Dust Covers To Covet

by Claudia Dias on July 28, 2009

In the 1989 movie Back to the Future Part II, time-traveler Marty McFly visits a 2015 antique shop whose saleswoman shows him a book with a dust jacket and explains that it is from before the days of (fictional) dust-repellent paper. 


This year, only 6 years away, the most famous example of a dust jacket was on the first edition of “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, published in 1925. With the jacket the collector’s value of that book is 20-30 times higher then without. Only in the early 1920′s the decoration from the book itself had moved to the dust jackets and later on simply to the cover design for hard-cover and paperback (now also for the internet). Today it happens that the cover designer is better known then the author of the book (i.e. Chip Kidd). 

Early on the independent literary publisher ‘New Directions‘, established in 1936 in New York, caught up with this idea and commissioned in 1940 Alvin Lustig to design the covers for re-editions for their “Modern Classics” series and for their authors like Tennessee Williams. He was influenced by the European designs of bauhaus and the Dada movement, and the Russian Constructivists books by El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko, all with the intention of ‘knocking the eye off-center’.


Meanwhile, a healthy rivalry started with other designers ‘who could alter the form faster’, one of them being Paul Rand for the magazine “Direction”. 
‘By the mid-1940s, when he was designing all the jackets in New Directions’ “New Classics” series (which b.t.w. includes Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’), Lustig had combined modern type with abstract line drawings, or what he called symbolic ‘marks’, which owed more to the work of such artists as Paul Klee, Joan Miró and Mark Rothko than to accepted commercial styles.’


‘Like jazz improvisations, these non-representational images signaled the progressive nature of his publishing house. During the late 1940s he introduced collage/montage and reticulated photography, evoking surrealistic fantasies. And in the 1950′s he developed a series of paperback covers for Noonday and Meridian Books using only gothic and slab serif typography. Rand and Lustig clearly shared certain traits, since they were both fluent in the language of Modernism – each had a similar preference for contemporary typefaces and child-like scribbles – but each interpreted Modernism in their own ways’. (Quoted from Steven Heller “Paul Rand”)

Today Lustig remains famous for his cover designs but what amazes me that in his short life (1915-1955) next to books and magazines he designed sign systems, textiles, interiors, buildings and a helicopter, always applying his believes in modern abstract design! 


If you are interested in books, but maybe even more in their covers; here comes your chance: New Directions is preparing for a limited edition of some of their ‘Modern Classics’ books with the original cover-designs by Alvin Lustig; printed on dust-collecting paper, affordable and definitely something to covet.

Please refer to the publisher for inquiries and prices.

New Directions Publishing Corp.
80 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10011, editorial@ndbook.com

Photographs are courtesy of  Alvin Lustig Archive.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lori 08.13.09 at 10:38 am

Those were the days when designers looked at art. Today maybe it’s more often the other way around.

2 Ranje 10.29.15 at 7:14 am

Enjoyed this as a quick Classic read for book club; great discussion. Many atulds may have read this as a high school student; it may be required reading for their high school-aged children (it is at Shen). Night be a good dark horse pic as the Baz Luhrman movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan as Jay and Daisy will be out at the Christmas holiday.

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