Dick Bruna

ICONOFGRAPHICS

The Netherlands, Utrecht, born 1927

“I would love to be able to draw like a child, so spontaneous, so open-minded on those big sheets. As an adult you start to draw and then hope that you make something good, something beautiful. A child is not like that, they start and see what happens... I draw things you will see close to home, things that I also like. Maybe I still think a bit like a child, I have a childish mind, I think. There are a lot of things I don’t understand.”
- Dick Bruna

quote from 'Dick Bruna' by Joke Linders

Young Dick Bruna
at A.W Bruna & Zoon.

estimated early 1960's.
Image from 'Dick Bruna' by Waanders Uitgevers/Mercis Publishing

Dick Bruna was born in Utrecht (the Netherlands) on august 23, 1927 as Hendrik Bruna in a rather prosperous family. His great-grandfather founded the great Dutch publishing house A.W Bruna & son in 1868, and in the late nineteenth century they had a book store at almost every railway station. Bruna had a rather careless youth. He regularly met authors and designers at his house and as a teenager he gained interest in design.

The publishing house had always been a family business. Bruna was intended by his father to become a publisher too, but he did not have the right attitude for the business side. During the turbulent war years his family spent hiding in Loosdrecht, his aversion towards everything his father stood for (publishing and marketing) grows. He rather spent his time drawing.
"We had a little holiday house near a lake so when the war came we hid there," he says. "There was no food, of course, and I couldn't leave the house to go to school or anything, but we had a pleasant time. I was already sketching constantly: on any piece of paper I could get hold of, I tried to make a little drawing."*






* quote from an interview by Benjamin Secher in 'The Telegraph'

After the war the family moved to Hilversum. It became clear that Dick could not get used to school in his new town. His father allowed him to leave school on condition that he joined him in his business.
He arranges him an internship in Utrecht, London and Paris. In Paris the young Bruna enjoyed the atmosphere of innovation. As often as possible he visits exhibitions. 'I really went from one gallery to another, all day. I was so much impressed by the work of Picasso and Léger, Matisse, Braque and all those people'.*




* quote from an interview by Horatia Harrod in 'The Telegraph'

As real businesspeople, his father and grandfather were not really interested in art. Nevertheless Dick manages to convince them he truly detests commercial business. To his surprise he is allowed to follow courses at the State Academy in Amsterdam.

Right after the war A.W.Bruna&son launched a “book of the month”-series in which Havank and Leslie Charteris were published. They were printed on wood-containing paper and wrapped in a beautiful red cloth binding. It was this series which lead to the birth of the Black bears pocket series.

In 1951 he falls in love with Irene de Jongh, a girl from his neighbourhood. When he asks her to marry, her father demands he gets a steady job. And so in the end he accepts a permanent position at A.W.Bruna & son.

Spookslot aan de Loire
(The ghost castle
near the river Loire)
by Havank
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht
1958

De weduwe in de wilgen
(The widow in the
willow trees)
by Havank
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht
1959

BRUNA AT A.W.BRUNA&SON

End 1954 the company decided to set up a new range of books, in price closer to the very popular pockets from other publishing houses. The early fifties was the ideal time for paperbacks to appear.
Dick was allowed to try and make book covers for this new series. Inspired by Matisse he focussed on colourful compositions in the plane, keeping them as simple as possible. He used primary colours on a black background.
From the start, Dick’s designs looked very characteristic and recognizable. Other (mainly american) pocketbooks had dramatic bookcovers, but his had bright colours, gentle humour and sleek illustrations.

Koop niet alléén
zwarte beertjes

(Buy not only black bear-books)
poster to promote
Zwarte Beertjes books
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht
1961

Moeder, moeder
de beer is los

(Mother, mother,
the bear has escaped)
poster to promote
Zwarte Beertjes books
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht
1962

Dick focussed on the corporate identity of the company. He designed every book cover for the new series and made posters that had to convince rail passengers to buy one of their editions.

