Sutnar, Ladislav [Designer]: THE COMPOSING ROOM INC. New York: The Composing Room, 1939 [1948]. Letterhead designed by Sutnar in 1939

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Ladislav Sutnar

Ladislav Sutnar [Designer]: THE COMPOSING ROOM INC. New York: The Composing Room, 1939 [1948]. Single letterhead sheet printed in three colors designed by Ladislav Sutnar in 1939 [LADISLAV SUTNAR – PRAGUE – NEW YORK – DESIGN IN ACTION. Prague: Museum of Decorative Arts, 2003. pp. 163; illustrated, item 304] completed soon after his work on the Czechoslovak Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. Lightly handled and folded by Composing Room Publicity Director Hortense Mendel. A rare document.

Single 6.5 x 10.5 sheet of letterhead dictated and signed by Hortense Mendel on November 3, 1947.

Ladislav Sutnar (1897 – 1976) arrived in the United States on April 14th, 1939 as the exhibition designer in charge of the Czechoslovakian pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. Sutnar was the Director of the State School of Graphic Arts in Prague and enjoyed a reputation as one of the leading Czech proponents of Functionalist graphic and industrial design.

Unfortunately for Sutnar’s American assignment, Czechoslovakia had ceased to exist the previous month. Germany invaded Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939, and divided the country into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and the puppet Slovak State. The dissolution of Czechoslovakia and the outbreak of World War II stranded Sutnar in New York City where he remained and worked for the rest of his life.

By 1939 many former Bauhaus faculty members—Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, László Moholy-Nagy, Joseph Albers, and others—had won teaching positions at various American Universities. These educators were instrumental in bringing European modernism to American architecture and design. America offered the Europeans not only a safe haven, but also great opportunities to make their modernist visions reality. The dynamically developing US building industry and the open mass-production market permitted the exiled Avant-Garde to continue pursuing their ideas in a democratically minded society.

It was in this exile community that Paul Rand introduced Sutnar to Knud Lönberg-Holm, the director of Information Research for Sweet’s Catalog Service, the mediator for trade, construction and hardware catalogs that were collected in huge binders and distributed to businesses and architects throughout the United States.

In 1941 Lönberg-Holm appointed Sutnar as chief designer of the Information Research Division. Together the two men used modern functional principles to solve the contemporary problem of information organization and —most importantly—retrieval. During the next 20 years at Sweet’s Sutnar and Lönberg-Holm defined and pioneered the field now called information design.

Sweet’s Catalog Service (established in 1906) was an information clearing house, evaluating hundreds of catalogs of individual manufacturers with the aim of making the resulting information searachable in an optimal way. Information organization was the central issue, and optimizing it through visual means was an important element in the enterprise, hence the need for a competent art director.

U. S. industrial catalog production in the early 1940s was not in tune with the faster rhythms of the modern tempo. According to an undated internal Sweet’s memorandum “ . . . an industrial catalog is far from an inspiring project, we picture it as cumbersome, colorless, indifferently-printed item of necessity nothing [other] than dreary inventory . . .”

Major flaws included a proliferation of long descriptive texts and mediocre layout, as the manufacturers usually commissioned their catalog production to local printers who simply followed their every whim. The need for informative, relevant and quick-to-read advertising, common in Europe for more than a decade, appeared in the U. S. only with the heightened tempo of production due to the war effort.

During their tenure at Sweet’s from 1944 and 1950 Sutnar and Lönberg-Holm wrote and designed three publications on information design, delivering the most definitive explanation of their mission and in turn they succeeded in revolutionizing the field of information design.

Catalog Design [1944] introduced the basic concepts in catalog design. Designing Information [1947] applied the basic concepts of information design to a broader range, and Catalog Design Progress [1950] further developed ideas in visual communication. All three books demonstrate the very thesis they had worked to develop at Sweet’s — information that is easier to read is easier to comprehend.

Erin Malone writes: In 1936, Dr. Robert Leslie, assisted by Hortense Mendel, began showing the work of emigre and young artists in an empty room in The Composing Room offices. Called the A-D Gallery, it was the first place in New York City dedicated to exhibiting the graphic and typographic arts. The first exhibit as described by Percy Seitlin: "A young man by the name of Herbert Matter had just arrived in this country from Switzerland with a bagful of ski posters and photgraphs of snow covered mountains. Also came camera portraits and various specimens of his typographic work. We decided to let him hang some of his things on the walls and gave him a party... the result was a crowd of almost bargain-basement dimensions, and thirsty too. Everyone was excited by the audacity and skill of Matter's work."

The A-D gallery was one of the only places in New York city for young artists to come into contact with the work of european emigres and soon became a social meeting place for designers to meet each other, as well as prospective clients and employers. Dr. Leslie knew many people in New York and went out of his way to introduce people to each other. The gallery and the magazine became mirrors of each other. Often a feature in the magazine would become a show and vice-versa.