Through the good offices of our distinguished associate Leif Peng, we recently discovered the remarkable illustrated oeuvre of Mr. Frank Soltesz.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Soltesz was commissioned by a company called Armstrong's Industrial Insulations to create a series of cutaway drawings about modern business. These were then published as advertisements in popular magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post.
Unfortunately, our attempts to learn more about Frank Soltesz proved mostly futile, apart from the obvious fact that he was a midcentury commercial illustrator and the trivial fact that he remained a member of the American Watercolor Society as late as 1981. Yet the lack of biographical detail does nothing to diminish the power of Soltesz's work. On his own blog, Leif Peng provides a perfect summary of Soltesz's genius:
The tiny people in Frank Soltesz's factories and industrial plants seem, of necessity, like ants in a colony or worker bees in a hive -- their clothing largely indistinguishable from each other and their activities mostly unified in the task of completing some mundane process.
But when Soltesz painted cutaways of buildings like hotels and hospitals, he invested each tiny person with an individual identity. Through the unique characteristics and actities of these miniature people, Frank Soltesz truly became a storyteller.
To that we would merely add another observation; namely, that for the Armstrong's Industrial Insulations company, the intimacy of Soltesz's illustrations also served a practical purpose.
In effect, these cutaways, and the explanatory text that accompanied them, were the midcentury magazine equivalent of what a 21st century pitchman (sorry, pitchperson) might call "interactive advertising." Soltesz's lavish visual detail provides functional explanations of banal modern miracles -- conveniences such as theater air conditioning or frozen orange juice or department stores -- exposing the magic through which they become reality. The images entice the reader, deeper and deeper into the inner workings, until before you know it, you've plunged into the caption text, where you are helpfully informed that in a commercial bakery, the refrigerated storerooms feature walls "made of Armstrong's Corkboard or Foamglas to keep heat out, and the pipes that bring the cold in are sheathed with Armstrong's Cork Covering." Who knew?
As a happy coda, Armstrong's Industrial Insulations, which was based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, today lives on as part of Specialty Products & Insulation Co., which remains headquartered in Lancaster. Hats off to Leif Peng for allowing the work of Frank Soltesz to live on as well.
LINK: Cutaway illustrations of Frank Soltesz (Flickr photoset by Leif Peng)
UPDATE (16 September, 2008): Frank Soltesz's son has published a biographical essay about his father, which can be read at franksoltesz.com.