Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Jaroslav Šváb archive, 1928-1968

Summary Information

At a Glance

Call No.: MS#2051
Bib ID 15549104 View CLIO record
Creator(s) Šváb, Jaroslav, 1906-1999
Title Jaroslav Šváb archive, 1928-1968
Physical Description 5 Linear Feet (4 document boxes and 4 oversize folders)
Language(s) English , Czech .
Access You will need to make an appointment in advance to use this collection material in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room. You can schedule an appointment once you've submitted your request through your Special Collections Research Account.

Boxes 1-4 are located off-site. You will need to request this material at least three business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room.



Scope and Contents

Jaroslav Šváb's collection of his book design and illustration work, a working archive which he assembled throughout his career, containing the bulk of his life's work. The material was largely drawn upon for the illustrated monographJaroslav Šváb, published in 1966, at the time of his first large retrospective exhibition in Prague. Spanning the period 1928 until the late 1960s, the archive contains approximately (650) items, including printing samples and specimens, test printings, alternate variations, publisher's ephemera, and original renderings

The Šváb archive thoroughly corresponds to the eras of Šváb's life, from his first late 1920s commissions, produced while he was still a student and largely undertaken for commercial clients in his native town of Tabor and the short-lived publication Der Kraftfahrer [The Driver]. It moves into and through his early professional successes, particularly his fruitful association with Sutnar's Družstevní práce (DP) [Cooperative Work] and Bohumil Janda's Sfinx publishing division Evropský literární klub [European Literary Club], where he worked alongside Jindřich Štyrský. (As an aside, Sutnar's first commissions as a professional artist had been a series of posters for Janda's Sfinx publishing house in the late 1920s.). Particular highlights from the deep well of Šváb's inter-war creations include his groundbreaking design for Aldous Huxley's Point-Counter-Point (1935), his magnificent surrealist-erotic composition for Claude Houghton Julian Grant Loses His Way (1935), and his functionalist photogravure collage for Josef Suk's V nový život (1938).

All of Šváb's works for the Czechoslovak state-owned publishers of the 1950s and 1960s, Mlada Fronta, Svět sovětů, Naše Vojsko are also present, particular highlights include the constructivist compositions for Ivan Yefremov's Andromeda Nubula (1960), Stanislaw Lem's The Memoirs of Ijon Tichy (1964) and the neo-surrealist lithographs for the covers of Fred Kassak's No Burials on Sundays (1964), David Storey's That Sporting Life (1964), and Ilya Ehrenburg Trust D.E. (1966). Also present is the full-format uncut wrapper design and a test printing of Šváb's 1960 attempt to revive Sutnar's Žijeme [We Live].

Using the Collection

Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Conditions Governing Access

You will need to make an appointment in advance to use this collection material in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room. You can schedule an appointment once you've submitted your request through your Special Collections Research Account.

Boxes 1-4 are located off-site. You will need to request this material at least three business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room.

Conditions Governing Use

Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. Permission to publish material from the collection must be requested from the Curator of Manuscripts/University Archivist, Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML). The RBML approves permission to publish that which it physically owns; the responsibility to secure copyright permission rests with the patron.

Preferred Citation

Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Jaroslav Šváb Archive; Box and Folder; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.


Materials may have been added to the collection since this finding aid was prepared. Contact rbml@columbia.edu for more information.

About the Finding Aid / Processing Information

Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Subject Headings

The subject headings listed below are found in this collection. Links below allow searches at Columbia University through the Archival Collections Portal and through CLIO, the catalog for Columbia University Libraries, as well as ArchiveGRID, a catalog that allows users to search the holdings of multiple research libraries and archives.

All links open new windows.


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
Book illustrations Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Book jackets Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Graphic design Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
Artist Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Book design Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Graphic artists Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID

History / Biographical Note

Biographical / Historical

Jaroslav Šváb (1906 - 1999) was a graphic artist, illustrator and typographer. He led the important graphic school Oficina Pragensis. In 1937 he won a gold medal at the World's Fair in Paris. His best-known works include the graphic design of the Kapka Mladé fronty series, but also poster designs for the National Gallery, stamps and puppets.

Šváb, a key participant in the inter-war avant garde in Czechoslovakia, proved himself to be a master of disparate forms of graphic art and design during a long and focused career, and, in the process, became the most prolific 20 th Century designer of books and book bindings in Central Europe. Though his illustrations and book designs have found their way into most significant private and institutional collections focusing on the avant garde movements of the period, the breadth of Šváb's work and its origins have been little studied outside of his homeland.

In 1925, his talent widely evident, and on strong recommendations from Štika and Vodrážka, Šváb gained immediate acceptance into the most prestigious arts college in Czechoslovakia, the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague (UMPRUM), where he selected a six-year course of study. At UMPRUM he was again fortunate to be mentored bytwo influential artists of the inter-war period, Jaroslav Benda, a master of Czech cubism, from whom he studied book and book binding design and typography, and František Kysela, who worked with abstraction across the art nouveau and art deco eras, and taught painting, printmaking and illustration. Guided and challenged by two master graphic artists, Šváb prospered at UMPRUM and graduated in 1931 with highest merit.

