The Daily Heller: The Greatest Catalog Design Story Ever Told

Posted inThe Daily Heller

This article was first posted on Nov. 22, 2022.

The moment I first held Ladislav Sutnar and Knud Lönberg Holm’s 1950 masterpiece of American Modernist functional design, Catalog Design Progress, I wanted a copy of my own. Originally a practical guide for customers of Sweet’s Catalog Service, over the years it became the model of progressive information graphics (or information architecture, as it was later dubbed by Richard Saul Wurman).

I got my wish. In the early 2000s a good friend, Steven Guarnaccia, was lucky enough to stumble upon a cache of nine mint original copies at the Strand Bookstore for $9 each. Apparently, the Strand had no idea what they had (how it got past the usually fastidious gatekeepers, I’ll never know). Guarnaccia quickly phoned my office to ask if he should greedily buy all nine copies. Barely able to hold back my excitement, I said “Sure,” and added: “Keep three for yourself, give me one (for my consultation); I’ll arrange to secure a buyer for one (at $300), and sell the rest to a book dealer.” Copies of this design treasure were listed in a few antiquarian book catalogs for between $400–$600 each. Not a bad investment. (It must also be noted Guarnaccia once found a very inexpensive original copy of Die Neue Typographie by Jan Tschichold at a flea market.)

In 2014 I was part of the team that published a pristine facsimile of Sutnar’s 1961 Visual Design in Action, the catalog of an eponymous exhibition (Allon Schoener, curator) designed to generate work for his declining New York practice. (It was co-published by Designers & Books and Lars Müller Verlag and coordinated by filmmaker Reto Caduff and me.)

A year later I had the idea of doing a facsimile of Catalog Design Progress. I received permission from Radislav Sutnar, Ladislav’s son and founder of the Radislav and Elaine Sutnar Foundation representing his dad’s work, and approached the Ladislav Sutnar Faculty of Design and Art at the University of West Bohemia, Pilsen, Czech Republic, where he is a patron. Josef Mistera (dean emeritus) and Vojtěch Aubrecht (current dean) were enthusiastically on board and began to generate interest and funds. Aubrecht recruited faculty member Ondřej Zámiš, who together with student Vojtěch Liebl made this incredibly complex dream into reality.

“Its implementation took almost three years and was accompanied by many technical problems,” Zámiš explains. “I think the result is great. And because Ladislav Sutnar’s works are still innovative, we didn’t just create a copy of the old book, but thanks to the redrawing and retyping of all elements, a new Sutnar [book] was actually created … [that] will inspire us for a long time to come.”

The images below will give you a sense of the enormity of the production. Victoria Hindley at MIT Press joined as the U.S. and worldwide publisher/distributor (the Sutnar Faculty can sell copies on their website and at their gallery). Fred Lönberg-Holm, grandson, also gave his permission. The book was released in the U.S. last week.

To all involved: THANK YOU.

The following is an excerpt from the facsimile “Reader’s Guide”:

Even before the advent of the “information age” there was information. Masses of it begging to be organized into accessible and retrievable packages. In the 1930s American industry made an initial attempt to introduce strict design systems to business, but the Great Depression demanded that the focus be on retooling factories and improving products, which spawned a new breed of professional: the industrial designer. In Europe the prototypical industrial designer had already established himself, and the graphic design arm of the modern movement was already concerned with access to information as a function of making the world a better place. The mission to modernize antiquated aspects of European life led directly to efficient communications expressed through typographic purity. This revolutionary approach to design began simultaneously in Germany, Russia and Holland, and swept through Eastern Europe as well. Ladislav Sutnar (1897–1976), a graphic, product and exhibition designer, led the charge in Czechoslovakia, years before emigrating to the United States.

Sutnar was such an enthusiastic propagandist for industrialization that he was introduced to Karl Lönberg-Holm, the publicity director of the Sweet’s Catalog Service, the largest American industrial catalog publisher, who instantly arranged for Sutnar to become his art director. Lönberg- Holm quickly became the other half of Sutnar’s brain. Their collaboration was to information design what Gilbert and Sullivan were to light opera or Rogers and Hammerstein were to the Broadway musical. Together they composed and wrote Catalog Design (1944) and Catalog Design Progress (1950). The former introduced a variety of radical systematic departures in catalog design, the latter fine-tuned those models to show how complex information could be organized and, most importantly, retrieved. More than 40 years after its publication, Catalog Design Progress is still an archetype for functional design. Sweet’s Catalog Service was a facilitator for countless, disparate trade and manufacturing publications that were collected in huge binders and distributed to businesses throughout the United States. Before Sutnar began its major redesign around 1941, the only organizing device was the overall binding, otherwise, chaos reigned. Lönberg-Holm had convinced his boss, Chauncey Williams, the president of F. W. Dodge, to order an entire reevaluation from logo (which Sutnar transformed from a 19th-century swashed word, Sweets, to a bold S dropped out of a black circle), to the fundamental structure of the binder (including the introduction of tabular aids), to the redesign of individual catalogs (some of which were designed by Sutnar’s in-house art department).

Sutnar was one of the first designers to design double spreads rather than single pages, an aspect of his methodology that is so common today that in retrospect the fact that it was an innovation could easily be overlooked. A casual perusal of Sutnar’s designs for everything from catalogs to brochures from 1941 on, with the exception of covers, reveals a preponderance of spreads on which his signature navigational devices force the users to follow logically contiguous levels of information. Through these spreads Sutnar was able to harness certain avant-garde principles and therefore injected visual excitement into even the most routine material without impinging upon accessibility. While his basic structure was decidedly rational, his juxtapositions, scale and color were rooted in abstraction. Underlying Sutnar’s modern mission was the desire to introduce aesthetics into, say, a plumber’s life.