Artwork of the Month, February 2023: Porcelain tableware by Ladislav Sutnar (1932)

This month’s artwork has a double aspect. Primarily, it is a piece of design consisting of white porcelain plates, dishes and cups. Yet it is also a black and white photograph that depicts the set, highlights its qualities, and advances its presentation. It is an example of co-operation between the designer Ladislav Sutnar (1897–1976) and the photographer Josef Sudek (1896–1976). The two collaborated on many images depicting and advertising Sutnar’s porcelain sets, glassware or cutlery. While this article pays attention to the role of photography in communicating design, its main focus is the porcelain set. What is of particular interest is the place it occupied between commerce and art in the attempt to elevate the aesthetic standards of a regular Czechoslovak home.

Ladislav Sutnar, Porcelain tableware, 1932, photograph by Josef Sudek

Ladislav Sutnar, Porcelain tableware, 1932, photograph by Josef Sudek, Institute of Art History of the Czech Academy of Sciences – photo © Institute of Art History, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, v. v. i. © Josef Sudek’s heirs


Sutnar, the versatile designer

The author of the porcelain set, Ladislav Sutnar, was born in Plzeň in western Bohemia and studied at the School of Art and Design in Prague. He taught at a number of schools in Prague until he was appointed director of the State School of Graphic Arts in 1932, where he worked until his departure to New York in 1939. Graphic design was Sutnar’s major field and certainly one that he is most recognized for today on both sides of the Atlantic. In Czechoslovakia, Sutnar worked as a book designer and typographer for the organisation Družstevní práce (Cooperative Work) and many publishing houses in Prague, producing nearly 80 book covers and designs between 1929–32.[1]

Sutnar’s oeuvre extended far beyond graphic and product design, however; he also worked in exhibition design, textiles, stage and toy design, producing marionettes as well as paintings. Some of his early paintings were exhibited in 1922 and he also made designs for murals in, for example, some of the rooms in the Parliament in Prague. Although he is not well known for his painting, he picked it up again when he moved to the USA, creating views of New York and images of prostitutes in Manhattan.

Set for sale

Designed in 1932, the porcelain set consists of tea and coffee pots, cups of at least two sizes, plates, a serving bowl, a soup bowl and a gravy vessel. More items were added to the set later and could be purchased at a later time. As Sutnar described it, ‘all the forms were coordinated and grew organically from a single basic shape, a sphere, which provided a unique harmony to the set as a whole.’[2] The spherical shapes were interrupted by more rectangular cavities for spoons in the sugar and honey containers or for a ladle in the soup dish. The tableware was produced as a plain white service in its basic form, or as a more expensive set with a red, green or platinum line that ran along the rim. The producer was the company Epiag, based in western Bohemia. Sutnar embraced the characteristics of the porcelain made from the local kaolinite, which called ‘for delicate forms to match its smooth, white, translucent, light reflecting qualities,’ as he described.[3]

A view of the Krásná jizba shop

A view of the Krásná jizba shop, Krásná jizba leaflet, Ladislav Sutnar Collection, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Sutnar’s set was widely advertised by Družstevní práce as part of their project of promoting quality design for every home. Družstevní práce (dp) was founded in Prague in 1922 as a cooperative with some 20,000 members. It aimed at middle-class customers who could subscribe to discounted products offered by the co-op. The products ranged from porcelain and glassware to lamps and textiles. They were first offered through exhibitions, promotional leaflets and advertisements; then, from 1927, in dp’s flagship store, Krásná jizba (A Beautiful Room) in Prague. From 1929 onwards, Sutnar closely co-operated with dp and Krásná jizba, becoming artistic director of the former and director of the latter.

In the interwar period, the focus of the shop was on improving the home by the removal of excessive ornament from people’s homes. To help achieve that aim, Krásná jizba also offered an in-store advisory service. The clear embrace of functionality, practicality and cost effectiveness was an important drive of the items sold here. On sale were products by Sutnar, and those of many similarly inclined colleagues, like the glass designer Ludmila Smrčková (1903–1991), the ceramicist Helena Johnová (1884–1962), or the furniture designers Jan Emil Koula (1896–1975) and Jan Vaněk. Soon, international design was made available too: for instance Marcel Breuer’s (1902–1981) tubular furniture or the glass sets by Adolf Loos (1870–1933). Part of the success of Krásná jizba between the wars was also due to its imaginative shop window arrangements and its exhibitions of goods across Czechoslovakia, often designed by Sutnar.

