936-1997 by John A. Harrison, Rebecca Newth, and Anne Marie Candido. This incredible piece of research, written by three New Directions employees with full access to company records and archives over the course of three decades, is a must-have for any serious Lustig collector. It details the Direction series, and lists all pieces illustrated above as being by Alvin Lustig. For lack of better source material on the matter, I feel like this makes for a definitive attribution.

While the titles illustrated here comprise the entirety of Lustig's work for the Direction series, two volumes are left unaccounted for. A Celebration for Edith Sitwell by José García Villa (Direction 7, 1948) and Love & Death: A Study in Censorship by Gershon Legman (Direction 8, 1949) were published in the period between Lustig's first paper wrap covers and the redesigned "wave" dust jackets. Both were a similar format to the first six titles, softbound with paper covers, but neither seem to fit the Modernist style of the rest of the series. The Legman title was distributed by the author instead of New Directions, which plausibly explains the Lustig disconnect in that instance. The reason the García Villa title lacks a Lustig cover, however, may remain a mystery unless additional materials are discovered. It may simply have been a time of transition for New Directions, but any conjecture beyond would simply be a guess.

Over the course of his career, poet Van Meter Ames (1898-1985) wrote more than 200 articles on aesthetics, philosophy, and literature. His 1947 biography of André Gide was a best seller for New Directions' Makers of Modern Literature series. This month we are pleased to offer a copy of Directions #10 "A Commentary on Goethe's Faust" by D.J. Enright, signed by Ames on the front free endpaper. More information is available in the shop.


If there are topics you'd like me to discuss in an upcoming newsletter, I'd love to hear from you. I'd like this to be conversational, so please feel free to get a hold of me via email, Twitter, or Instagram.