Piet Zwart was a true innovator, his designs and creative thinking far surpassed his time. Piet Zwart was born in 1885 in North Holland. The time that Piet Zwart was born is important because he lived through many technological advancements, which influenced his design. He believed that design should be functional, modern, and he understood that technology and industry were important to society. Piet Zwart was not an easy man to work with. He worked like a madman and had extremely high standards for himself. Piet Zwart’s design work is characterized stylistically by the use of primary shapes and colors, varying typefaces, strong diagonals, and a careful asymmetry, at the same time integrating visual puns, alliteration and repetition.
Square Flat Round Copperwire, Advertisement for NKF, 1926
This Poster shows Zwart's use of dynamic asymmetrical compositions, strong diagonals, different typefaces, extreme contrasts and attention to typography.
Zwart attended The School of Applied Arts in Amsterdam from 1902 to 1907. This school was influential for Zwart because there was not a clear distinction between different art practices and he was influenced by many different things. Zwart was attracted to and influenced by avant-garde movements, particularly Russian Constructivism , Dada and De Stijl. Russian Constructivism was committed to abstraction, modernity, geometric shapes, and art as social purpose, which can all be seen in Zwart's graphic design work. Dada was another important art movement which Zwart drew inspiration from. It developed after WWI and was focused on experimentation, unorthodox materials and chance-based procedures, which are also themes that can be found in Zwart’s work.
Een Kleine Keuze Uit Onze Lettercollectie
This Cover shows a clear Dada influence in Zwart's work, through its composition and a clear De Stijl influence in its color.
Zwart started his career in architecture. While he was working as a draftsman for the architect Jan Wils, he was introduced to De Stijl by Jan Wils who was a member of the group. This contact in 1919 launched Zwarts graphic design career. At the age of 36 Zwart was asked to design stationary for Jan Wils office. The work that Zwart designed had a clear De Stijl influence. However, he soon rejected some of the movement’s principles, notably the emphasis on symmetry, the use of strict horizontals and verticals, and the stern bias. Yet, the influence of De Stijl can be seen in all of Zwarts work, through his use of primary colors, his use of space and his extreme attention to the practicality and usefulness of typography. Around this same time in 1920 Zwart received an assignment from the flooring company Vickers House for their LAGA rubber flooring. The advertisements that Zwart created for LAGA were also heavily influenced by De Stijl.
Letterhead for Jan Wils, 1921
These advertisements show the early De Sijl influence in Zwart's work.
OLOR IS A CREATIVE ELEMENT, NOT A TRIMMING.
Zwarts functional design philosophies also extended to his industrial design. In 1921 Zwart started working for Henrik P. Berlage, a prominent Dutch architect. While working for Berlage, Zwart designed a dish set of pressed glass, in which all of the pieces fit together. He created the set because he was looking for efficient manufactured products which would be low cost for the producer and the consumer. In 1930 Zwart was hired by the Bruynzeel Wood Company to design printed advertising, packaging and office interiors. His most important Bruynzeel commission was a modular kitchen constructed from prefabricated units which was mass produced from 1938 onward for the Dutch market. The kitchen focused on making work as efficient and streamlined as possible and it is still influential today.
In 1923 Zwart began designing advertisements for the Nederlandsche Kabelfabriek (NKF), Dutch Cable Company in Delft, which have become his most famous work. When he started doing graphic design work, Zwart knew very little about typography or printing and he learned about type and printing from a printers assistant. However his lack of experience let Zwart experiment and be uninhibited by rules and traditional practice methods. In the designs that Zwart created for NKF, he experimented with uppercase and lower case letters. He rejected symmetry as well as strict horizontals and verticals. He put type and imagery at dynamic angles, layered things on top of one another and he created vigorous contrast of size and weight with typographic form. His designs utilized negative space and created fields of tension which enliven the design and create arresting layouts for the viewer.
The NKf gave Zwart a lot of creative freedom. He wrote his own copy for the ads, which were sometimes humorous. Over a period of ten years, Zwart created almost 300 ads for the NKF, all different. Zwart also designed the NKF catalog, where he relied on photography and typography. The eighty page long and full colour NKF catalogue incorporated close-up photographs of the electric cables. He managed to achieve a fragile balance between text, photographs and white space on the page. In 1933 Zwart made a book for NKF which was approached in a sequential way. 1933 also marked the end of his relationship with NKF. They wanted claim to his photography negatives and Zwart refused, thus ending their almost ten year relationship.
uninteresting the letter,
the more useful it is to the typographer.
Zwart was also very concerned with how the reader interacted with typography. He realized that 20th century mass printing made typographic design an important and cultural force. He considered the function of time an aspect of the readers experience. Hence, as he planned his page designs he wanted the reader to be able to absorb the most important information quickly; brief slogans with large letters in bold type and diagonal lines were used to attract the attention of the reader. Zwart described himself as a typotect, part typographer, part architect, in that he built a composition with typography on the page.
Zwart began to experiment with photography after 1926, hiring professional photographers and later taking all his own photographs and he embraced the use of photography in his compositions. His use of photos created a tension with the typography. He presented photographs with high contrast, as negative images, overprinted with colored inks and cropped into geometric shapes. Around this same time in 1928 Zwart designed a series of books for the film industry. He designed red and blue photomontages for the covers with reoccurring elements, the word film in large type and the title and authors name in a diagonal light bar. He conveyed the essential aspect of the medium, which was movement, on the printed page. Between 1936 and 1938 Piet’s design work became more decorative. In 1930, Piet Zwart was asked to do the design for "The Book of PTT." The book was meant to teach schoolchildren how to proficiently use the Dutch postal service. Zwart looked at this as a way to "tickle their curiosity and encourage self reliance." The book was full of bright colors, many types of fonts in varying sizes and thicknesses, and photomontage.
After 1933 the Nazi’s seized power in the Netherlands. In 1942 Zwart was taken hostage by the Nazi’s. Eventually he was released, however Zwart never truly went back to graphic design and instead focused primary on industrial design and interior design after the end of WWII. Piet Zwart died at the age of 92 in 1977. In 2000, Zwart was awarded the "Designer of the Century" award by the Association of Dutch Designers. Piet Zwart was ahead of his time and is an inspiration to present-day designers. His work was innovative, creative, and fresh. It is a testament to how talented Zwart was as a designer that his designs have lasted almost a century and they continue to inspire and awe.
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