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Finding aid for the Getty Research Institute Collection of Ladislav Sutnar Papers, 1897-1976
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Biographical/Historical Note
  • Administrative Information
  • Related Archival Materials
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Getty Research Institute collection of Ladislav Sutnar papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1897-1976
    Number: Sutnar.Combined
    Creator/Collector: Getty Research Institute
    Creator/Collector: Sutnar, Ladislav
    Physical Description: 44.6 linear feet (33 boxes, 1 flat file folder)
    The Getty Research Institute
    Special Collections
    1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 1100
    Los Angeles, California, 90049-1688
    (310) 440-7390
    Abstract: This finding aid describes five separate collections related to Ladislav Sutnar (1897-1976), a pioneer of modern design, acquired by the Getty Research Institute (GRI) from 1991 to 2013. The archives document Sutnar's work in the areas of graphic design, product design and exhibition design in his native Czechoslovakia and in the United States.
    Request Materials: Request access to the physical materials described in this inventory through the links included in each series. Click here for the access policy .
    Language: Collection material is in English with some Czech and German.

    Biographical/Historical Note

    Ladislav Sutnar had a prolific career as a designer in his native Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and 1930s and subsequently in the United States. Noted for his graphic, industrial and exhibition design work, which drew on the current trends in modernist aesthetics, Sutnar was also one of the earliest practitioners of what has become known as information design.
    Born in Pilsen, Bohemia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire on November 9, 1897, Ladislav Sutnar began painting and drawing as a teenager. He entered the School of Applied Arts in Prague in September 1915, but after only a month he was drafted into the Royal and Imperial Army and served as an infantry sergeant on the Balkan and Russian fronts. By the fall of 1918, World War I had run its course and an independent nation of Czechoslovakia had been recognized. Like many of his generation, Sutnar would be formed by this experience. His faith in a utopian, industrialized future and his leftist politics, ideas he shared with most of the Prague avant-garde artistic milieu, developed in these years and would inform his designs throughout his career.
    Sutnar restarted his studies in September 1919 in the charged atmosphere surrounding the new nation. Believing education to be a tool of societal progress, Sutnar planned to become a teacher. He studied applied graphics at the School of Applied Arts, supplementing this curriculum with mathematics and geometry courses at the School of Technology and courses in education, health education and philosophy at the School of Liberal Arts.
    After receiving his degree in June 1923, Sutnar worked for the State Department of Education in various roles. He first taught drawing in secondary schools. By 1926-1927, Sutnar had moved to a prestigious post at the State Institute for Cottage Industry. In 1932, he shifted from the classroom to administration, taking over as director of the State School of Graphics, a position he would hold until he left Czechoslovakia in 1939. Sutnar transformed the school's curriculum, stressing the role of commercial photography, and hiring Jaromír Funke, thereby linking the school with the New Photography and the New Objectivity movements.
    In addition to arts education, Sutnar was actively involved in almost every area of design production – theater and stagecraft; educational toys; books, posters and other printed matter; household goods and textiles; architecture and interiors; exhibitions – and he brought the principles of modernism to each. Sutnar's design philosophy was primarily Functionalist with elements drawn from the Constructivists and the De Stijl movement, as well as being strongly influenced by the New Typography and the Bauhaus, where he was a frequent visitor.
    Sutnar had a complicated career path, always juggling multiple positions and projects, although certain affiliations defined his career. In 1929 he became art editor of Družstevní práce (Cooperative Work), a publishing cooperative, as well as its subsidiary design studio, Krásná jizba (Beautiful Home). Sutnar quickly modernized all aspects of its production and transformed its visual style. For Krásná jizba, Sutnar designed tableware in porcelain and glass, as well as flatware and textiles. Sutnar's book designs for Družstevní práce, both the cover art and the book itself, were heavily influenced by the New Typography. Sutnar treated the page as a blank field on which blocks of text and illustration (usually photographs) would be placed asymmetrically. Sutnar's magazine and book jacket designs used typo-photo design: simple typefaces and photomontages silhouetted against colored or white fields, placed at angles. In the period between the wars, Sutnar's designs introduced modernist aesthetics into the average middle-class Czech home, through Družstevní práce's books and its lifestyle magazines like Zijeme (Living) and Panorama, and through Krásná jizba's affordable household goods.
    Sutnar's success was due in large part to the fact that, in addition to his talents as a designer, he had tremendous managerial and organizational skills. He used his broad network of experience and connections to create integrated systems of industrial design, in which a product's design, production, sales, marketing and advertising were all brought together. For the products of Družstevní práce and Krásná jizba, Sutnar's graphic design philosophy was applied to all printed matter connected with the companies, from books and magazines, to marketing and advertising materials, to business forms, creating a visual identity for their products. Another key element was Sutnar's involvement with the Czechoslovak Arts and Crafts Association, a group similar to the Deutscher Werkbund. After joining in 1924, Sutnar held a variety of organizational and administrative posts within the organization, becoming Executive Secretary in 1928. His involvement with both groups enabled Sutnar to connect the young designers of the Czechoslovak Arts and Crafts Association with Krásná jizba's retail network. He also edited and designed the Association's publications, including the lifestyle magazine O Bydleni (About Living), work that complemented his Družstevní práce publications.
    Sutnar's extensive involvement with the Czechoslovak Arts and Crafts Association was critical to other areas of his design output. Even before joining, he exhibited his student work through the organization. One of Sutnar's early areas of interest was educational toy design. In the early 1920s, Sutnar designed wooden toys – animals, vehicles, building block sets – combining modern educational theories with modernist aesthetics. After exhibition through the Czechoslovak Arts and Crafts Association, some designs were even put into production by Artěl, an Czech artisanal cooperative inspired by the Wiener Werkstätte. In this same period, Sutnar became interested in avant-garde puppetry and theater design. He was involved in several stage productions, culminating in his design of the mass outdoor pageants of the 2nd and 3rd Worker's Olympiads in 1927 and 1934. Sutnar soon turned the skills of stagecraft, such as lighting, color usage, rhythm and tempo, to the creation of exhibition environments.
