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The Pioneer

A pioneer of modern typography, designer Piet Zwart was influenced by Constructivism and De Stijl. This influence on his work shines through. Zwart worked as a designer, typographer, photographer and industrial designer in the Netherlands during the 1920s and 30s.

The Scholar

From 1902 till 1907 he attended the School of Applied Arts in Amsterdam where there was little division between several disciplines as drawing, painting, architecture and applied arts. He was introduced to the principles of the English Arts and Crafts movement, which was extremely popular in the early 1900’s in the Netherlands.

The Designer

During WWI, Zwart focused on furniture, interior design and fabric design. The social revolution after the war and new artistic ideas of the Avant-garde offered him a possible new direction. Zwart soon decided to leave his craft designs behind. His 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. At the age of 36 Zwart produced his first typographic work when asked to design stationery for Wils’ office. This work clearly echoed the title lettering for the De Stijl periodical.

The Typographer

A year later, in 1920, he got an assignment from the flooring company Vickers House. He made several advertisements for this client. “Zagen, boren, vijlen” (saws, drills and files). This was probably is the most iconic of this series. He assembled letters, blanks, and symbols from print houses and created intriguing compositions with them, solving this ‘practical print problem’.

The Artist

In 1923. Berlage introduced him to one of his relatives; the manager of the Nerderlandsche Kabelfabriek (NKF) at Delft. Over the next ten years, Zwart made hundreds of groundbreaking advertisements and brochures. He could freely experiment with small and large letters, circles and rectangles using visual puns, alliteration and repetition to strengthen his message.

The Visionary

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. He first integrated images in his work in 1926. He presented photographs with high contrast, as negative images, overprinted with coloured inks and cropped into geometric shapes. At first Zwart had to work with commercial photographers, but in 1928 he started making his own photographic material. He bought his own camera and very quickly learned the photographic techniques.

The Architect

Early 1927 Zwart closed the door of Berlage’s office and continued as an independent designer with a focus on architecture. Working for NKF and teaching at the Rotterdam Academy provided a trustworthy source of income. From 1930 onwards the company Bruynzeel employed him. In the beginning Piet Zwart designed their annual calendars and other commercial items. After a while he also engaged in other facets of the company, designing the first kitchen for mass production. In 1938, after three years of research, his Bruynzeel-kitchen was produced.

The Speaker

Meanwhile Zwart had been fired from the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts in 1933, after he had been quite explicit about the redevelopment of art education. His progressive ideas had been closely linked to the innovative methods and objectives of the Bauhaus School in Dessau where he was asked to host a number of lessons in 1929.

The Man

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 before passing away at the age of 92 in 1977.

The Legend

The work that Zwart did for the NKF Company can be spotted by his use of primary colors, clean sans-serif typography and photo-montage work. Formally trained as an architect, Zwart referred to himself as a hybrid between a typographer and an architect. Possibly the height of his graphic design career, the NKF Catalog he designed in 1927-28 was printed in full-color and was 80 pages long. His influence on the future generations of graphic designers lives on through the Piet Zwart Institute at the William de Kooning Academy. In 2000, Zwart was posthumously awarded the “Designer of the Century” award by the Association of Dutch Designers.