Born in Czechoslovakia, Ladislav Sutnar was a pioneer of information design. Working in America in the years after the war he synthesised European avant-gardisms into a functional commercial lexicon, made Constructivism playful and used its geometry to forge the dynamics of catalogue organisation. ‘The designer must think first, work later,’ Sutnar declared. His writings — in which the bracket was a favourite motif — are as timely today as his designs.
Ladislav Sutnar’s contributions to information architecture are milestones, not only in graphic design history, but in the development of design for the public good. The graphic systems he created for a range of American businesses clarified and made accessible vast amounts of complex, usually ponderous, information and transformed routine business data into digestible units. Before most designers — including the Swiss rationalists — had focused on the need for information organisation, Sutnar was in the forefront, driven by the quintessential Modern belief that good design applied to quotidian products has a beneficial, even curative, effect on society.
Sutnar emigrated from Czechoslovakia to the United States in 1939. In the late 1950s and 1960s he developed a variety of sophisticated design programmes for America’s telecommunications monopoly, the Bell System. The parentheses he designed to demarcate American area code numbers when these were introduced in the early 1960s made the lives of millions of phone users easier, while his distinctive use of functional typography and stark iconography made public access to both emergency and regular services considerably simpler and provided Bell with a distinctive identity. But in the history of graphic design Saul Bass has received more attention for his 1968 redesign of the Bell System logo, which made little impression on the public, than Sutnar did for creating user-friendly telephone directory — an innovation that ‘information-architect’ Richard Saul Wurman had drawn on in recent years in developing the California Bell Smart Page directories.
Sutnar is not acknowledged as the designer of the area code parentheses in part because they were so integral to the layout of the new calling system that they were instantly adopted into the language to become part of the vernacular. Moreover, he was never credited by the Bell System because it was felt that graphic designers, like their own functional graphics, should be transparent to the public eye – seen but not heard of.
As impersonal as Sutnar’s solution for indicating area code numbers might seem, the parentheses were in fact among the many signature devices he used to distinguish and highlight various types of information. As the art director from 1941 to 1960 of F. W. Dodge’s Sweet’s Catalog Service, America’s leading producer and distributor of trade and manufacturing catalogues, Sutnar developed an array of typographic and iconographic navigational tools that allowed users to traverse seas of data efficiently. His icons are analogous to the friendly computer symbols in use today, and were probably inspired by the iconographic tabs employed by El Lissitzky in Mayakovsky’s 1923 book For the Voice. In addition to various grid and tab systems, Sutnar made common punctuation, such as commas, colons and exclamation points, into linguistic traffic signs by enlarging and repeating them in a manner similar to that of 1920s Constructivist typography. These were adopted as key components of Sutnar’s distinctive American style — for although he professed universality, he nevertheless possessed, and coveted, a graphic personality that was so distinct from other practising the International Style that his work did not require a credit line, though he almost always took one. His personality was based not on self-indulgent styles, however, but on function (readability, visual interest and flow). It never obscured or overpowered his clients’ messages, but rather drew attention to them — which is more than can be said for much of the undisciplined commercial art of the period.
‘The lack of discipline in our present day urban industrial environment has produced a visual condition, characterised by clutter, confusion and chaos,’ wrote Allon Schoener, the curator of the ‘Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design in Action’ exhibition originated at the Contemporary Arts Centre in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1961. ‘As a result the average man of today must struggle to accomplish such basic objectives as being able to read signs, to identify products, to digest advertisements, or to locate information in newspapers... There is an urgent need for communication based upon precision and clarity. This is the area in which Ladislav Sutnar excels.’