    Sutnar revolutionized exhibition design in Czechoslovakia and his designs for international exhibitions raised the world's awareness of the progressive work being done in the country. Beginning in 1926, he designed numerous exhibitions for the Czechoslovak Arts and Crafts Association and his role often extended beyond the display environment to the creation of posters, the catalog and other printed ephemera. Sutnar's exhibition design career reached a peak with the 1937 Exposition internationale des arts et techniques dans la vie moderne in Paris, where his work won fourteen grand prizes and gold medals. This role as the leading designer of Czechoslovakia's entries in international exhibitions led to Sutnar's selection in 1938 as the chief designer for the nation's entry for the 1939 New York World's Fair. Before the fair opened, however, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and its participation in the Fair ceased. The new government sent Sutnar to New York to close down the partially completed pavilion. Instead, when Sutnar landed in New York in mid-April 1939, two weeks before the Fair was to open, he rejected his assignment and worked with the Czech government-in-exile to open the Czechoslovakian pavilion. Sutnar's action effectively ended his career in Czechoslovakia and led to a long separation from his wife Františka and their children. Unable to return to Prague, Sutnar began a new life and career in the United States, where he would become a citizen in 1948.
    When the World's Fair closed in October 1940, Sutnar found himself stranded in a foreign country with limited prospects for employment. He worked on small projects for his World's Fair contacts, such as Norman Bel Geddes, and for various organizations associated with Czech exiles. He attempted to return to product design, promoting plans for glassware and building blocks, but with no success. Sutnar also renewed contact with émigré Bauhaus acquaintances, including Marcel Breuer and Joseph Albers, Walter Gropius and Lázló Moholy-Nagy. It was through these European contacts, at a Congrès internationale d'architecture moderne (CIAM) dinner in New York, that Sutnar met Knud Lönberg-Holm, a Danish emigré who was the director of information research for Sweet's Catalog Service. The two men found they shared an aesthetic and in 1941 Sutnar was hired as Sweet's art director, a position he would hold until 1960.
    Sweet's Catalog Service produced and distributed an annually updated set of catalogs for trade and manufacturing companies, aimed especially at architects and the construction trade. When Sutnar arrived, the catalogs were cluttered and confusing with little concern for the clarity of information and the ease of locating products, a standard condition in the industry at this time. Sutnar realized that large amounts of increasingly complex information needed to be structured and literally made visible to reach consumers. He also thought that catalog users needed new, efficient ways to quickly navigate this information in a world with an increasing emphasis on the speed of communication. Sutnar created a system of visual icons, symbols and typographic devices to guide customers through masses of data.
    Sutnar's catalogs featured simple geometric forms, bright colors, especially orange, diagonal composition, dynamic elements and a hierarchy of information. He was one of the first designers to commonly implement the double-page spread, adding visual interest and creating a much larger field for design. Visual articulation – through alteration of font, type-size and weight contrast, underlining, spacing, varying use of color and reversals – differentiated data and clearly moved the reader from one level of information to the next. Icons and symbols also served as navigation devices, such as Sutnar's use of parentheses to highlight and distinguish data elements. In essence, the same principles of design drawn from Constructivism, Functionalism, and the New Typography that Sutnar had once used to create book covers for high-brow literary works were now applied to sales brochures for roofing materials and insulation. This fusion of the worlds of artistic design and commerce in post-war America would see its full development in the next decade with the founding of the International Design Conference in Aspen.
    Sutnar's practice of juggling multiple projects did not end with his arrival in the United States. In addition to his work at Sweet's, Sutnar maintained a private design firm under varying names: Sutnar & Hall Art and Design Service (1944-1946 and 1948-1950), Sutnar, Flint & Hall Advertising and Graphic Design Agency (1946-1947), and, from 1951 on, Sutnar Office. Through his own firm, Sutnar created identity and advertising campaigns, graphic and environmental systems, and exhibitions for clients like Addo-x, McGraw-Hill, IBM, RCA, Knoll and Drake Furniture, Fortune magazine, Vera Scarves, Carr's Department Stores, the United Nations and the Bell System. In addition to working for Sweet's and running his own firm, Sutnar taught design at the Pratt Institute from 1946 to 1949 and was chief designer for Theatre Arts magazine from 1959 to 1960.
    Sutnar's design work, both through Sweet's and his own office, transformed how information was communicated in America. This influence on the field was reinforced by the fact that Sutnar did not just produce work for clients, he took a pedagogic approach. Sutnar, often with Lönberg-Holm as a co-author, disseminated his ideas to other designers in several publications, including Catalog Design (1944), Catalog Design Progress: Advancing Standards in Visual Communication (1950), Design for Point of Sale (1952), and Package Design: The Force of Visual Selling (1953). In the course of transforming information communication, Sutnar also created the foundation for what has become the field of information design. His work with ideas of navigation and information hierarchy prefigures the information architecture now used on the internet.
    The 1960s began a difficult period in Sutnar's career. His successful creation of a self-sustaining production process at Sweet's eliminated the need for his position. Occasionally large commissions came through Sutnar Office, such as his 1964 project for the Bell System, which included his design convention of setting off area codes with parentheses, but in general, clients were fading away. In an attempt to revive his career, Sutnar designed a traveling exhibition, Visual Design in Action, which showcased his lifetime's design work. The exhibition travelled to nine venues in the years from 1961 to 1968. Perhaps ultimately more important than the exhibition itself was the accompanying book, Visual Design in Action: Principles, Purposes (1961), self-published by Sutnar when no publishing house would pay the high production costs of the beautifully designed book. This book serves as a complete textual and visual summary of Sutnar's design philosophy.
    Although Sutnar had painted and drawn throughout his life, he returned to fine art with increased intensity as his commercial design work disappeared, In the 1960s and into the 1970s, he refocused his creative output into two collections of art featuring precisely constructed, geometric nudes: his Strip Street portfolio of silk-screen prints and a series of Venus paintings in varying scales.
    Sutnar received numerous awards for his work in both Czechoslovakia and the United States. He was a member of the New York Art Director's Club and the American Institute of Graphic Artists (AIGA). Sutnar died in New York on November 18, 1976, never having returned to Czechoslovakia.

