Ladislav Sutnar: Biography

Czechoslovakian-born Ladislav Sutnar (born 1897 in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia; died 1976 in New York, NY) is considered one of the pioneers of the field of information design.  His Modernist leanings began to present themselves as early as his student years at Prague’s School of Decorative Arts from 1918 to the early 1920’s.  He worked in Czechoslovakia through 1939, directing Prague’s State School of Graphic Arts and designing everything from exhibits to functional objects to magazine covers and layouts.  He traveled to New York City in 1939.  World War II’s beginnings erupted in Czechoslovakia while he was away, inspiring Sutnar to abandon his wife and two children and stay on in America, where he eventually became a U.S. citizen.  Sutnar lived and worked in New York City until his death in 1976.

While his early work borrows more directly from Russian Constructivism and photomontage techniques, it was when he moved to America that he began to more fully cultivate his signature aesthetic and conceptual style.  Sutnar was chiefly concerned with the dynamic flow and efficient organization of information, such that any advertisement, catalogue, or package would convey not only its content clearly, but also the organizing structure for said content.  He wanted the user/consumer to be able to easily navigate all possible information contained within a given design, and, moreover, he was keenly aware of the need for the design itself to be seductive so as to lure the user into prolonged interaction with the product.  In his role as art director for Sweet’s Catalog Service (a division of New York’s F.W. Dodge Corporation), he worked closely (over the course of 20-odd years) with Sweet’s Director of Research, Knud Lonberg-Holm, to pioneer a variety of innovative indexing systems and information-flow designs for Sweet’s notoriously dense compendiums of sundry trade catalogues.  Sutvar and Lonberg-Holm formed a brilliant team, with Sutnar guiding their visuals and Lonberg-Holm guiding their texts.  This team produced two landmark books: 1944’s Catalog Design, and 1950’s Catalog Design Progress: Advancing Standards for Visual Communication, both of which endeavored to promote their fresh approach to information design in an economically competitive and information-dense age.

Impressively, Sutnar maintained his own freelance design practice simultaneous to his work with Sweet’s, and was the focus of several solo exhibitions during his career (one prior to his departure from Czechoslovakia, the other during a lagging phase of his career in the 1960’s).  His layouts are most recognizable for their bold use of saturated yellows, oranges, and red geometric shapes beneath diagonal black text and dynamic lines directing the flow of the eye through a page.  He made brilliant use of two page spreads, treating them as a single compositional space, and meticulously explored possibilities for indexing information to appeal to a variety of users and offer efficient access to information.  His ability to apply his vision and style as adeptly to the organization of three-dimensional space as to catalogue and package design, distinguishes him.  Sutnar died of cancer in New York 1974.

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