If written today, this statement might seem like a critique of current design trends, but in 1961 it was a testament to progressivism. In the 1940s, when Sutnar introduced the theoretical constructs that defined ‘good design’, American commercial art was one-third instinct and two-thirds market convention, with results that were eclectic at best, confused at worst. Such ad hoc practice was anathema to Sutnar, who was stern about matters of order and logic and fervently sought to alter visual standards by introducing both businessmen and commercial artists to ‘the sound basis for modern graphic design and typography’. This, he asserts in his book, Visual Design in Action (Hastings House, 1961) is: ‘a direct heritage of the avant-garde pioneering of the twenties and thirties in Europe. It represents a basic change that is revolutionary.’
Like Jan Tschichold, Sutnar synthesised 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 way that elements of Swiss Neue Grafik became mediocre through mindless usage overtime. ‘He made Constructivism playful and used geometry to create the dynamics of organisation,’ says Noel Martin, who as a young designer in the 1950s was a member of Sutnar’s small circle of friends and acolytes. Despite a strict belief in absolute rightness of geometric form, Sutnar allowed variety within his strictures so as to avoid standardising his clients’ different messages. Consistency reigned in terms of an established framework of type and colour choices and layout preferences, but within these parameters, a variety of options existed for different kinds of projects – including catalogues, books, magazines and exhibitions.
Although Sutnar’s English was fettered by a heavy accent and grammatical deficiencies, he was a prolific writer who articulated his professional standards in many essays and books that were both philosophical and hands-on. Visual Design in Action, which furnishes examples from his own work, 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 Neue Typographie.
Uplift the public
Sutnar’s fundamentalist thesis that ‘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.’ This final sentence exemplifies Sutnar’s approach to graphic design practice, and specifically to information design, which he describes as a ‘resolution of the polarities of function versus form, utility versus beauty, and rational versus irrational.’ For Sutnar, the practice of information design, a subset of graphic design, ‘should be understood as the integration of meaning [content] and visualisation [format] into an entity that produces a desired action.’ Conveying information was the designer’s most crucial responsibility.
Sutnar’s writing, devoid of verbiage and mannerisms, is as resolutely economical as his design. His published texts (and even some of his personal letters) are organised into idea segments or bites, at the beginning of which is often a subtitle, framed by parentheses or brackets, that signals to readers the subject or idea to follow. In the absence of a subhead, a simple icon such as an arrow or square indicates the start of a new thought. A letter or number shows where the idea belongs in the hierarchy of the argument. Italics are common, not just for occasional emphasis, but are used instead of Roman to convey the intensity of certain ideas. While these devices were created to encourage reading, they also allow for efficient skimming.
Sutnar’s experience of the difficulties of English as a second language acts as a metaphor for why his design is so straightforward. Indeed, information of the kind presented in the Sweet’s catalogue — which included everything from plumbing supplies to hydroelectric generators — was the equivalent of a second or even third language for many of its readers. So if verbal or written language could not efficiently mediate information in the age of mass production, Sutnar reasoned that visual language needed to be more direct to compensate. One of his favourite comments was: ‘the jet plane pilot cannot read his instrumental panel fast enough to survive without efficient typography. [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 organised into accessible and retrievable packages. In the 1930s American industry made an initial attempt to introduce strict design systems to businesses, but the Great Depression demanded that the focus be on retooling factories and improving products, which spawned a new breed of professional: the industrial designer. In Europe the prototypical industrial designer was already established and the graphic design arm of the Modern Movement, often wed to Socialist principles, was already concerned with access to information as a function of making the world a better place. The mission to modernise antiquated aspects of European life, including the drive for efficient communications expressed through typographic purity, began simultaneously in Germany, the Netherlands, Russia and Eastern Europe. Sutnar led the charge in Czechoslovakia in the years before his emigration to the United States.
An unsung leader
Born in Pilsen in 1897 and a student at the Prague School of Decorative Arts, Sutnar was already a devout Modernist in the early 1920s. In 1923 he was made a professor of design at Prague’s State School of Graphic Arts and from 1932 to 1946 he was its director, a title he kept even in absentia after his move to the United States. 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 1930 he was art director on the staff of Prague’s largest publishing house, Družetevní Práce, where he created playful photomontage covers that still look remarkably fresh. In magazines like the Socialist arts journal Žijeme (We Live) and Vytvarné snahy (Fine Arts Endeavours) and on jackets for books by Upton Sinclair and George Bernard Shaw, Sutnar’s asymmetrical compositions offered additional levels of visual experience.
