Ladislav Sutnar and Knud Lönberg-Holm

Essays by Steven Heller
2 842 words15 min read

A long tradition of the artist as uncompromising-genius-touched-by-god has led design historians to perpetuate certain mistruths. One of them-the lone brilliance of Ladislav Sutnar in early informational design-is about to be dispelled. This is not at all to the designer's discredit. On the contrary, Sutnar’s career shows the kind of intelligence few of us ever gain: not only that of knowing his own strengths, but of knowing how to merge them honestly with those of his gifted collaborator, Knud Lönberg-Holm.

Gilbert and Sullivan, Rogers and Hammerstein, Abbott and Costello, Sonny and Cher, Batman and Robin; the list of famous teams goes on and on. Likewise, teamwork is a way of life for graphic designers, who have a long roll call of well-known collaborators to prove it. Of all dynamic duos past and present, one of the most significant is unlikely to be remembered today: but few collaborations in communication have proved to be more historically significant than the team of Ladislav Sutnar and Knud Lönberg-Holm. From the early 1940s to 1960, this writer/designer team radically altered the way business information was streamlined, designed, and packaged. Indeed, their work prefigures the kind of design Richard Saul Wurman has marketed as ‘information architecture’. While Sutnar’s accomplishments as a graphic and informational designer have been fairly well documented in design histories, his collaboration with architect and author Lönberg-Holm (or K. Holm, as he was also known) has received considerably less ink. One reason for this is the tradition of creating lone heroes of graphic design, in which design historians focus on individual creators, as if true creativity can only be a solitary endeavor. Another reason is a curious tendency among historians to segregate the visual from the verbal and the graphic from the strategic, as if these disciplines do not go hand-in-hand. Meanwhile, the question of creative integrity cannot be based on the illusion of sole authorship. While some designers certainly make formal and aesthetic decisions that contribute a distinct voice to a communication, and many have some influence in developing and directing content, unless they are solely responsible for all strategic, creative, and productive activities (a rare enough circumstance), then others must be recognized for playing both major and minor roles in the final work. Lönberg-Holm and Sutnar worked as two halves of one mind when it came to designing information. ‘They were better together than apart; one plus one equaled 100’ asserts Radislav Sutnar, Sutnar’s son. If a collaborative team is part yin and part yang, if it is a whole inconceivable without its constituent parts, Sutnar and Löndberg-Holm provide a perfect exemplar. But what's more important than the viability of their relationship is the fact that the informational objects they produced together changed the way business addressed its public. They also changed the way the consumer accessed information at a time, like now, when data of all kinds was increasing by leaps and bounds. The backdrop was fairly mundane. Beginning in the late 1930s, Lönberg-Holm was the Director of Research for Sweet’s Catalog Service, a division of F.W. Dodge Corporation in New York. Then as now, Sweet’s was a clearing house for trade and industry catalogs selling common and arcane building, plumbing, electrical, and other construction supplies, to architects, contractors, and craftsmen. Sweet's omnibus catalog was actually a binder, housing a variegated (and often motley) assortment of catalogs, designed by different companies without any unifying visual or organizational principle. Sweet’s service, assembling the catalogs in one volume, did make it easier for users to find what they needed; yet K. Holm’s deeper mission was to synthesize these diverse parts into an accessible whole that would save users time and ease their confusion. However, while he possessed a genius for detail and a gift for organization, he knew that he was not a graphic designer.


Born in Denmark and trained as an architect, Lönberg-Holm spent his formative years in Europe, where he became an exponent of Constructivism and Productivism. In 1924 he was invited by the University of Michigan to teach an elementary architecture and design course, where he proved to be an influential propagandist for the Modernist avant garde. Between 1927 and 1929 he served on the editorial board of The Architectural Record, the voice of the Modern sensibility then rising in America. Lönberg-Holm was responsible for the magazine’s ‘Technical News and Research Section,’ which drew not just from the usual architectural literature, but also, uniquely, from the tradition of scientific discourse. From the latter he borrowed the idea of using graphic charts and diagrams to effectively clarify complex issues in such subjects as building types and environmental control technology. Out of his Modernist convictions, Holm became a member of the Congress for International Modern Architecture (CIMA), whose other adherents included Walter Gropius, Serge Chermayeff, Marcel Breuer and Le Corbusier. Over the years, his Modernist, Urbanist philosophy grew to embrace all design activity, particularly information management, as potential forces for the betterment of human life. It was at a CIMA meeting in the late 1930s that Holm was introduced to Sutnar, whose reputation as a Constructivist designer he was already aware of.