    Administrative Information


    Open for use by qualified researchers. The fragile materials in 2013.M.6.bx1* and the blocks in 2013.M.6 bx9*-bx10* require special handling.

    Publication Rights

    Acquisition Information

    The five series presented in this finding aid were acquired separately from 1991 to 2013. See individual entries below for the specifics of each acquisition.

    Processing History

    The five acquisitions represented in this finding aid were each rehoused upon receipt by the Registrar's office. Ann Harrison processed the collection and created the comprehensive finding aid in 2013-2014.

    Related Archival Materials

    Shortly after Ladislav Sutnar's death in 1976, the bulk of his archive was donated to the Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum . In the ensuing years, the Cooper Hewitt has been deaccessioning duplicate material and the Museum and the Sutnar family have been distributing it to various institutions. Sutnar archival material, much of it duplicating the Cooper Hewitt holdings, is currently held by the Rochester Institute of Technology, Wallace Library Special Collections; Yale University, Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library Special Collections; Art Institute of Chicago, Ryerson and Burnham Libraries archives; the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; and the Museum of Decorative Arts, Prague, as well as the Getty Research Institute.
    The Getty Research Institute holds other materials related to Ladislav Sutnar in addition to the archives recorded in this finding aid. A search of the library catalog using Sutnar as keyword will yield numerous books published by Družstevní práce and other publishers designed by Sutnar, as well as several of Sutnar's own publications on design. Further archival material related to Sutnar can also be found in the Jan and Edith Tschichold papers (930030), the Harry Lunn papers (2004.M.17), and the Wilhelm Arntz papers (840001).