Overshadowed by his contemporaries, the Constructivist and Bauhaus typemasters El Lissitzky and Moholy-Nagy respectively, 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 son Radislav Sutnar, who today practises architecture in Los Angeles). The Sutnars lived in a classically Modern home in Baba, a residential district of the Czech capital inhabited by many avant-garde artists. As evidence of Sutnar’s fame, a 1934 exhibition (which is still intact), ‘Ladislav Sutnar and the New Typography’ earned considerable praise. The benchmark show was opened by Karel Teige, the leading authority on avant-garde design, who said: ‘The graphic design of Ladislav Sutnar belongs amongst the most thorough, ripened and most cultivated work brought out by the international movement that gave birth to the new graphic design of our times.’
Much of the work on show was concerned with communicating information, but was not information graphics per se. Sutnar’s focus at the time was on books and magazines, for which he developed strict, though mutable, typographic grids, in which sans serif type is framed by negative space in layouts whose compositional precision prefigures post-war Swiss approaches. Without sacrificing the dynamism of the New Typography, Sutnar smoothed out its rough edges. He established models that proved that functional design stripped of ornament was neither cold nor pedantic when imbued with intelligence. But as Noel Martin points out in relation to the Czech and later American work, ‘Sutnar always talked about function, but he created his own ornamentation through geometry and repetition. Repeating symbols and forms was helpful in expressing an industrial sensibility.’
Principles of flow
Sutnar was an enthusiastic propagandist for industrialisation. His interior designs for various World’s Fair pavilions showcased Czech progress. Like his print layouts, these interiors were based on principles of dynamic flow, with visitors moving in time through the three-dimensional information presented just as the eye might read a page of text. Sutnar was honoured with the commission to design the Czech exhibition at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, ‘The World of Tomorrow’; however, Hitler’s dismemberment of Czechoslovakia forced the pavilion to close shortly after the fair opened. Sutnar, who was in New York to assist in liquidating the exhibition and bringing its treasures back to Czechoslovakia, decided not to return to Nazi occupation. Because he did not send back the contents to the proper authorities, he believed, perhaps rightly, that he was a marked man. So in 1939 he left his wife and two sons in Prague and 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 the former World’s Fair president Grover Whalen. 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 furniture pioneer Hans Knoll, architects Serge Chermayeff, Marcell Breuer and Walter Gropius, a graphiste Herbert Matter. Through his friend 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, Karl Lönberg-Holm, who instantly arranged for Sutnar to become his art director.
Lönberg-Holm was ‘the other half of dad’s brain when it came to information,’ states Radislav Sutnar. Their collaboration was to information design what Gilbert and Sullivan were to light opera or Rogers and Hammerstein to the Broadway musical. Together they composed and wrote Catalog Design (1944) and Catalog Design Progress (1950). The former introduced a variety of radical systematic departures in catalogue design; the latter fine-tuned those models to show how complex information could be organised and, most importantly, retrieved. Over 40 years after its publication, Catalog Design Progress is still an archetype of functional design.
Sweet’s Catalog Service was a facilitator for countless disparate trade and manufacturing publications which were collected in huge binders and distributed to businesses throughout the United States. Before Sutnar began his major redesign in about 1941, the only organising device was the overall binding, and otherwise chaos reigned. Lönberg-Holm had convinced his boss, president of F.W. Dodge Chauncey Williams, to order an entire re-evaluation of the operation, from the logo (which Sutnar transformed from a nineteenth-century swashed word, Sweets, to a bold ‘s’ dropped out of a black circle) and the structure of the binder (including the introduction of tabular aids) to the redesign of catalogues (some of which were done by Sutnar’s in-house art department).
