Jessica Helfand | Essays

Ladislav Sutnar: Mechanical Beauty

Dummy of dust jacket for Arnold Zweig's The Crowning of the King, 1938.
Drawing, pencil and tempera paste-up.

Last spring, we spent several days in Switzerland en route to Italy — a detour which was largely unremarkable except that it provided a chance to see an exhibition on Ladislav Sutnar at the Zurich Museum of Design. The exhibit (which sadly, did not come to the US) showcased the designer's prodigious output, in a variety of media, over the course of the first half of the twentieth century. Designer and theorist, champion of the everyday and early pioneer of what would later become information design, Sutnar was a pragmatist as far as function was concerned, but a poet when it came to working with form.

[The exhaustive and seminal catalogue from this exhibition is not available in America or England. Book buyers can only find it at Nijhof & Lee in Amsterdam.]

Of course, it was all impressive: the glass tea set, the childrens' toys, the catalogues for obscure industrial corporations before the War. Yet what was most striking about the work itself was precisely this: the work itself, revealed in multi-layered mechanicals which as a genre represent a kind of fragile, lost beauty.

At its core, the now-defunct "mechanical" or "paste-up" was a map for the printer, indicating crop marks and color breaks, silhouettes and screens, detailed tissue sketches upon layers of acetate onto which type would be waxed into position. Ultimately, each of these diaphanous layers of segregated content would be sandwiched together and taped onto a piece of illustration board, a procedural blueprint for the final, printed piece. But if printers depended upon mechanicals to represent factual evidence, designers (and the clients they served) depended equally upon their ability to simulate a final form: they hinted at what might be — not only what would be.

Because they were hand-rendered, mechanicals retained the energy of their maker: they were loose and gestural; or disciplined and reserved; amplified with shading and contouring — each an allusion to the shape of things to come. In Sutnar's mechanicals, type is greeked with precision and purpose. Fields of color — rubyliths, amberliths — jockey for position with benday dots and tissued overlays, often flagged with cryptic subtexts and notes. To "read" these mechanicals today requires a kind of conceptual leap of faith: it's at once an imagined archaeological excavation and a study in design history. One finds oneself mentally reconstructing the composite layers to approximate the final product. And that's precisely the point.

Sutnar's mechanicals, as evidence of an earlier evolutionary moment in the history of technology, remind us of the beauty in actually producing design. It's not an aesthetic so much as a set of behaviors, a visual code that bespeaks the hand, the mind, the spirit of the maker. Today, for reasons which are, I think, self-evident, design reveals less of its intrinsic process along the way — and consequently, it reflects less about us. When it does, it is because we deliberately choose to expose it — not because the mechanics of making design are themselves exposed. (In the classroom, we routinely urge our students to keep records of their process and its permutations, but in design practice this is less common, and why?) To look at Sutnar's robust body of work is not only to witness the material evidence of a big, restless talent: it's a wake-up call, a reminder that the best way to grow as a maker is to keep on making. Mechanicals, arcane though they seem to us today, provided those who labored over them yet another outlet for making work. While few of us would dispute the many practical benefits of working in an age of digital media, it seems that something irreplacable has been lost along the way. And I found it in Zurich.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, History

Comments [10]

For our European readers, please note that this Sutnar exhibition is currently on display at the Neues Museum (State Museum for Art and Design) in Nuernberg Germany until September 19, 2004. Later this Fall it will travel to the Museum Boijmans in Rotterdam The Netherlands.
William Drenttel

I don't doubt that, in the flesh (so to speak), Sutnar's mechanicals possess an anachronistic beauty. On the rare occassion that I come across mechanicals, I find myself marveling at the intricacies; the tools and immediate product of paste-up seem undeniably beautiful and real to me.

But I have to politely take issue with the assertion that "Today... design reveals less of its intrinsic process along the way — and consequently, it reflects less about us." That seems to too easily equate our nostalgia for a lost craft with authenticity, as if somehow removing the barriers to the execution of a design (the design-by-proxy method of mechanical paste up) in favor of 21st Century, direct-manipulation execution methods also removes the soul from the work.

