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]."
The contacts in Prague enabled Rad to establish an exchange program with Cooper-Hewitt to fill in as much as possible their Sutnar archives with pre- and post-1939 material. This resulted in 2003 in the exhibit (and catalog) "Ladislav Sutnar — Design in Action — Prague — New York," held at the Prague Castle and later sent to Zurich, Nuremberg, and Rotterdam. "Unfortunately," Rad laments, "it did not reach New York as agreed, due to the change in directorship at Cooper-Hewitt."
Despite an increase of citations in books and articles, Ladislav Sutnar is still not as well known, even in design circles, as some of his contemporaries. "The great design works and achievements in the Czech lands have been hidden from the west, due to the two dictatorial regimes that kept the country from the rest of the world," Rad explains. "First the German occupation in 1939, then the communist takeover until 1989. Thus effectively for almost 50 years the rest of the world was not aware of the wonderful pre-1939 designs on the level of Bauhaus. Because of this stoppage of flow of information, dad did not have a way of pointing to actual achievement that people could see and feel. He had only the few photographs that he was able get out, and no tangible objects."
In addition to his graphic design, during the latter years, perhaps owing to the wholesale decline of clients, Sutnar turned to painting pop art-like, mostly sensual female portraits. They were called "Joy Paintings," and one of his series is called "Venus." "Dad's paintings are as well articulated and adhere the principle that less is more. A line, an area of color, are deftly placed in the 'right' spot and in relation to each other in the painting tell a whole story. To achieve this balance of color, Dad uses a whole system, sometimes simple, other times very complex, of geometric proportions. The same or similar to what he used in his graphic designs." Rad takes exception to my comparison with Pop Art.
"Dad did not exactly like some of the Pop Art because of its 'raw' nature. There is no feeling of better or happier future that would up lift ones spirits and finding better tomorrow." These, in contrast, have "a sense of joy, optimism, and happiness throughout each painting." The Venus paintings are currently on exhibit in Prague—the first solo exhibition since Sutnar's death.
Rad wants not only to preserve one legacy while elevating another. Sutnar's paintings are less important in the annals of design history, yet they hold an important place in the son's understanding of his father's entire oeuvre. "The way I would like for dad to be remembered is as a visionary who expressed his thoughts through design and painting, being one of a kind and ageless."