Perhaps the most significant of Sutnar’s innovations was the use of spreads. ‘Dad was one of the first designers to design double spreads rather than single pages, which for him was exclusive to his American period,’ says Radislav Sutnar about an aspect of his father’s methodology that is so common today that even in retrospect the fact that it was an innovation can easily be overlooked. A casual perusal of Sutnar’s designs from 1941 on for everything from catalogues to brochures reveals a preponderance of dynamic spreads on which his signature navigational devices guide the user from one level of information to the next. By exploiting the spreads, Sutnar was able to inject visual excitement into the most routine material without impinging upon accessibility. While his basic structure was decidedly rational, his use of juxtapositions, scale and colour was rooted in abstraction.
For almost 20 years Sutnar had an arrangement where he worked for Sweet’s in the mornings and did freelance projects in the afternoons. At first he had a small studio; later he opened an office near Wall Street called Sutnar, Flint and Hall. Flint sold advertisements to newspapers and Thelma Hall, whom Sutnar had met at Sweet’s, ran the studio. After a year Flint left and the office was moved and renamed Sutnar & Hall. ‘Sutnar relied on Thelma for everything,’ recalls Philip Pearlstein, the American realist painter who worked as his assistant from 1949 to 1957. ‘He set the style and he would explain it to us. He would come in later, usually at night after everyone went home, to fine-tune things on sheets of tracing paper that we’d find in the morning.’ Pearlstein suggests that Hall was both Sutnar’s mediator and whipping girl. ‘He was very temperamental and would have a veritable nervous breakdown if something was off by 1/4 inch.’ His anger was often directed at the resilient and loyal Miss Hall, whom he would call at midnight with office business. After she left in 1955 to get married, the business name was changed to Sutnar – Office.
Despite Sutnar’s outbursts, Pearlstein (who says that during his final year with the firm he and Sutnar did not speak) concedes that his boss was a brilliant problem-solver. ‘He could intuitively sort out tangled balls of data with relative ease, and then instantly dray a layout that would perfectly express his solution.’ One of the most notable problems was the catalogue for American Standard, a mammoth plumbing-fixture manufacturer whose catalogues before 1950 were as confusing as they were large. For Sutnar the job was manna from heaven, Pearlstein recalls that ‘Sutnar loved to take things apart, find the right organising structure, and reconstruct it. In this sense he referred to himself as a Constrctivist.’
One of Sutnar’s favourite organisational tropes was precise indexing, both to avoid misunderstanding and to cut down unnecessary reading time. In their use of small images, his indexes were akin to a visual Dewey Decimal system. ‘In the field of encyclopaedic information systems... visual continuity implies the use of visual interest and simplicity,’ Sutnar wrote in Visual Design in Action. But though the goal was to save time, he often introduced design ideas to engender ‘visual interest’ — such as italics as body text — that were initially difficult to navigate and therefore time-consuming. Radislav Sutnar explains this away as ‘ the time it takes to get used to the new is compensated by the long-term savings.’
Underlying Sutnar’s save-the-world Modernist mission was the desire to introduce aesthetics into, say, the life of a plumber. ‘If the catalogue looked good the user might think about why it looked good,’ explains Pearlstein, ‘which in addition to being utopian idealism was also a snobbishness on his part.’ Indeed, Sutnar was a snob when it came to design. Like other pioneer Modernists he believed that he possessed the right answers and that everyone else was wrong. Radislav Sutnar recalls that his father pulled no punches: ‘Some clients loved him, others thought he was crazy. In fact, people in the United States were often sceptical of the radical ideas he proposed. He was just so methodical, he had to do things his own way. But when he hit it right it was 100 per cent; when he did it wrong it was curiously crude.’
