Ladislav Sutnar

1995 AIGA Medal
1897, Pilsen, Czechoslovakia

Ladislav Sutnar was a progenitor of the current practice of information graphics, the lighter of a torch that is carried today by Edward Tufte and Richard Saul Wurman, among others. For a wide range of American businesses, Sutnar developed graphic systems that clarified vast amounts of complex information, transforming business data into digestible units. He was the man responsible for putting the parentheses around American telephone area-code numbers when they were first introduced.

The English author Anthony Trollope, who held a day job as a postal employee, is not remembered for “designing” the British postal box in 1852. Likewise, Sutnar has not been credited for the American area code, which was so integral to the design of the new calling system that is was instantly adopted into the language. The functional typography and iconography the he developed as part of various design programs for the Bell System in the late 1950s and early '60s made public access to both emergency and normal services considerably easier, while giving America's telecommunications monopoly a distinctive graphic identity. Yet the Bell System denied him credit, considering graphic designers as transparent as the functional graphics they designed. Nonetheless, Sutnar's unheralded contributions to information architecture remain milestones, not only of graphic design history but of design for the public good.

As impersonal as the area-code design might appear, the parentheses were actually among Sutnar's signature devices, one of many he used to distinguish and highlight information. As the art director, from 1941 to 1960, of F.W. Dodge's Sweet's Catalog Service, America's leading distributor and producer of trade and manufacturing catalogues, Sutnar developed various typographic and iconographic navigational devices that allowed users to efficiently traverse seas of data. His icons are analogous to the friendly computer symbols used today.

In addition to grid and tab systems, Sutnar made common punctuation, such as commas, colons and exclamation points, into linguistic traffic signs by enlarging and repeating them. Although he professed universality, he nevertheless possessed a graphic personality that was so distinctive from others practicing the International Style that his work did not even require a credit line, although he almost always took one.

“The lack of discipline in our present-day urban industrial environment has produced a visual condition, characterized by clutter, confusion and chaos,” wrote Allon Shoener, the curator of the exhibition Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design in Action, which originated at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati in 1961. “There is an urgent need for communication based upon precision and clarity. This is the area in which Ladislav Sutnar excels.”

Like Jan Tschichold, Sutnar synthesized European avant-gardisms, which he said “provided the base for further extension of new design vocabulary and new design means,” into a functional commercial lexicon that eschewed formalistic rules or art for art's sake. While he modified aspects of the New Typography, he did not compromise its integrity in the same way that elements of Swiss Neue Grafik became mediocre through mindless usage over time. “He made Constructivism playful and used geometry to create the dynamics of organization,” says Noel Martin, who was a member of Sutnar's small circle of friends in the late 1950s.

Consistency reigned within an established framework, such as limited type and color choices as well as strict layout preferences, but within those parameters a variety of options existed in relation to different kinds of projects, including catalogs, books, magazines, and exhibitions.

Although Sutnar's spoken English was fettered by a heavy Czech accent and marred by grammatical deficiencies, he was nevertheless a prolific writer who articulated his professional standards in essays and books that were both philosophical and practical. Visual Design in Action argues for future advances in graphic design and defines design in relation to a variety of dynamic methodologies. It is arguably the most intellectually stimulating Modern design book since Tschichold's Die Neue Typographic.

Sutnar's difficulties with spoken English as a second language do much to explain why his design was so straightforward. Indeed, information of the kind presented in the Seet's catalogs, which included everything from plumbing supplies to hydroelectric generators, were the equivalent of second or even third languages to many of its users. So if verbal or written language could not efficiently communicate or mediate information in the age of mass production, then, Sutnar reasoned, visual language needed to be more direct.

One of his favorite comments was: “Without efficient typography, the jet plane pilot cannot read his instrument panel fast enough to survive. [So] new means had to come to meet the quickening tempo of industry. Graphic design was forced to develop higher standards of performance to speed up the transmission of information. [And] the watchword of today is 'faster, faster'; produce faster, distribute faster, communicate faster.”

Even before the advent of the Information Age, there was information—masses of it, begging to be organized into accessible and retrievable packages. In the 1930s American industry made an attempt to introduce strict design systems to business, but the Great Depression demanded that the focus turn to retooling factories and improving products, which spawned a new breed of professional: the industrial designer. In Europe, the prototypical industrial designer had already established himself, and the graphic design arm of the Modern movement was already concerned with access to information as a function of making the world a better place. The mission to modernize antiquated aspects of European life led directly to efficient communications expressed through typographic purity. Sutnar led the charge in Czechoslovakia years before emigrating to the United States.