In some cases, that's no doubt true; there's a lot of soulless work out there. But I'm not sure that that kind of design would "reflect" more about its practicioners if it was pasted up with amberlith.
Khoi Vinh

>But I'm not sure that that kind of design would "reflect" more about its practicioners if it was pasted up with amberlith.

Khoi, I spent many years making mechanicals by hand and they truly are a reflection of the interior mind of their creator.

The ethics of one-coat rubber cement vs. wax... whether one scratches out or whites out... 072 vs. LettraMax2000 board... the beauty of the tissue paper color break...

...knowing that chaotic mechanical files are created by certain design stars... seeing Paul Rand's production notes... a clunky bit of hand lettering by Müller-Brokmann...

Such minutia probably won't teach us much; but it can offer insight into their intentions and possibly... their humanity.
M Kingsley

I read this post with interest since I have had direct contact with Sutnar mechanicals myself: years ago, I volunteered to help the librarians at the Cooper-Hewitt unravel a large pile of stuff from Sutnar's studio which had been given to them by his sons after his death. The mechanicals were, of course, the most fragile things: when I lifted the paper flap that covered the tissue flap of the first one I picked up, I could sense that all of the little pieces of art rubber-cemented to the board were loose under the tissue because the cement had aged, and I did not dare open the flaps further. I have often wondered what happened to those mechanicals in particular, and I am curious everytime I see any mechanical on display as to how they can really be kept: they are the most ephemral documents of graphic design ephemera (along with the decaying digital data and dying formats of our current way of warehousing our work, I guess). But that experience of digging through Sutnar's material—cut sheets of ads, type galleys, printer's proofs, copies of magazines that he had kept because he had an ad or an illustration in them, reams and reams of correspondence in file folders—made a big impression on me, mostly of how hopeless it seems to try to delineate the design process through the stuff of the process. And now we just have shelves and shelves of disks.
But it does remind me of a comment that an architect with whom I was working on a book (back in the day) made about the problem of "reading" a design through mechanicals, and a difference between graphic design and architecture: he said that books looked their worst when they were in their mechanical state, and became beautiful upon printing, but that buildings mostly looked more beautiful under construction, and usually were disappointing when they were complete. His comment made me appreciate that the conditional state of the mechanical left a lot of room for discussion, adjustment, improvement, collaboration (though they were a big pain to revise). Whereas the visual finish of the digital, no matter which phase of design you are in at the moment, is always a condition that one has to somehow "get over": to remember that just because it looks finished, like completed construction, it does not make it so. But you can revise it with ease til the cows come home.
Lorraine Wild

No doubt the mechanical lends itself to a kind of archaeology that Jessica comments on in her post. Jessica's is an archaeology that is much closer to the physical desedimentation that one might stumble open at any number of "digs." (I found this to be my experience when working through Oswald Cooper's archive.) But this archeology can only get us so far—only as far as the designer. And while this design dig might offer some evidence of the cultural and historical currency of any given piece of graphic design, it may not offer any insight into the cultural and historical import and meaning of that same design to its audience. If it does, then it is like the detritus that is part of a much larger matrix of artifacts found at archaeological digs. One method of locating the cultural and historical import and meaning of graphic design requires a very different kind of archaeology that digs deep into the layers of meanings that produce graphic design in and for a culture. (And in this case, there may be no artifacts to dig for, only discourses.) In other words, Sutner's design work—both in mechanical and final form—occupies a specific layer of the historical sediment, and within that layer, only a specific area. Such an archaeology can contend with the layer that now suspends digital design work.
Michael J. Golec

I'm confused as to the difference between cultural and historical currency versus cultural and historical meaning and import: but in the case of mechanicals, they provide at least some evidence of the design process. The way they fit into their contemporary technology is easier to read than the way that the designer of the mechanical thought about the process, or used the process to think through a design, or how they were used to communicate intention, not only to the printer but to the client who inevitably had to 'sign off" on something that did not look anything like what they thought they were commissioning.