‘Today, quality comes from proper function, practical form and serial production,’ argued Sutnar in 1932.[4] As he explained later, he derived these ideas from German design, especially from the Bauhaus. Design must honestly ‘satisfy the needs of product utility’ and combine honesty with the ‘materials and techniques of production.’[5] In relation to porcelain, this meant – Sutnar outlined – ‘absolute design purification’ without superficial surface ornamentation which would be ‘an insult to full enjoyment of the material.’[6] Sutnar expressed these views in the 1970s in a retrospective text about the interwar embrace of the Bauhaus ideas in Czechoslovakia. He acknowledged they came through literature as well as direct contacts with Walter Gropius (1883–1969), Hannes Meyer (1889–1954) and their colleagues at the Bauhaus. Mayer, for instance, visited Krásná jizba in 1930 accompanied by the Czech artist and theorist Karel Teige (1900–1951) and Krásná jizba also became the official agent for Bauhaus products in Czechoslovakia.[7]

It should be noted in this respect that, despite its promotion of functionalist design, the name of the store, Krásná jizba, was something of a paradox. The Czech name translates as ‘beautiful room,’ where ‘jizba’ (the room) bore connotations of traditional village houses, where it referred to a large living area or a bedroom. While the aim of the shop and of dp was to counter the design production that was still embedded in Art Nouveau and Historicism (notable especially in the continued use of floral ornament), the very name of the shop may therefore sound somewhat conservative. It nevertheless became useful after the Second World War, when the shop was reimagined as exactly the kind of enterprise that would sell folk products. Under Communism, the aestheticisation and beautification of the urban home involved encouraging vernacular and decorative products.

Promotion and publicity

In the 1920s and 1930s, Sutnar’s design, whether it was porcelain, glass or cutlery, was widely promoted through dp’s printed materials, which included catalogues and illustrated leaflets. The catalogues featured photographs of the itemised and numbered products with price lists and conditions of sale. Dp also published magazines such as Žijeme (We live, 1931–1933), or Panorama with articles on literature, art and design, travel and contemporary culture. These publications can be considered almost as life-style magazines, suggesting to readers through articles and images what a modern home should look like.[8]

Examples of a modern home from the periodical Panorama

Examples of a modern home from Panorama (1932), no. 9

Panorama also included advertisements for products by designers associated with dp, Sutnar included. The supplementary Zpravodaj Družstevní práce (The Bulletin of Cooperative Work) alerted readers to new publications, exhibitions and indeed products, directing them to where they could purchase them.

Advertisement for Sutnar’s sets from Panorama

Advertisement for Sutnar’s sets, Panorama (1933), no. 7, back cover

Sutnar’s set sold well; some 10,000 sets were sold. It could be pre-ordered and therefore made in bulk, which lowered the cost. The individual items were also easily replaceable if broken, which made them popular. As mentioned, members of the co-op Družstevní práce were mostly from urban middle class households whose monthly income in 1935 would be between 1,200 and 1,500 crowns.[9] The set therefore would not be affordable to everyone. As is clear from a price list, designed by Sutnar, the basic porcelain set for six would contain 25 items (plates, cups and saucers, dishes) for the base price of 233 crowns. Extra items, such as a butter dish, sauce pot, or bowl, could be purchased for between 19 and 30 crowns each. This was the plain white porcelain set without any decoration, but as noted earlier, more expensive variations with a red decorative border, or a set in ivory with a green or platinum border, were also available. The latter was the most expensive set with the base price of 1000 crowns and would often be purchased as a wedding gift.

Can Sutnar’s set be viewed as an example of commodity fetishism? It was certainly given the power going beyond a utility object; it was presented as a means to improve one’s living standards and possibly life. The white finish, the simple form and smooth finish of the thin material can be related to the new directions in society towards capitalism, personal fulfilment and achievement. The set, as well as other products offered by dp, created a myth, that the holistic design of the versatile set represents a modern way of life in its private or festive practices.

page from Panorama (1937), no. 7, p. 219

‘During their holidays, even the children of our members enjoyed the fresh air and Sutnar’s porcelain from Krásná jizba dp’ – page from Panorama (1937), no. 7, p. 219

Photography played a large role in promoting these qualities and values. Josef Sudek created many promotional photographs of various products that ranged from glassware to cutlery, all showing ‘logic and system’ in the presentation.[10] The image showing the porcelain set in question is extraordinary; the individual items are all arranged in geometrical shapes: two diagonal rows of containers with lids cut across the image from the left to meet in the top right-hand corner. Another row runs parallel with the bottom and the spaces in between are filled with smaller pots while the top is reserved for the plates. While the lines that they form suggest modernist dynamism, the round shapes of the tableware give the image a certain decorative quality. Very little empty space is left on the table, as if there were a horror vacui, more familiar from the example of vernacular ornamentation on pottery or fabrics. This is somewhat unusual in Sudek’s depictions of design; his other photographs show more space between the carefully arranged pieces. It is not clear what discussions Sutnar and Sudek held about the presentation of the objects, but it can be assumed that Sutnar was quite particular about the arrangement.