Method Kaláb, the arch bibliophile, graphic artist, illustrator, printer, font designer, typographer, and founding director of Prague's Průmyslová tiskárna [Industrial Printing Works], had become aware of Šváb's talent and moved to hire him directly from university as a personal assistant. For Šváb, this amounted to an immediate step into the highest echelons of Czech interwar book design and printing. Průmyslová tiskárna was an amply funded semi-private company founded by the Central Union of Czechoslovak Industry, it operated simultaneously as a graphic design and typography studio, a publisher, lithography studio, and a contract printer for smaller publishers and organizations. In his two years working for Kaláb, Šváb routinely interacted with the most accomplished Czech graphic artists and designers of the time, but perhaps most importantly, he met and developed a close friendship with Ladislav Sutnar.

From 1933 forward, Šváb found great success as an independent illustrator and graphic designer. Even at the height of the Great Depression, consignments streamed in from publishing houses, cultural institutions and companies. The vast majority of his 1930s work focused on designing book and periodical wrappers, dust jackets, and book bindings. Šváb designed books for most of the important Czechoslovak publishers of the inter-war era, including Václav Petr, Kvasnička, Hampl, František Borový, Laichter, etc, but his work of this period is most strongly associated with the publishing arm of the artistic cooperative Družstevní práce (DP) [Cooperative Work], led by his friend Sutnar, for which he designed dozens of books and book wrappers.

As for many others, the late 1930s brought an unexpected change of focus for Šváb, with its looming threat of the dismemberment, dissolution, and occupation of Czechoslovakia. In early 1939, Sutnar left for America, where he would remain. That same year, the Prague-based artist, illustrator and educator Hugo Steiner-Prag, who had become Šváb's close friend and confident, fled to Sweden, and later joined Sutnar in New York. Shortly before departing, Steiner-Prag handed Šváb most of his Prague assets, including full control and ownership of the private art and design institute, Officina Pragensis, which he had founded in 1922. Šváb was charged with continuing the school's operations, though Steiner-Prag gave him free reign to rebrand and redirect the its curriculum. Re-opened as Grafická škola Jaroslava Švába Officina Pragensis [Graphic school of Jaroslav Šváb Officina Pragensis], in late 1939, the school operated throughout the Nazi occupation, and into the post-war years, closing only when mandated by state directives following the communist coup of 1948. During the war years, Officina Pragensis became particularly influential. As one of few non-accredited arts programs allowed to function after all institutions of higher learning for the Czech population had been closed by the Nazis, the school became a bastion of relatively free artistic expression for talented young designers.

Throughout the occupation and the short-lived democratic Third Czechoslovak Republic of the post-war years, Šváb continued to design books for publishers and companies. By the time of the Communist Coup of 1948, he had become so well-connected in these circles as to become a primary point of contact for most book publishers with commissions to offer. Most commissions he accepted; those he did not were offered to his students. Šváb was a man who kept a low profile and worked diligently in his studio into the early hours of the morning, a disposition which apparently helped to render him benign to the new communist regime. Though his school was shuttered, and he was not offered a professorship at any state university corresponding to his experience, he was allowed to maintain his studio and work as a commission artist for state publishers from 1949 until the late 1960s. With his talent, focus and long experience, Šváb became the most prolific Czech designer of books and wrappers in the mid 20th Century, producing 100s of designs, often for Czech translations of books by international authors including John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Maxim Gorky, Ray Bradbury, William Saroyan, Stefan Zweig, Graham Green, and many others. Šváb's passion for designing covers for the works of foreign authors contributed to his downfall, as in the wake of the Prague Spring of 1968, he fell out of favor with state publishing directors, who attributed some of the social unrest of the period to the wider availability of Czech translations of western books. A return to stricter publishing controls allowed for the publication of far fewer of the translated editions, the works with which Šváb's cover illustrations had become most strongly associated. Though rarely offered state commissions to design books from 1969 forward, he was nevertheless allowed to maintain his studio through the fall of communism in 1989. In the last decades of his life, Šváb largely concentrated only nonpolitical landscape painting and abstract printmaking.

Šváb became a household name in Czechoslovakia from the mid-1930s, and the subject of 20 solo exhibitions in his native country, with the first in 1933. In his lifetime, he contributed to 67 collaborative Czech and Slovak exhibitions, and his works were exhibited at more than 50 international exhibitions, including the 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques in Paris, the 1938 Milan Triennial and Expo 58 in Brussels.

An adherence to the principles of modernism and the flourishes of Prague's inter-war avant garde marked Šváb's approach to illustration for most of his career. He was trained and nurtured by proto-modernists, especially Sutnar and Benda, and his earliest commissions are notable for their fine use of constructivism, photo collage and photomontage. Though deeply inspired by the swirling winds of new design in Central Europe of the 1920s, he developed entirely personal approaches to modernism, drifting away from his own unique aesthetic only when it was necessary, such as in the early 1950s, when state directives forced artists to embrace social realism.

Šváb was also the only inter-war avant garde designer who remained influential through the 1960s, when he spearheaded the "second Czech avant garde", which sprung up with the renewed liberties granted by the communist authorities to designers in advance of the 1958 Brussels Exhibition, when the need to represent the supposed success of the communism in Czechoslovakia loosened the grip of social realism. This Šváb-driven new wave reinterpreted the constructivist and photomontage strategies of Sutnar and the Devětsil but infused them with abstract and figural motifs and contemporary color schemes