Ignored for decades, the design pioneer Ladislav Sutnar might have been forgotten—but his son, Radislav, made sure that didn't happen
Ladislav Sutnar (1897-1976) is somewhat known as a pioneer of information design and precursor of web design, whose major contributions included transforming common industrial catalogs into works of functional elegance. As design director for Sweets Catalog Service, designing its ubiquitous volumes found in all architects' offices, he developed a visual and typographic language for the commonplace that was at once transparent and extraordinary.
However, in addition to all his achievements from when he was a leading Constructivist designer in Prague to his exhaustive Modernist missionary work in New York, perhaps the most significant yet least heralded is his contribution to telecommunications. It was Sutnar who designed the format for the common Bell Telephone area code, framing it with parentheses. Sutnar was also enamored with diacritical marks.
From the 1960s through the '90s, Sutnar was more or less ignored. Then, with the burgeoning of the so-called graphic design history movement, he was afforded his rightful place in the pantheon by scholars and practitioners, through articles and exhibitions in Prague and New York. His work is collected at the Graphic Design Archive of the Rochester Institute of Technology and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Yet perhaps his most avid advocate is his son, the Los Angeles architect and city planner Radislav Sutnar, whom I spoke with recently, on the occasion of an exhibition in Sutnar's native Prague, about how and why he has devoted a significant part of his life to keeping the legacy alive.
After his father's death in 1976 when Rad (as he's known) realized that Sutnar's works and files could wind up in a trash bin, "I made a commitment for that not to happen. And try to preserve his works for history." At that time he made contact with various museums, institutions, and schools to donate Sutnar's works.
"You have to remember that this was year 1976, and no museum recognized graphic arts as a full-fledged field of artistic endeavor," Rad explains. "So I made a contact with Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, a Smithsonian Institution that was just in the process of being established. The end result was that we donated in the excess of 22,000 items designed by Dad." It took Cooper-Hewitt four years to obtain grants to catalog and organize the Sutnar archives. Rad further donated approximately 22 linear feet of shelf space of Sutnar's works to the Archives of American Art, Yale University, and the American Institute of Graphic Arts.
"Having thus placed [the material] out of harm's way in institutional archives," he continues, "we had to wait and look for opportunities to call attention to dad's works—and for the history to catch up." Unfortunately, Rad adds, at that time the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia tried to eradicate Sutnar from history owing to his ongoing anti-communist activities—"so, his pre-1939 works and achievements disappeared from history."
With the Velvet Revolution in Prague in 1989, all that changed. "My wife, Elaine, and I were able to visit Prague and reestablish contacts and make new ones," Rad says. "And we found an overwhelming support and memory of dad for his achievements. Including his pre-1939 assignment by the Czech government to 'put a visual face on the Republic' by his designs at the world fairs [including the 1939 New York World's Fair]."