Also, one must remember that "authorship" is a dicey issue, since any busy designer or art director used assistants for production, even back then. At the time I was digging through the Sutnar material, I ended up presenting a lecture on what I had found at the Cooper-Hewitt, and at the end I raised this same question. To my complete surprise, about three people came forward to say that they had worked for Sutnar (and they weren't even that old!) and had assisted in the production of at least a few pieces of the work that I had shown— and it was clear that some were "hands" and some were clearly more. Also, several years ago at one of Steven Heller's "Modernism & Eclecticism" conferences, the painter Philip Pearlstein gave a talk about his experiences working as an assistant to Sutnar. (the gist of Pearlstein's talk was of how the demanding Sutnar thought about the production of work in a seamless, integrated way; but also of how jealous he was of his roommate, Andy Warhol, who clearly was having more fun as an illustrator in the NY ad biz than he was having in Sutnar's office, endlessly working on...mechanicals).

But I digress. I think Helfand's response to the mechanicals is based very much on her experience as a teacher, and her interest in process as a way of getting into the mind of the designer. Maybe, when it comes to mechanicals, the larger issues of cultural context shrink down to the culture of design. Speaking as an aging designer (!) who has spent many, many hours laboring over the glue pots and waxers, and who still has a funny dent in my left-hand index finger from repeated xacto blade accidents, I'm not sentimental about mechanicals in the least. But as a teacher, I appreciate the clear delineation of stages of a design, and the tight understanding of the process to production, and the burden of communication that was a part of the mechanical as a tool. But that's history: and I often wonder if the same can be said of design practice itself, which seems to be so radically re-shaped by digital technology that it is need of a whole new vocabulary.
Lorraine Wild

My apologies for any confusion. I did not mean to distinguish between "currency" and "import and meaning" (perhaps they are not synonymous), but rather meant to distinguish between an archaeology that focuses on the designer and (in this case) his mode of material production to the exclusion of the production of meaning within a broader public sphere. While the "dicey issue" of authorship is raised when we acknowledge the collaborative processes of modern design, authorship, or the interpretive methods that focus exclusively on deriving meaning from the source or sources of production, is further questioned by studying how meaning is derived from the varying modes of a public's reception of graphic design. To acknowledge the reception of graphic design by its publics strikes me as no less crucial than a recovery of "process as getting into the mind of a designer." Perhaps design practice has been "radically re-shaped by digital technology," but the ideology of authorship remains in place if the mind of the designer is privileged above all else.
Michael J. Golec

Actually, I don't think that mechanicals are a particularly steady platform on which to build any sort of ideology. That's why I brought up the issue of authorship, because when you look at the mechanicals of Sutnar (at least some of them, anyway: I have not seen the show that Helfand cites) you are not looking at something that is necessarily of his own hand: and then you have to decide whether that matters, or not. It might matter if you are (a) interested in the issue of the craft of a particular designer, and the interplay of the craft with the way they conceptualized their work; (b) interested in the technologies of design; (c) interested in a subject pertinent to many modernist designers, which would be the use of specific image-generating, typesetting, or printing technologies as signifiers of their allegiance with "the machine" or mass communications, or (d) interested in the history of design practices of the past (for the truly hardcore!).

So: there's something in there for some people, but not for everyone, obviously. The back-and-forth of this thread reminds me of Material Culture 101: how many ways can you read an artifact, and are all artifacts of equal significance? Doesn't that depend on what you are looking at, and for, or why you are looking at all?

If it's the reception of graphic design by the public that you're investigating (a radically important, underestimated aspect of graphic design, of course) mechanicals would be of no interest since they are invisible to the public. Does that make mechanicals as worthless as aging rubber cement? The mechanical is a palimpsest to a whole pile of other issues, some of which I've outlined above: and though they are not focused on the audience, some of those issues do address matters pertaining to the culture and production of design that are just as neglected as issues concerning audience reception. For instance, information concerning daily practices of designers of the past, particularly the web of communication between designers, their assistants and their clients is more elusive than anything. (And clearly, I'm arguing for the value of mechanicals precisely because they are evidence of the "back story" of design practice).

