The Case for Ladislav Sutnar

The Czechoslovakian designer’s work re-evaluated

Author: Steven Heller and Reto Caduff • Images courtesy of Designers & Books

The Case for Ladislav Sutnar
By Steven Heller

Does a case really have to be made for Ladislav Sutnar, an innovative modern designer whose work continues to excite and inspire? Yes. Czech born Sutnar was a victim of fashion’s constant shifts. When fashion turned, Sutnar’s genius was deemed passé.

Note hand-written by Ladislav Sutnar.

Note hand-written by Ladislav Sutnar.

During the 1930s in Czechoslovakia, his graphic design was a refinement of Russian Constructivist and German Bauhaus methods. Sutnar was a precisionist and a stylist. Yet he did not slavishly follow style, he led those around him into the modernist aesthetic: simplicity and functionality with a hint of allure.

Sutnar was not, however, simply a graphic designer but a designer for industry. Like so many avant gardists of that time he was involved in the “total work of art,” in that all things were made for public consumption, from tableware to toys. His was an art for the people, and remained so for much of his professional life.

Right before the winds of war savagely blew through Czechoslovakia, Sutnar left his homeland to design the national pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair: “The World of Tomorrow.” Regrettably, Czechoslovakia’s future was darkened by Nazi occupation, so Sutnar remained in the United States where he pursued art, design and craft, like so many refugees before and after. Fortunately, he had friends in the modernist design community and quickly acquired satisfying graphic design commissions. He eventually became the design director for Sweets Catalog Service; while maintaining an independent practice, he sharply changed the company’s overall hit-or-miss design aesthetic into a uniform yet variegated house style that both organized and clarified its catalog offerings while allowing for individual identities to emerge.

Sweets Catalog Service
Bell Telephone

Sutnar’s contribution is multifold: Building upon his Constructivist approaches he impacted the visual presentation of information on many platforms. It was Sutnar who designed the distinct way that Bell Telephone visualized the area code and how it introduced icons (now so popular in digital media) into its graphic language. But he also had an exuberant playful side that goes back to his interest in toy making. So much of his identity work for the business machine company addo-x, Vera scarves and New Jersey’s Carr’s department store is about making “brand devices” as accessible as children’s playthings.

This aspect of Sutnar’s creative motivation is made vividly clear in the most elegant and visceral of his many books (he wrote about store displays, catalog design and window design, among others), Ladislav Sutnar: Design in Action. The book takes the reader through some of the key pieces of his New York oeuvre, showing relationships to art and other inspirations, always being clear that functional design should be enjoyably accessible art.

Knoll + Drake Furniture
Alemite Industrial Lubrication Equipment

While his other opus, Catalog Design Progress, a timeless guide to systematic design of complex data, deserves a second life, it is Design in Action that has the most broad-based relevance to today’s designer. Its ironic that before his passing in 1976, Sutnar believed his relevance was over, yet today it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Thanks to the long-term efforts of his son, Radoslav Sutnar, not only the Sutnar name but the Sutnar methods are receiving renewed respect. This book is a real challenge to reprint in all its glory, but worth every drop of sweat and tears.

The Reprint Challenge
By Reto Caduff

So how does one get a reprint of a book from 1961 actually done? First there needs to be a physical copy of the original. Not an easy task. The books are a rare find and an expensive taste in the used book market. If you can find a good copy, don’t be surprised to find a four-figure price tag attached to it.

After finding a good copy I contacted Steve Heller about the idea. We both met during the production of the Herbert Matter documentary and shared a fascination for the Czech designer. Heller made the contact to Radoslav Sutnar who luckily liked the idea of a reprint.

Cover of Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design and Action

Cover of Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design and Action, written and designed by Ladislav Sutnar. Originally published 1961 in a limited edition of 3,000 copies. Facsimile reprint, October 2015.

Next stop: the archive at Cooper Hewitt, now the home of the most extensive library of all things Sutnar. The interesting trove of papers and information was an important backbone of getting an understanding on the genesis of the book and connecting the dots. The hope that the original layout of the book might still be in existence was quickly given up and the reality set in that the book would have to be reproduced by using a printed copy as the source material. Enter Lars Müller, graphic designer and publisher of art books in Switzerland with a deep understanding of what we wanted to achieve with the reprint. It was a cruel awakening when Müller explained the reality of the steps involved in bringing the book back to life. Since Lars Müller Publishers had done successful facsimile volumes, such as the reprint of the Neue Grafik magazines or the reprint of El Lissitzky and Hans Arp’s The Isms of Art, there was already a vast background of what it would take to turn VDIA a reality.

First was the challenge of finding paper that was as close to the original four paper stocks (that were of course no longer being produced), then it came down to counting the colors in the book. While most books are printed with cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CMYK) Mr. Sutnar chose ten different colors and black as the only way of bringing his vision into reality. Adding to the budget was a good original copy of the book that could be disassembled for the scanning process. From the start it was a given for everyone involved that the book should be reproduced in its most original form possible – meaning notes and images about the history of the book and Ladislav Sutnar would have to find a home in an additional volume that would come with the facsimile book. Plus the intricacies and challenges of the production meant a reliance on only the best professionals in the field of book printing.

Spread from Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design and Action, illustrating identity campaign for Addo-X.

Spread from Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design and Action, illustrating identity campaign for Addo-X.

Adding all the numbers together left the crew with a bit of a sticker shock. The reality set in quickly that this was not a project that could ever be financed with the sale of the book with a realistic market price tag. The search for individual donors with an affinity and understanding of the project started but didn’t yield the results expected so the idea of a Kickstarter campaign was born.

Why not use the most democratic form of fundraising and go directly to the audience the book is aimed at? Naturally, there were many question marks as well. Is there a large enough audience interested in an obscure book from 1961? What would happen if the campaign wasn’t successful? Would this be the end of a three year long quest from a few print and graphic design fanatics?

Book cover designs from Designers’ and Books Kickstarter campaign video

Spread from Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design and Action, showing book cover designs (from Designers and Books’ Kickstarter campaign video).

Steve Kroeter of Designers & Books agreed to develop a Kickstarter campaign from scratch, and over the course of a few months the team brought the campaign to life. It was a great exercise in questioning everything about the book again, diving deep into the philosophy of Sutnar and resurfacing with the fact that this was too good of a project to let go under.

Once everything was in place it was time to hand it over to the audience and see if there were other people out there that cared about graphic design history and appreciating the haptic quality of a well-produced book. It looks like the book will finally happen. We hope Mr. Sutnar has a smile on his face.

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