In the early 1920s Sutnar, who was born in Pilsen in 1897 and finished his studies concurrently at the Prague School of Decorative Arts, Charles University and Czech Technical University, was already a devout Modernist. In 1923 he was made a professor of design at the State School of Graphic Arts in Prague. From 1932 to 1946 he was its director, and kept the title even in absentia after emigrating to the United States in 1939. Le Corbusier's purism influenced his exhibition design, and he developed his own personality as a textile, product, glassware, porcelain and educational toy designer. From 1929 to 1939 he was art editor on the staff of Prague's largest publishing house, Drustevní Prace (Cooperative Works), where he created playful photomontage covers that are still remarkably fresh today. For magazines like the Socialist arts journal Zijeme (We Live) and V¥ytvarnÈ snahy (Fine Arts Endeavors) and jackets for books by Upton Sinclair and George Bernard Shaw, Sutnar's asymmetrical type and image compositions offered the reader additional levels of visual experience.

Overshadowed by two contemporaries, El Lissitsky and Moholy-Nagy, Sutnar is a relatively unsung leader of Modern objective typography. Yet he was a household name in Prague. “To be a Sutnar in Czechoslovakia was to be a prince,” recalls his younger son Radoslav Sutnar, who today is a real estate developer and consultant in Los Angeles. In Prague they lived in a classically modern home in Baba, a residential district known for its avant-garde artists. As evidence of his father's fame, a 1934 exhibition (which is still intact) entitled Ladislav Sutnar and the New Typography earned considerable praise.

By 1938 Sutnar had earned many international awards, including a silver medal at the 1925 International Exhibition in Paris; a gold medal at the World Exhibition, Barcelona, 1929; the Grand Prix, Trienniale, Milan, 1936; and fourteen Grand Prix and gold medals at the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris. Sutnar was then awarded a commission to design the Czech exhibition at the 1939 New York World's Fair: “The World of Tomorrow.” However, Hitler's partitioning of Czechoslovakia forced the pavilion to open with material already on hand. Sutnar, who was sent to New York by the German government to liquidate the exhibit and bring its treasures back to occupied Czechoslovakia, decided not to return home. And since he did not send the materials back to German authorities, he was suspended by the Education Ministry, thereby becoming a marked man. So in 1939, while his wife and two sons remained in Prague, he established residence on 52nd Street in the heart of New York's Jazz district.

During his first year in New York Sutnar worked briefly with Norman Bel Geddes, one of the key designers of the World's Fair, and later at Coty cosmetics for Grover Whalen, the former World's Fair president. He also worked for the Czech government in exile, which allotted him some funds for unspecified purposes. He renewed his contacts with other émigré designers, such as the architects Serge Chermayeff, Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius and graphiste Herbert Matter. Through John Hejduk, who founded the School of Architecture at Columbia University, he was a frequent guest at dinners for the Congress of International Modern Architecture, where he met the director of information research for Sweet's Catalog Service, K. (Knud) Löndberg-Holm, who instantly arranged for Sutnar to become his art director.

It is said that Löndberg-Holm was the other half of Sutnar's brain when it came to information. They were the Rogers and Hammerstein of information design. Together they composed and wrote Catalog Design (1944) and Catalog Design Progress (1950). Löndberg-Holm introduced a variety of systematic departures in catalog design, while Sutnar fine-tuned those models to show how complex information could be organized and retrieved.

Sweet's Catalog Service was a facilitator for countless trade and manufacturing publications that were collected in huge binders and distributed to businesses throughout the United States. Before Sutnar began its major redesign around 1941, the only organizational device was the overall binder. Löndberg-Holm had convinced Chauncey Williams, the president of F.W. Dodge, to order an entire reevaluation, from the logo (which Sutnar transformed from a nineteenth-century swashed word, Sweets, to a bold “S” dropped out of a black circle), to the fundamental structure of the binder (including the introduction of tabular aids), to the redesign of individual catalogues (some of which were designed by Sweet's in-house art department under Sutnar's direction). Together they introduced the three-way index system (by company name, production service and trade name) to facilitate information retrieval.

Perhaps the most significant of Sutnar's innovations was the use of spreads. He was one of the first designers to design double spreads rather than single pages. A casual perusal of Sutnar's designs for everything from catalogues to brochures form 1941 on, with the logical exception of covers, reveals a preponderance of spreads, on which his signature navigational devices force the viewer to go from one level of information to the next. Through spreads, Sutnar was able to inject visual excitement into even the most routine material without impinging upon accessibility.

For almost twenty years Sutnar had an arrangement whereby he worked for Sweet's in the morning and did freelance in the afternoon. At first he worked out of a small studio; next he opened an office near Wall Street originally called Sutnar, Flint and Hall. Flint sold ads to newspapers, and Thelma Hall, whom Sutnar had met at Sweet's, ran the studio. After a year Flint left, so the office was moved and renamed Sutnar + Hall. Sutnar relied on Hall for everything. While he set the style, she would explain it to the board people.

