Lustig studied design at Los Angeles City College, Art Center, and independently with American architect Frank Lloyd Wright at his Taliesin studio and French painter Jean Charlot. He began his career designing book jackets in 1937 in Los Angeles, California. In 1944 he became Director of Visual Research for Look Magazine. He also designed for Fortune, and Girl Scouts of the United States.
In addition to his many contributions to graphic design, Lustig was an accomplished interior and architectural designer. In 1949, he designed what has become known as the "Lustig Chair" for Paramount Furniture in Beverly Hills, CA. His original design continues to inspire modern interiors and replications of the chair are still in production.
Josef Albers invited him to teach at Black Mountain College in 1945, and at Yale in 1951.
Alvin Lustig maintained a successful professional relationship with New Directions Publishing for almost a decade, producing some of his most iconic and innovative work for the independent publishing company. He designed more than seventy dust jackets for the New Classics literary series from 1945 until his death in 1955. His abstract designs incorporated a modern design sensibility with a groundbreaking approach to typeface design and the unconventional dust jacket became a hallmark of New Directions publications. His artwork was featured on the covers of classic works of modernist literature, including the works of James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound. Several Tennessee Williams plays were published by New Directions during this period and Lustig's art was included on the first edition covers of these works, including A Streetcar Named Desire, Orpheus Descending, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Lustig developed diabetes as a teenager. As a result of diabetes by 1954 he was virtually blind. He developed Kimmelstiel-Wilson syndrome, an incurable kidney disease connected to diabetes. Lustig died at the age of 40 of diabetes-related complications on December 4, 1955.
Elaine Lustig Cohen, Lustig's wife and fellow graphic designer, took over his New York City design firm after his death in 1955. She was awarded an AIGA Medal in 2011 for her contributions to American graphic design.
Lustig was inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame in 1986.
In 1993, the American Institute of Graphic Arts awarded Lustig a posthumous AIGA Medal. AIGA awards designers whose work has had "significant impact on the practice of graphic design in the United States."
In 2013, New Directions announced that they will be reissuing a selection of their classic titles with the original Lustig cover designs. In May 2013, New Directions will begin selling a series of postcards and other stationery featuring the artwork of Alvin Lustig.
The collective works of Alvin Lustig and Elaine Lustig Cohen were showcased in a special exhibit at the AIGA National Design Center in New York City from December 2010 to February 2013. The exhibit, titled The Lustigs: A Cover Story, was the first to show the work of Alvin and Elaine Lustig together in the same collection.
Out of Print Clothing, an online clothing retailer, offers merchandise featuring images of some of Lustig's well-known book covers, including the cover design for A Streetcar Named Desire.