Maybe I misunderstand Golec's post, but he seems to imply that it's frivolous to pay attention to mechanicals, as it feeds into more of the same of what we already know about graphic design from the designer's point of view. I share his frustration with they way we seem to be stuck in a primitive narrative of graphic design, promulgated by the ubiquitous monograph, that privileges the designer "above all else." But the stubbornness of that narrative is not due to an exhaustion of all other information about design: like kudzu, it tends to choke off the other narratives, but still, one can dream, right?. Which may be why there are more than a few of us out here who will actually admit to being a little sick of the designer's "voice." Where are all those other perspectives? Even the "designer's assistant's voice" could add a whole new dimension to our understanding of design as a social and cultural process.
Lorraine Wild

By no means did I wish to imply that mechanicals are frivolous artifacts and that they are not rich sites for a palimpsesting of voices/intentions and meanings. I only meant to raise a cautionary note regarding their historical value if they are understood as an index of authorial intention. Like Lorraine, I can imagine an interpretive method (call it archaeology, perhaps) that would account for the palimpsesting of voices/intentions and meanings within the broader public sphere. I hope such a method would transcend the back and forth of Material Culture 101.
Michael J. Golec

Lorraine Wild argues for the value of mechanicals as evidence of the "back story" of design practice. I like this idea.

I'm interested in Sutnar's relationship with Kund Lönberg-Holm, and the information architecture concerns that Lönberg-Holm and Theodore Larson brought to the F. W. Dodge Corporation and to Sweet's. Paul Makovsky's great essay in the Design in Action catalog is useful here.

I've come to question whether the idea of flow in Catalog Design Progress (1950) makes much sense to the way industrial catalogs are ordinarily used. Normally, one starts with the index. This was true for the 1906 first edition, and remained true throughout the evolution of the Sweet's Catalog File. The 2001 edition classifies "manufacturers' catalogs on the industry-accepted 16 division format for data filing and construction specifications." It's something like a library catalog. The on-line version at McGraw-Hill Construction -- to the depth I can get in -- is sensible I think, but not about visual flow at all.

The "flow" that most concerned Lönberg-Holm and Theodore Larson was more in the way of flow of new information into the world; their concern, in several publications between the late 1930s and early 1970s, was to devise means to filter outdated information about (old catalogs, old engineering and construction codes and standards) off to the archives, ensure that the pipes wouldn't clog. The basic idea was to ensure that only current, best-practices information was presented to the user. The long introductory section about transportation patterns in the 1950 book -- which is not prefigured in the 1944 Catalogue Design book, but is in Sutnar's three articles in Interiors magazine in 1947 -- sets the book up for an overemphasis on "flow," where indexing and classification may be more crucial.

I wonder what Sutnar's conversations with Lönberg-Holm were like. I conclude that he was a formalist, applying modernist styles to mid-century American business publications. Even on the evidence Sutnar shows in his books, it's not clear that his solutions were always appropriate, or an improvement on what they replaced. But that's another topic.

Aside no 1 :
I've transcribed all of the text in the two catalog design books so that I could (1) more conveniently read them (2) without further damaging library copies, (3) as straight expository prose. This has made it easier for me to recognize issues like the "flow" question, and to separate the arguments from the beautiful illustrations (that work sometimes more like emblematic symbols, rather than as functioning information design).

Aside no 2 :
There's not a single typo or grammatical infelicity in Catalog Design Progress. Who was Clifford S. Eriksen, who "assisted in writing and editing the text" of the 1950 book? And who were the format and production assistants, Doris H. Coles, Margaret B. O'Reilly, Marion C. Rusnak?

Aside no 3 :
Lastly, I understand that Fraktaly has issued facsimile editions of two other Sutnar titles -- Shape, Line and Color, and Controlled Visual Flow. I have not seen these, but understand they're beautiful.

John McVey

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