Philip Pearlstein, the realist painter, was Sutnar's assistant for many years. He remembers that Sutnar loved taking things apart to find the right organizing structure and reconstruct it. In this sense he referred to himself as a Constructivist. One of Sutnar's favorite organizational tropes was precise indexing to both avoid misunderstanding and limit unnecessary reading time. By using small images his indices were akin to a visual Dewey Decimal system. However, even though the goal was to save time, Sutnar often introduced design ideas to engender “visual interest”—such as italics as body text—that were initially difficult to navigate, and therefore time consuming. Sutnar also had the desire to introduce aesthetics into everyday life. “If the catalogue looked good, the user might think about why it looked good,” reports Pearlstein, “which in addition to being utopian idealism was also a snobbishness on his part.”

Sutnar was a snob when it came to design. Like other pioneer Modernists, he believed that he had the right answers and everyone else was wrong. His fundamental thesis is found in these words: “Good visual design is serious in purpose. Its aim is not to attain popular success by going back to the nostalgia of the past, or by sinking to the infantile level of a mythical public taste. It aspires to uplift the public to an expert design level. To inspire improvement and progress demands that the designer perform to the fullest limits of his ability. The designer must think first, work later.”

Radoslav Sutnar recalls that his father came on strong: “Some clients loved him; others thought he was crazy. In fact, people in the United States were often skeptical of the radical ideas he proposed. He was just so methodical, he had to do things his own way. When he hit it right, it was a thousand percent; when he did it wrong, it was curiously crude.”

While the term “crude” doesn't jive with the meticulous typography that was Sutnar's recognized trademark, judging from the evidence in his archive at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York, he did produce a large amount of aesthetically questionable material. Whether it was the result of too many compromises or just poor judgment, there is a curious pattern to his crudity. It usually occurred when he used excessively large type or oversimplified an information graphic. Even so, his most flawed work was on a higher plane than most.

As he once wrote, “Design is evaluated as a process culminating in an entity which intensifies comprehension,” and clients benefited from his unswerving commitment to this idea. In addition to the Bell System program, which was only partially instituted, he developed Modern systems for a variety of businesses, most notably advertising and identity campaign for Vera scarves (which despite the mass market appeal of the product, were masterpieces of Constructivist sophistication); graphic and environmental systems for Carr's shopping plaza in New Jersey (for whom he developed a lexicon of icons, pictographs and glyphs which were the quintessential application of rapid identifiers and symbols); and identity, advertisements and exhibitions for Addo-X, a Swedish business machine company that was competing with Olivetti in the United States. The Addo-X identity was predicated on geometric forms and is rooted in graphics that are beguilingly simple and unmistakably unique (a bold sans serif iconographic X exhibited power that could be likened to the cross and swastika).

Despite such milestones, Sutnar's client base was eroding by the early 1960s. He lost his job with Sweet's because the systems in place obviated the need for a full-time art director and information research department. At a particularly difficult time, Sutnar's friends banded together to inform the business community about his work. The result was the traveling exhibition Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design in Action, which was curated by Allon Schoener but meticulously designed by Sutnar himself. The exhibition was the basis for the book of the same name, which, because he could not find a publisher who would pay the high production costs, Sutnar financed out of his own pocket and sold for the hefty price of $15. Sutnar had previously edited Design for Point of Sale (1952) and Package Design (1953), which showcased exemplary work by others, but Visual Design in Action featured his own work as a model on which to base contemporary design. Sales were not very brisk, although today the book is a rare treasure.

Through the 1960s commissions disappeared. Disheartened by the lack of interest in his work, he turned his attention to painting what he called “joy-art,” essentially a collection of geometrically constructed nudes that resembled, though in fact prefigured, paintings by Tom Wesselman. In the late '60s and early '70s he continued to haunt the New York Art Director's Club, where a younger generation was relatively oblivious to his achievements. In the mid-seventies he was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1976.

Sutnar left a legacy of work and writing that prove his vitality as a designer and his passion for design. Many designers can claim to have one or more pieces in the pantheon, but few can claim, as Sutnar can, that these works are as viable today as they were when first conceived. Many design students—knowingly or not—have borrowed and applied his signature graphics to a post-Modern style. Sutnar, however, would loathe being appreciated as a nostalgic figure. “There is just one lesson from the past that should be learned for the benefit of the present,” he wrote in 1959, as if preempting this kind of superficial epitaph. “It is that painstaking, refined craftsmanship appears to be dying out.”

Copyright 1997 by The American Institute of Graphic Arts.