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.