Josef Sudek: New books of dp

Josef Sudek: New books of dp, page from Panorama (1937), no. 4, pp. 120–21

Sudek’s photograph is therefore an inseparable part of the work meant as an advertisement of a modern piece of design. Both Sutnar and Sudek are considered as representatives of the Czech avant-garde producing art closely aligned with international modernism.

page from Panorama (1932)

‘Sutnar’s porcelain set will surely become one of the most beautiful and most practical Christmas presents’ – page from Panorama (1932), no. 9, pp. 158–159

Their close cooperation reminds us, however, that a large proportion of their work, whether it was graphic design, photography or product design, was meant for sale. The collaboration also stands out when compared to the publicity by other designers. Sutnar’s products were occasionally pictured by photographers other than Sudek, but such instances were few in number. Moreover, while the work of many other designers was represented in Krásná jizba and featured in Panorama, it was nowhere near as prominent as Sutnar. Sutnar, the designer benefited from his managerial and editorial roles in dp’s outlets.


Sutnar and his colleagues in dp made an attempt to resume production of the porcelain after it had been interrupted by the Second World War, but to no avail. Their idea was to export it to the USA where Sutnar would oversee the distribution. Yet Epiag was nationalised in 1948 and overseas contacts were for a long time thwarted. Sutnar was also cut off from Czechoslovakia. When, in March 1939, the Nazi regime took over what was left of Czechoslovakia, two new political entities were created: the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and The Slovak Republic. In 1939 Sutnar was sent to New York to liquidate part of the planned Czechoslovak exhibit in the National Hall at the World of Tomorrow world’s fair. The idea of a presentation about the now non-existent state of Czechoslovakia had become redundant.

Ladislav Sutnar's employee card for the New York World’s Fair, 1939

Ladislav Sutnar’s employee card for the New York World’s Fair, 1939, Ladislav Sutnar papers, The Getty Research Institute, 2013.M.6.bx16, folder 5

The pavilion was, however, taken over by US government and the consulate of the Czechoslovak government in exile and Sutnar was involved in its completion. The building was now to serve as a reminder of the Nazi occupation. He also found it impossible to return to Prague because crossing the Atlantic after the start of the war was hazardous. Sutnar’s Czechoslovak passport was no longer valid and, having perforce become a German subject, he would have been considered an enemy alien by many states, including France and Britain. Sutnar was advised that he would most likely be arrested at Gibraltar or another port if he decided to travel. He therefore stayed in New York and found work as a designer, later to be joined by his wife and his two sons. He nevertheless only pursued work in graphic not product design and expanded on some of his interwar ideas about information design. In the USA, he is fondly remembered as the author of one important visual aid – the brackets around telephone area codes which made long numbers more legible and structured.

Josef Sudek: photograph of Sutnar’s porcelain in storage

Josef Sudek: photograph of Sutnar’s porcelain in storage, undated, Ladislav Sutnar Collection, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, TMS box no, V-593, archive box no. 27, accession no. V1996-113-1

Sutnar’s wide-ranging involvement in design of all kinds was linked with his interwar career in Czechoslovakia. He was a designer of products, information, and spaces, well aware of the need to effectively display and promote the work. His porcelain set is a great example of this awareness; it was meant to improve homes by its simple, practical and affordable design and it was meant to sell. The tableware, promoted through Sudek’s photographs and dp’s activities, aimed to evoke a lifestyle that was modern, functional and affordable just like the set. (fig. 9)

Marta Filipová

[1] Sutnar’s curriculum vitae, Ladislav Sutnar Papers, Getty Research Institute, box 2013.M.6.bx17, folder 5-6.

[2] Ladislav Sutnar, Visual Design in Action (New York: Hastings House, 1961; reprinted in 2015), c/8.

[3] Sutnar, Visual Design, c/8.

[4] ‘Výroba užitkových předmětů,‘ Interview with Ladislav Sutnar, Žijeme 5.2 (1932) pp. 138–139.

[5] Ladislav Sutnar, ‘The Bauhaus, as seen by its neighbors South of the Border,’ manuscript, 1971, Cooper Hewitt archive, p. 2.

[6] Sutnar, ‘The Bauhaus,’ p. 2.

[7] Lucie Vlčková, ‘Krásná jizba – osobnosti, místa, souvislosti’ [Personalities, places, connections], in Krásná jizba dp: Design pro demokracii, eds. Lucie Vlčková and Alice Hekrdlová (Prague, 2018) p. 52.

[8] E.g. V. V. Štech, ‘O porculánu,‘ Panorama (1933), no. 11, pp. 94–96; Jaroslav Seifert, ‘Mladý muž a starý porculán,‘ Panorama (1932), no. 9, pp. 158–159.

[9] Milan Hlaveš, ‘Designing objects for everyday use, ‘ in Praha – New York – design in action, ed. Iva Janáková (Prague, 2003) p. 311.

[10] Cf. Lucie Vlčková, ed., Družstevní práce – Sutnar, Sudek (Prague, 2007).

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/X3AFD

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply