A pioneer of modern typography, designer Piet Zwart was influenced by Constructivism and De Stijl. His influence shows in his work and in this quote: “To make beautiful creations for the sake of their aesthetic value will have no social significance tomorrow.” Zwart worked as a designer, typographer, photographer and industrial designer in the Netherlands in the 1920s and 30s. Primarily working for the NKF Company, he created many works of graphic design before retiring from the company to spend the rest of his days as an interior and furniture designer.
Also influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, Zwart began his education at the School of Applied Arts in 1902. He spent most of his career moonlighting as an architect and photographer, as well as a designer and for several years he was very successful.
Piet Zwart’s career in graphic design was launched in 1919 when he started as a draftsman for the architect Jan Wils, who was a member of the De Stijl-group. Two years later he became assistant of the influential Dutch architect H.P. Berlage, whom he would work with for several years. Among his assignments was the design of a christian science church, a municipal museum in The Hague and a breakfast set for which he used hexagon and circular shapes.
When Piet Zwart began to experiment with typography in the early 1920s, he was unaware of the terms and methods, the difference between lower- and uppercase. Working for the NKF made him realize how little he knew about printing. He learned the principles from an 18-year-old assistant in the small printing company where the adverts for NKF were printed. From 1923-1933 Zwart made over 300 advertisements for the Dutch Cable company. All of them were very different.
Zwart always referred to himself being a ‘typotekt’, a contraction of the words typographer and architect, as he built pages with type. The main proponents of Zwart’s distinct style were strong diagonals, primary colours, use of scale, varying typefaces, and careful asymmetry, rejecting the conventional symmetry around a fixed central axis. At the forefront of his organization of these elements was function. Constructing readable pages was a matter of ideology. He wanted to free the reader from the dull typography of the past by accentuating words in his text.
Piet Zwart was not an easy man, he was known for his indiscretion. He worked like a madman. The light did not go out before three o’clock at night; not ever. He barely went on vacation and spent most of his time at his desk. He introduced high standards for himself and fought all his life against the baroque tendency in himself he so much detested as a functionalist.
When Zwart began, his idea was nothing more than to capture the reader’s attention and in this context he adopted the maxim of Kurt Schwitters, who was designing graphic advertising in Hanover for a living: ‘Always do an advertisement differently to anyone else.”
At the beginning the compostions were in the Dadaist mould. Zwart mixed together different typefaces of all sizes and linked these visually with long lines and bars. Occasionally he allowed one single letter to dominate the entire page- a wooden poster letter if this was possible, otherwise it was in linocut. He repeated rhythmically the letterforms, words and even entire lines, and broke up the horizontal text with vertical text.
Zwart continually used the advertising copy as his starting point, highlighting a word or form to atract attention and guide the eye to the smaller type. Because they were intended for trade magazines, the texts are informative rather than attention-seeking and by and large bear little resemblance to modern advertising copy. In addition, they were sometimes done tongue-in-cheek. The style of the advertisements, however, gradually became more restrained and fewer elements were used. In the words of Piet Zwart in 1931: “The new typography is elementary, it negates a preconceived formal design layout, it uses design according to function; it designs a black and white page in such a way that the stresses in the text are expressed: explicitly or in a visual form.”
His design career came to a halt when he was arrested by German soldiers in 1942. He was eventually released after the war, but the experience affected him drastically. He spent the rest of his life primarily working in interior design. Zwart’s excellent use of color, typography, composition and photography are reminiscent of the Bauhaus and his influence on the future generations of graphic designers lives on through the Piet Zwart Institute at the William de Kooning Academy. His versatility and his influence on present-day designers led the Association of Dutch Designers to award him the title of ‘Designer of the Century’ in 2000.