Born in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia in 1897, Sutnar became a dedicated Modernist while studying at the Prague School of Decorative Arts. In 1923, he was made a professor of design at Prague’s State School of Graphic Arts. A decade later, he had become the school’s director. Then in his middle 30s, he was practicing exhibition design according to the tents of Purism, and was a progressive designer of textiles, products, glassware, porcelain, and educational toys. From 1929 to 1930 he was also an art editor with Prague’s largest publishing house, Druzstevní Práce, where he created photomontage covers (which look as though they might have been designed in 1999) for magazines like the Socialist arts journal Zijeme (We Live) and Vytvarné snahy (Fine Arts Endeavors); as well as book jackets for novels and essays by Upton Sinclair and George Bernard Shaw. Although somewhat overshadowed in Western Europe by his contemporaries, including Russian Constructivist El Lissitsky and Bauhaus master Laslo Moholy Nagy, Sutnar was nonetheless well-known in Prague-a 1934 exhibit, ‘Ladislav Sutnar and the New Typography’ earned major notices at the time. Much of Sutnar’s early design was concerned with communicating information, although the work couldn’t be considered as ‘information architecture’ per se. For books and magazines he developed strict, though mutable, typographic grids, framing sans-serif Modern typefaces with white space in a way that prefigured the precise, architectonic compositions of post-war Swiss design. He practiced ‘new typography’ as a means of presenting ideas through elementary forms, though, without sacrificing it’s dynamism, Sutnar humanized its sharp edges. An acolyte and friend, designer Noel Martin, says that ‘Sutnar always talked about function, but he created his own ornamentation through geometry and repetition. Repeating symbols and forms helped him express an industrial sensibility.’ His interior designs for exhibitions (including the floor plan for Czechoslovakia’s 1939 New York World’s Fair pavilion, which brought him to the United States), were based on the same principles of dynamic flow found in his print design: he directed visitors, visually, through three-dimensional information in real time just as he directed the eye through pages of text. Just after the fair opened, Hitler's armies marched on Czechoslovakia, and dismembered the country. The pavilion closed immediately, and Sutnar, who was to have assisted in bringing the exhibits back home, decided to remain in New York-leaving his wife and two sons in Prague. He took up residence in the heart of New York’s Jazz district on 52nd Street, accepted free-lance assignments, and soon met Holm, his future collaborator.

Lönberg-Holm had been hired by Chauncey L. Williams, vice president of the F.W. Dodge Corporation, to bring unity and identity to Sweet’s catalog product. Holm redefined the problem, identifying a need for clarity and accessibility, and proposed to answer it by using navigational design aids and reductive language-which sounds very much like today's approach to internet wayfinding. He wrote countless memoranda detailing a sophisticated process of standardization. In order to give these ideas concrete form, he realized that he needed a graphic designer with similar convictions, so he convinced Williams to hire Sutnar as design director for research. Throughout this relationship, Sutnar continued working in his own design firm, with other partners, for other clients (including Bell Telephone Co., for whom he designed the prototype of the area code). But for four hours each day, from about 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., he worked in Sweet's offices on West 40th Street-entering and exiting through a service elevator, for some reason. Meeting daily, Sutnar and Lönberg-Holm thrashed out ways to simplify customers’ access to thousands of supplies, from screws to roofing, in the Sweet’s compilation. First among many tasks was to rewrite the universally awful catalog copy, which they did painstakingly. Next, after agreeing that every user comprehends information differently, they devised mechanisms-what Sutnar called ‘active design elements’-to offer multiple entry-points for each kind of user. An index was conceived to cross-reference each object in three ways: by company name, by trade or brand name, and by the name of the objects (i.e. ‘windows’). K. Holm further observed that while objects routinely change, (i.e. ‘windows’,‘ ‘sliders’, ‘portholes’), activities remain constant (i.e., ‘glazing’), and urged that this classification also be included as an organizing element. ‘Sutnar and Lönberg-Holm shared the same logic,’ says Radislav Sutnar. Both were philosophical constructivists with practical leanings. Their habitual search for perfect form led them to deconstruct every potential form so as to reframe and synthesize the ideas underneath the forms. It was an article of faith that there could be no confusion. So in determining the best format, they moved from word (K. Holm) to image (Sutnar), merging the verbal and visual ideas into a seamless whole. At times they intensely debated the meaning of a single word (perhaps because neither was a native speaker of English), or the placement of a single picture. Each so revered precision that though arguments inevitably flared-once Sutnar stopped speaking to Lönberg-Holm for a month over a point of language-they would ultimately reach consensus. Sutnar’s first task at Sweet’s was to redefine its corporate identity. He did this by changing the company’s logo from a Victorian-style nameplate (typical of many venerable American corporations) to a sans-serif S within a bold circle (typical of European Modernism). He also designed the binders themselves, in the course of which he introduced the tabbed divider page. While these departures demonstrated a change in attitude and approach, the most concrete and definitive explanation of their mission was given in three books, which today are still considered (by me, at least) holy grails of information design. Together they conceived and wrote Catalog Design in 1944 to introduce various systematic departures in contemporary catalog design. Designing Information, in 1947, was a trial version of their 1950 book, Catalog Design Progress, which concerned itself with making product selection simpler and the flow of information through various media faster. Each was designed as a manual to initiate the uninitiated into the belief that ‘good’ graphic design is a panacea for jumbled thinking. Catalog Design was a guide-cum-manifesto written to encourage the catalog designers who contributed to Sweet’s collection to follow more rigorous standards of organization, while allowing them to make their designs distinctive.