While the term ‘crude’ hardly fits with the meticulous typography that was Sutnar’s trademark, to judge from the evidence in his archive at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, he did produce a large amount of aesthetically questionable material. Whether they were the result of too many compromises or just poor judgement, there is a curious pattern to his less successful designs, which usually occurred when he used excessively large type or oversimplified an information graphic. Although his most flawed work is on a higher level than most everyday design, the absence of visual nuance, particularly in projects that offered little opportunity for flow, such as book jackets and record sleeves, resulted in mediocrity. Yet even the bad work is an intrusive example of how far the Modern vocabulary can be pushed.
By 1959 Sutnar had set standards for what he referred to as a ‘new design synthesis’ in a talk given to the Type Directors Club of New York on the subject ‘What is new in American Typography?’ ‘[D]esign is evaluated as a process culminating in an entity which intensifies comprehension,’ he claimed. And clients benefited from his unswerving commitment to this idea. In addition to the Bell System programme, which was only partially instituted (some of his ideas were cannibalised and patched on to other designers’ proposals), he developed Modern systems for a variety of businesses. The most noteworthy include advertising and identity campaigns for Vera scarves (which despite the mass-market appeal of the product were masterpieces of Constructivist sophistication); graphic design 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 in competition with Olivetti. The addo-x identity was predicated on Sutnar’s belief in the dynamism of geometric form and is rooted in stark graphics that are bilingually simple, yet unmistakably recognisable (the bold sans serif, iconographic ‘x’ exhibits a power that could be likened to that of the cross and swastika).
Despite these milestones, Sutnar’s client base was eroding by the early 1960s as old clients retired and younger designers competed for the large commissions. Sutnar lost his job with Sweet’s because the systems in place obviated the need for a full-time art director. His friends banded together to inform the business community and public about his work. The result was the travelling exhibition ‘Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design in Action’, meticulously designed by Sutnar himself. The exhibition formed the basis for his book of the same name, which he financed out of his own pocket because he could find no publisher prepared to pay the production costs. He had previously edited Design for Point of Sale (1952) and Package Design (1953), which showcased exemplary work by others, and though Visual Design in Action featured only his work, it was no promotional monograph but a model on which to base contemporary graphic output. Sales (at the hefty price of $15) were unfortunately not very brisk, although today the book is a rare treasure.
Prices in the Pantheon
During the 1960s commissions trickled in and then disappeared. ‘Dad loved to work and was disheartened by the lack of interest in him,’ says Radislav Sutnar. So he turned his attention to painting what he called ‘joy-art’ – essentially a collection of geometrically constructed nudes that resemble, though in fact prefigure, paintings by Tom Wesselman. In a catalogue for one of his exhibitions Sutnar sums up these rather prosaic paintings with the statement ‘a “joy-art” painting is in every sense the genuinely “happy picture”.’ In the late 1960s and early 1970s Sutnar continued to haunt the New York Art Directors Club, where a younger generation was relatively oblivious to his achievements. ‘He never spoke about himself, so I had no idea what he had done,’ recalls Bob Ciano, a young member who was introduced to Sutnar on a few occasions but thought of him as just one of many brooding old-timers. In the mid-1970s he was diagnosed as having cancer and in 1976 he died.
Sutnar left a legacy of work and writing that proves his vitality as a designer and his passion for design. But most extraordinary is the timeless quality of his output. Many designers can claim to have one or more pieces in the pantheon, but thanks to shifts in commerce and style, few can say that these are as viable now as when they were first conceived. Sutnar’s most significant work could be used today, and indeed much of it is reprised by young designers in various hybrid forms. In the field of information design it is arguable that both Edward Tufte and Richard Saul Wurman are really just carrying the torch that Sutnar lit decades before, while many design students, either knowingly or not, have borrowed and applied his signature graphics to a post-modern style.
Nevertheless, Sutnar would loathe to be 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 pre-empting this kind of superficial epitaph. ‘It is that of the painstaking, refined craftsmanship which appears to be dying out’.
Published in Eye no. 13 vol. 4 1994