Op de kleine trom
(On the little drums)
by Barend de Goede
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht
1958

Voor het slapen gaan
(Before sleeping)
by Jaap Romijn
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht
1959

With small scissors he cut shapes from coloured paper. He preferred scissors to pencils because they often gave him surprising, unexpected shapes that were often better than the ones he intended to make.

De saint op de loer
(The Saint is watching)
by Leslie Charteris
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht
1962

De saint in New York,
(The Saint in New York)
by Leslie Charteris
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht
1968

He never used a fixed place for the author's name and title. He could even decide to omit it completely if one of these elements didn’t fit his design.

De wenteltrap
(The spiral staircases)
by A. Roothaert
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht
1956

Walging
(Nausea)
by Jean-Paul Sartre
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht
1961

"The first year a series of about six books appeared, the second year there were roughly eighteen, but soon afterwards there were more than one hundred a year. I realized that I, at this rate, had to apply all possible techniques: drawing , tearing, cutting, collage. The black bears were my artschool."*

quote from 'Dick Bruna' by Joke Linders

Het geheim van
de 7de sleutel

(The secret of the 7th key)
by Havank
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht
1970

De zwarte pontifex
(The black pontifex)
by Havank
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht
1965

Maigret als
ongewenste gast

(Maigret as
not wanted guest)
by Georges Simenon
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht/Antwerpen
1971

Maigret en de maniak van Montmartre
(Maigret and the maniac
of Montmartre)
by Simenon
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht
1965

The Black Bear series mainly focussed on detective-stories. Bruna always read the book and knew what it was about. He managed to give every author a recognizable and flexible icon. The silhouette of a cigar-smoking man with a shrewd glance is the hallmark of the series Havank (nicknamed the shadow), on the covers of the Maigret series there’s the icon of the pipe, while the Saint by Leslie Charteris is represented by a drawn figure with a halo above his head. Contours and colours are crystal clear, the typography is restrained, and the lack of shading in the images turns them into characteristic icons.

He focussed on the design of a series. The reader who owed one Simenon pocketbook should want to collect and read all of them. These characteristic silhouettes became recognizable landmarks.

O.S.S. 117 viert 1 april
(O.S.S. 117 celebrates
April 1)
by Jean Bruce
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht/Antwerpen
1961

O.S.S. 117 in het nauw
(O.S.S. 117 in problems)
by Jean Bruce
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht
1966

Bramen met arsenicum
(Blackberries and arsenic)
by Shirley Jackson
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht
1963

Het uur van de rat
(The hour of the rat)
by Jon Manchip White
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht
1964

Bruna produced more than 2000 books for the A.W.Bruna&son. After a series of less successful years, the company was taken over by De Friese Pers in 1982.

De appel
first version
1953

BRUNA'S CHILDRENS BOOKS

Bruna’s very first drawings, a red apple on a blue background, were single designs, experiments with colour and form. Adults often commented these primary colours did not fit together.

During a wet and windy seaside holiday, he drew a story about a little white rabbit to amuse his son Sierk. The first miffy looks a bit naïve, with little dots for eyes and clumsy ears.

De appel,
(The apple)
1953

Tijs
this book is part of his first series of children's books
1957

Dick’s father was not really fond of these flat compositions. Though Jaap Romein, convinced him to publish seven of these little books, among which ‘De appel’, ‘Tijs’, ‘Toto in Volendam’, ‘Kleine koning’ en ‘Nijntje in de dierentuin’. It didn’t become a great success because the company had no experience with children's books and did not bother to advertise. But mixed critiques wouldn’t stop him from drawing; he was convinced that these drawings were perfect for children.

Bruna was influenced by the developments in Dutch graphic design of the De Stijl Movement. He is inspired by Rietveld’s Schröderhuis (in his hometown), which he thinks is fascinating because of its color and shape simplicity.

By limiting the size of the pages to 155x155mm he managed to downsize the costs of his books and fit them exactly into tiny hands.

Miffy
created in 1955, she changed through the years to become this figure that is recognised throughout the world.

Miffy’s appearance changed in 1963. Her attitude, the shape of her face, her arms, legs, ears, everything gets a little more tension. It makes her look more self-confident. Bruna is always in pursuit of simpler, more perfect forms.

