Books Under Glass

The Czech Center, located at 83rd Street and Madison on Manhattan’s Upper East Side has a modestly terrific exhibition right now called “Ladislav Sutnar: Modern, National and International.” It’s an incomplete but nevertheless enlightening retrospective of this crucial graphic designer’s work from the first half of the Twentieth Century. Though you’ll be able to peruse the whole of the exhibition in less than thirty minutes, if any part of your job as a designer — online or offline — involves the organization of information according to the subjective rules of visual elegance, then it’s worth the trip.

Catalog Design Process

As these photographs, taken on the sly, can attest, Sutnar was a master of graphical utility. He spent much of his career extolling the virtues of visual clarity in service to function, and produced a body of work that is striking for its discipline and clarity. In some circles, he is cited as a progenitor, even, of the school of design practice that Richard Saul Wurman called ‘information architecture’ (though whether Wurman’s definition really has any bearing on how that term has evolved over the past decade is open to debate).

Detail from “Catalog Design Progress” designed by Ladislav Sutnar, 1950
Detail from “Catalog Design Progress” designed by Ladislav Sutnar, 1950

An original copy of this book from 1950, “Catalog Design Process,” written by Sutnar with Knud Lönberg-Holm and designed by Sutnar, is one of the items on display. It was the third in Sutnar and Holm’s trilogy of seminal information design volumes. In an article for Critique magazine, Heller again writes:

“Catalog Design Progress”… was a spiral-bound book with a horizontal format that became the design standard for industrial design manuals (and arguably a model for later corporate graphic standards manuals). In it, Holm and Sutnar developed and refined the ideas they had presented in their previous books, showing how complex information could first be organized, and then, more importantly, retrieved. They addressed specific ways in which levels of information could be organized for easy scanning, gave designers suggestions for maximizing visual interest through symbols, typographic nuances, changes in scale, and so on. Perhaps Sutnar’s most significant innovation in the design of the book itself was his use of full-spread designs. Indeed, he was one of the earliest designers to treat spreads as units rather than as separate.

I didn’t necessarily need to know that when I was peering at it at the exhibition in order to get some sense of the book’s importance, though. In its mid-Century crispness and its playful yet deliberate balance of imagery and text, I had the sense that this was a landmark volume. But for the law, I was ready to break open the display case in order to flip beyond the single spread shown. These things shouldn’t be under glass; they should be reprinted and widely available.

  1. I just found out my Central Library (City of Milwaukee) has a copy of The Catalog Design Process. How rare is this book? Good thing its only a reference and people cant check it out.

  2. yes, I saw that too. But I’m trying to hold back on buying expensive books.. I recently bought Grid Systems in Graphic Design when it was around $100. My wife will kill me if I buy another one ;)

  3. Definitely one for the agenda—this is the sort of thing that I find to be absolutely fantastic, and that I can’t find in the front of The New Yorker or the back of New York.

    Am I missing some terribly obvious place to find cool design exhibits in New York?

  4. I LOVE that book…i was actually able to check one out on an interlibrary loan.a few years back…it was a religious experience.