Sweet’s File: Architecture Sections 15-20

Part 1: What’s Old is New Again (Subjective Analysis)


I attended the D.H. Hill special collections exhibit on January 22nd to take a look at Sweet’s File, Architecture section 15-20. When I first arrived at the exhibit, I wasn’t sure which book I wanted to look at. Some of these books depicting ancient mythos and history alike. But in the corner was this amber green book with no markings on the front except a title “Sweet’s File * Architectural: Sections 15-20”. I opened up and was taken aback to see that is was an advertising book. Well, not exactly advertising, but a catalog for architectural structures such as windows, doors and shutters. The book had exciting colors and each of the different vendors sought to stand out from the rest – none of which was obvious from the innocuous exterior of the book (Fig 1).

Fig 1. A picture of one vendors page within the catalog.

The book was also deceptively heavy and large. While the book was heavy, the pages inside consisted of two different types. The initial index pages were thin and almost pulpy, similar to that of a modern day phone-book. However, the vendor’s pages were anything but – crisp and still remarkably untarnished – they turned with a swish and did not protest to being flipped through like a deck of sticky notes. The pages rustled with a laminated sheen, only further serving to highlight their immense physical quality.

Also of interest, the book didn’t smell like anything, I’ve checked out library books that are barely 10 years old that smell of must from hundreds of thousands of page turns and sedated life sitting on a shelf – yet this book at 77 years old felt pristine (although this may be attributable to the special care that it has received over the years). I love how the book is understated from the outside. If you saw this book on a shelf when it was brand new, there would be no way of telling how visually engaging it was on the inside. This idea of rewarding only those in the know or those patrons who are curious/diligent enough to delve into the book being rewarded with a colorful yet technical experience is immensely satisfying to me.The index pages are also laid out in a very stylish manner, feeling very modern in it’s sans-serif style that’s arranged with a single left margin per column and a the right margin being reserved for catalog and section numbers (Fig 2, Fig 3).

Fig 2. The index of the book, you can really see the sans-serif text and modern organization take center-stage.

Fig 3. How the index has been laid out, there are no traditional page numbers.

In regards to its design, the book I feel was created to be both a useful resource and a intrigue piece. I could see an architect in his smoke-touched studio, with a wooden coffee table and this book propped open to any page, adding a splash of color to the room and a natural point of interest for the eye.


Part 2: Sweet’s Suntar Renaissance (Objective/Historical Analysis)


Sweet’s was and is considered special for being one of if not the first company to aggregate all of the architectural data out in the world into single volumes that were punctuated by great design making them easier to navigate. The company was started in 1906 by Clinton E. Sweet. After the very first year he sold the rights to F.W. Dodge (who – along with Sweets – are still operating today under the control of McGraw Hill) (Motyka). The book was a revolution in the business data space; however for the first 30-40 years, it was not anything special other than a massive aggregate of data. After bringing on Ladislav Suntar in the 1940’s all that would change. Sweet’s would become one of the first businesses to utilize graphic design as more than just a pleasantry, but to improve the acuity and clarity of the information presented in the catalog (Hewitt). This revolution of information, innovative new design and widespread adoption within the Architecture industry I believe led it to be included in the special collections at NCSU.

The catalog was designed by Ladislav Suntar in the 1940’s for the purposes of aggregating the torrential amount of data that Architects and designers had to sift through manually in order to find what they needed (Heller). Suntar was by no means a nobody, by the 30’s he had become an immensely successful graphic designer: the director of the School of Graphics in Prague in addition to being chosen to create modern designs that would represent Czechoslovakia in the World Fairs in 1939 (Hewitt). In 1941, through a designer friend Lönderberg-Holm, Suntar was brought into F.W. Dodge and made the designer of the Sweet’s catalog. From here, Suntar applied his methodologies to Sweet’s and in the process made it more efficient, easier to read and more visually engaging. Suntar continued to design for Sweet’s (in addition to remaking the logo that they used and still use a variation of today) until 1960. A forgotten fact, Suntar later in his career was responsible for putting parentheses around area codes in phone numbers when they first introduced to the market (AIGA).

In addition to the cool design the book has inside, the outside also has meaning. For sweet’s catalogs, the outside coloring is actually representative of the material portrayed in the book. For example, the book I looked at was green which indicates it’s an architecture focused book (Motyka). This is a good quick index to use in case a user couldn’t look at the title (for example if they had it tucked into a bookshelf).

In the end, Sweets still exists today, albeit in a different capacity. Rather than focusing on physical and stylish catalogs, the catalog has moved online to their website. They now focus more on integration of schematics and products within design software such as Revit and AutoCAD that allow the consumer to compare different schematics and products within the design application. In addition once selected, you can then integrate all of the products’ information into the design right away to streamline data (a fitting and modern tribute to Suntar’s style) (DODG). Even if Sweet’s has changed with the times, even when the original catalogs back in the 40’s-60’s never got much recognition outside of their practical use and even when Suntar faded into the background of graphic design history despite being a prominent designer – The Sweet’s catalog collections have been of immeasurable value to both graphic designers and to the architects and designers who used them – and I feel lucky to have felt it in my hands.



AIGA. “1995 AIGA Medalist: Ladislav Sutnar.” AIGA | the Professional Association for Design, AIGA, 1997, www.aiga.org/medalist-ladislavsutnar/.

DODG. “Architects and Design Professionals.” Www.construction.com, Dodge Data and Analytics, 29 Mar. 2018, www.construction.com/business-types/architects-design-professionals.

Goodall, George. “Sweets Catalogue: A Brief History.” Facetation, 11 Feb. 2005, facetation.blogspot.com/2005/02/sweets-catalogue-brief-historywhile.html. While this was a good overview site, since it is a blog I didn’t use it as formal / cited source in my paper. It did however have some great sources in the references, and some of those I did use. I found this to be a pivotal resource/guide to use, so I wanted to bring it to the attention of everyone who may be interested in Sweet’s but might not know where to start.

Heller, Steven. “The Last Sweets Catalog.” Print Magazine, 15 Dec. 2014, www.printmag.com/daily-heller/the-last-sweets-catalog/.

Hewitt, Cooper, et al. “Sutnar on Sutnar.” YouTube, YouTube, 12 Dec. 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=SDLwOMPo_uA&list=PLpGHZ2picIBNJQVrESxB0EYOSVALWwGzO&t=43s&index=4. An interview with Steven Heller and Radislav Suntar, published and made by Cooper Hewitt.

Motyka, John. “CATALOGUE MARKS 75TH SWEET YEAR.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Aug. 1981, www.nytimes.com/1981/08/23/realestate/catalogue-marks-75th-sweet-year.html.