Dick Bruna in his atelier
2008

His drawings don’t give him many opportunities to express emotions; he can only slightly change the position of the eyes, the length of the ears, the shape of the cross for a mouth. "That's all you have. With two dots and a little cross I have to make her happy (...) or a little bit sad - and I do it over and over again. There is a moment when I think yes, now she is really sad. I must keep her like that."*



* quote from an interview by Lisa Allardice in 'The Guardian'

Unlike his Black Bears-books, the Miffy characters are not cut from coloured paper, but drawn with a brush and then filled with poster paint.
Bruna is a perfectionist. It might take him a day to draw one single illustration of Miffy. If he is satisfied after hundreds of experiments, he has the design transferred to transparent film so he can try colour patches on separate sheets.

This doubt and anxiousness is part of him, it is an essential aspect of his personality. 'It's funny,' he says. 'When I was younger I thought that when I got older I would be sure what was OK, and what was not OK. But it's just the other way round. You're getting more and more uncertain.'*


* quote from an interview by Horatia Harrod in 'The Telegraph'

The adventures of Miffy are hardly based on fantasy, they are about the things Bruna heard or experienced in his family life. He transfers this story to a haiku-like rhythm. These four-line rhymes are quite simple. After two times of reading even children know what it says and complete the sentences by themselves.

Thee kun je eten. Recepten uit de
Engelse keuken

(You can eat tea. Recipes from the English kitchen)
by Wendy Savory
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht/Antwerpen
1981

Het kookboek van mevrouw Maigret
(The cooking guide
of Mrs. Maigret)
by Robert Courtine
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht/Antwerpen
1980

While Miffy might be an international celebrity now and Bruna a millionaire (By now he has sold more than 85 million storybooks, which have been translated into 40 languages), he is one of the most unassuming men you could ever meet. In company he is rather shy. The thought that he must speak in public, gives him nightmares. He uses a fixed schedule, full concentration at work and people around him he trusts to give him the safety and security he needs.

Every day he rises at 5 or 5.30, squeezes a glass of orange juice for his wife, Irene, and draws her a picture about things she has done, or reminders of things she is planning to do. He cycles along the Utrecht canals and goes to a cafe for a coffee.*







* from an interview by Horatia Harrod in 'The Telegraph'

Miffy's 50th birthday was celebrated with the opening of a museum in her honour - the Dick Bruna Huis in Utrecht - where you can visit a permanent collection of Bruna's work.

Twee druppels bloed
(Two drups of blood)
by Frederic Dard
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht
1962

De nozems
(Teddyboys)
by Frederic Dard
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht
1963

De ongelukkige minnaar
(The unhappy lover)
by Albert Moravia
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht/Antwerpen
1965

Verhuizing
(Relocation)
by Georges Simenon
A.W Bruna & Zoon. Utrecht
1968

READING

Joke Linders, Koosje Sierman, Ivo De Wijs, Truusje Vrooland, Dick Bruna, Waanders Uitgevers Zwolle (2006). find this book on amazon.com

Bert Jansen, Bruna Dick - Boekomslagen, Centraal Museum Utrecht,The Netherlands (2000). find this book on amazon.com

Kees Broos, Paul Hefting, Het paradijs in pictogram, The MIT Press (1997).
find this book on amazon.com

Benjamin Secher, I saw Matisse and came up with Miffy, article in The Telegraph, 09 Dec 2006

Horatia Harrod,
Dick Bruna, creator of the Miffy books, talks about his life and work, article in The Telegraph, 31 Jul 2008

Horatia Harrod, Bunny love, article in The Guardian, 15 Feb 2006

IMAGES

archive of Black Bears books with pictures on Retrobook
Black Bears book covers by Juliensart

INTERVIEW

A moment of inspiration with Dick Bruna - youtube
Dick Bruna about 'Boris and the Umbrella' - youtube
Dutch Profiles: Dick Bruna - youtube
A statue of Dick Bruna - youtube

BUY

Dick Bruna collectible posters at Nijhof&Lee