    Scope and Content of Collection

    This finding aid provides a single access point for five separate collections related to Ladislav Sutnar, a pioneer of modern design, acquired by the Getty Research Institute (GRI) from 1991 to 2013. In these collections, photographs, printed matter, correspondence, educational toys, brochures and sales catalogs, design drawings and sketches document Sutnar's career in his native Czechoslovakia, and then in the United States. Although the individual acquisitions are often small and limited in scope, when taken as a whole, the Sutnar materials held by the GRI document the range of his career in all essential aspects. Such an overview also allows the elements from design projects, which have become separated, to be reconnected.
    The types of the materials in the archives reflect the geographic shift in Sutnar's career. As might be expected given his abrupt departure, Sutnar's work from Czechoslovakia is represented in these archives primarily through photographic documentation, rather than by the works themselves. Also with this early work, the archives preserve only the finished project. Sutnar's work in the United States, however, is thoroughly represented in the archives by original examples of his designs, and often includes the working stages of projects.
    Materials relating to Sutnar's design projects form the bulk of the archives. Sutnar worked in multiple areas of design – graphic design, product design and exhibition design – and these archives preserve both original material and documentation for designs in each area. The constant element running through Sutnar's career was graphic design. It was the predominate feature of his work from his earliest poster design for the Czechoslovak Arts and Crafts Association in the early 1920s to his late projects in the United States, such as the use of parentheses to set off area codes in telephone numbers for Bell Systems in the mid 1960s. The bulk of the graphic design material in the collections held by the Getty Research Institute relates to Sutnar's later commercial art work: brochures and sales catalogs, advertising and corporate identity campaigns.
    Sutnar's product design is represented in these acquisitions primarily through documentation and printed ephemera in the form of marketing and promotional material associated with the products. One such product demonstrates both the overarching nature of Sutnar's design process and the interconnections of the GRI's separate acquisitions. In the early 1920s Sutnar, who was interested in binding ideas of education and modernism, designed an educational toy, a set of building blocks, which was actually put into production after winning a prize at an exhibition. Much later in the United States in the early 1940s, Sutnar revived his ideas in a similar block set, which he was now going to market under the name of "Build the Town." Following his general practice, Sutnar designed not just the product, but also the accompanying printed matter, such as packaging and marketing materials. Material relating to this single product design are dispersed among the separate GRI acquisitions: a photograph of the original Czech set is in accession number 910005 (Series I); two sets of "Build the Town" prototype blocks are in accession number 2013.M.6 (Series II); and prints Sutnar created for the later product's promotional kit are in accession numbers 910005, 2013.M.7 and 980003 (Series I, III and IV).
    Exhibition design is also thoroughly documented. Sutnar's extensive work in Czechoslovakia is recorded only in photographs, but a broader range of materials, including sketches, plans, samples of color tests and wall labels are preserved from Sutnar's American projects, especially his work on the New York World's Fair and Visual Design in Action.
    In addition to design projects, the Sutnar collections held by the GRI include a substantial quantity of preliminary sketches and studies for the paintings Sutnar produced in his later years. The holdings are completed by a limited selection of Sutnar's miscellaneous professional papers, correspondence, and personal papers.


    Arranged in five series, each representing a separate acquisition: Series I. Ladislav Sutnar papers related to designs and exhibitions (Accession no. 910005), 1927-1971, undated; Series II. Ladislav Sutnar papers (Accession no. 2013.M.6), 1897-1976; Series III. Ladislav Sutnar printed ephemera and miscellaneous publications (Accession no. 2002.M.3), 1942-1976; Series IV. Ladislav Sutnar design-related archival materials (Accession no. 2013.M.7), 1942-1961, undated; Series V. Ladislav Sutnar correspondence with Jan Tschichold (Accession no. 980003), 1941-1946.
    In order to facilitate research, design projects, when present, form the first element of each series. These projects are then futher divided into graphic design, product design and exhibition design.

    Indexing Terms

    Subjects - Topics

    Advertising layout and typography--United States--20th century
    Book design--Czechoslovakia--20th century
    Commercial art--United States
    Graphic arts--Czechoslovakia--20th century
    Graphic arts--United States--20th century
    Graphic design (Typography)--Czechoslovakia--20th century
    Graphic design (Typography)--United States--20th century
    New York World's Fair (1939-1940)
    Product design--Czechoslovakia--20th century

    Genres and Forms of Material

    Design drawings--20th century
    Educational toys
    Gelatin silver prints--20th century
    Photographic prints--20th century
    Sales catalogs


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