From our vantage point, the ideas seem fairly simple, but at a time when most trade and industrial catalogs were a potpourri of miscellaneous pictures fitted with as little space as possible between lengthy descriptions and item numbers, the notion that text and image could be framed by white space, or that a catalog could benefit from grid layouts, was tantamount to revolution. In a 1947 memorandum to Sweet’s management concerning their next project, Designing Information, Lönberg-Holm anticipated the designer’s role in the information age when he wrote: ‘...the simplification of any information, implies simplification of the visual task through clarity and precision-a functional goal of information design.’ Although Sutnar and Lönberg-Holm didn’t coin the term ‘information design’, Designing Information codified the tenets of clarity and accessibility like no book before it. ‘The treatment of the subject came about through our realization of the need to clarify design in everyday terms, and to demonstrate that design has practical values that go far beyond mere decoration’, K. Holm said. Thus, in their hands, ‘the basic elements of design-size, blank space, color, line, etc.-become tools for selectivity, simplifying the visual task’ of the user. Designing Information (which was planned as a huge volume, but published in an abridged form) set out to define design as a tool for achieving the ‘faster flow of information’, through principles of flow and unity. Sutnar and Lönberg-Holm took great pains to demonstrate the process of visualizing information by including scores of charts and graphs that addressed the needs of customers, employees, stockholders, and the general public. They believed that giving efficient form to information requires more than just pictorial illustration (‘Ease of seeing means more than easy to look at,’ wrote K. Holm). Their crystalline charts became the foundation on which comprehension could be built. In fact, in one simple chart the whole of Designing Information is efficiently summarized as ‘Transmitting: speed, accessibility; Seeing: visual selectivity, visual continuity; Comprehending: visual extension, universality.’ This synthesis was the basis of their last collaborative book, 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 pages. Even a casual review of Sutnar’s designs for everything from catalogs to brochures during his American period (with the logical exception of covers) shows that he used across-the-spread designs regularly. Using all the space at his disposal, he was able to inject excitement into even the most routine material without impinging upon comprehension: his signature navigational devices guided users firmly from one level of information to the next. At the same time, Sutnar was not an ‘invisible’ designer. While his basic structures were decidedly rational, the choices he made in juxtaposition, scale, and color were rooted in sophisticated principles of abstract design, bringing sensitive composition, visual charm, and emotional drama to his workaday subjects. He developed a distinctive vocabulary, or style, notable for arrows, fever lines, black bullets, and other repeated devices. He used all of the above to direct the reader through hierarchies of information, and indeed promoted these devices in Catalog Design Progress as the correct forms for guiding readers (which contributed to a kind of Sutnar-biased conformity among later designers). Nevertheless, the fact that Sutnar injected his aesthetic preferences doesn't diminish the effectiveness of his and his partner's ideas. It only goes to show that a strong, though not overpowering, design personality can be useful in information design. Although their landmark work was published in 1950, the pair continued to develop and expand their ideas for another ten years. Sutnar designed many of the trade catalogs that appeared in the Sweet’s binder, both as Sweet’s staff designer and as a freelance consultant to Sweet’s contributors. In 1960 Chauncey Williams, Holm’s original director, retired. With his departure Sweet’s golden age, like many before it, abruptly ended. Sutnar concentrated on his private practice; in consideration of his service Lönberg-Holm was kept on staff for a year or two more. Once the important work ended, the memory of this collaboration faded. Truly functional graphic design is often ignored-as a result of its defining transparency-while stylish decorative mannerisms are honored in the popular taste. Though Sutnar and Lönberg-Holm introduced the theoretical constructs that define functional design for information management, the topic was barely addressed by American commercial artists until Corporate Modernism took over from Avant Garde Modernism. Sutnar’s contribution to the enlightenment of information design is remembered by the world of design because he left a rich visual legacy. His collaborator, if treated at all, is brushed off as a philosopher responsible for the invisible structure of their work, rather than a vital contributor to its actual construction. In design histories, Löndberg-Holm’s name, though it appears prominently on their books, has become an appendage to the name of Sutnar. He is mentioned, if at all, as the silent partner. It would be not only more accurate, but more honest, to acknowledge them together.

Like Gilbert and Sullivan, Rogers and Hammerstein, and Lennon and McCartney, they made their most beautiful music together.

  • Art director of the New York Times Book Review and founder and co-chair of the School of Visual Arts, New York MFA/Design Program. He is the former editor of the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design and author or editor of over 80 books on popular culture, graphic design history, and political art. His most recent books include The Graphic Design Reader, Allworth Press, The Education of a Design Designer, Allworth Press, and Counter Culture: The Allure of Mini-Mannequins, Princeton Architectural Press. His forthcoming books include: From Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Progressive Magazine Design of the 20th Century, Phaidon Press, Cuba Style: Graphics From the Golden Age of Design, Princeton Architectural Press, and Graphic Humor: The Art of Graphic Wit, Allworth Press.