Piet Zwart


The Netherlands, 1885 - 1977

linked with Jac. Jongert, Theo Van Doesburg

“Among the few I have indicated, is there no dynamic man of action, the rebel who will help determine the aspect of the collective expression of tomorrow? Ponder this question and know that to make beautiful creations for the sake of their aesthetic value will have no social significance tomorrow, will be non-sensical self-gratification. Every era contains the conditions for providing a rebel.”
- Piet Zwart

Piet Zwart working for Bruynzeel, august 1931
Image from 'Piet Zwart, vormingenieur' by Yvonne Brentjens.

Dutch photographer, typographer, industrial designer and critic Piet Zwart was born 28 may 1885 in Zaandijk, the Netherlands.

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.

Zwart and his fellow students Hoeksema, de Koo and Jac. Jongert mostly developed by themselves with little interference from above, as teachers weren’t always present."A smashing school with no idea of a programme" as Zwart recalls.*

* quote from 'Pioneers of modern typography' by Herbert Spencer and Rick Poynor

During WWI Zwart focussed on furniture, interior and fabric design, all of these with a decorative touch. The social revolution after the war and new artistic ideas of the Avant-garde offered him a possible new direction. Zwart decided to leave his craft designs behind.

Piet Zwart for H.P.Berlage,
pressed glass,

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.

letterhead for Jan Wils,

Though he was formally trained as an architect, Piet Zwart is mainly known for his graphic design work. 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.

This is no surprise, as during this period he met his close neighbour Vilmos Huszàr who co-founded the De Stijl magazine and designed the cover for the first issue. Together they would exchange thoughts and engage in several projects. He initially felt strongly attracted to the radical ideas of Theo van Doesburg and De Stijl, which propagated an abstract utopian world. But he did not wish to surrender entirely to the dogmatic ideas of De Stijl. His work was too playful to be restricted by dogmatism.
Zwart was also drawn to dadaïsm and the international avant-garde, particularly Russian Constructivism.

IOCO rubber flooring,
logo design for Vickers House,

LAGA rubber flooring,
folder for Vickers House

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) probably is the most iconic of this series. He assembled letters, blanks, and symbols from print houses and played around with them, solving this ‘practical print problem’.

* Fridolin Muller, Piet Zwart, Hastings House Publishers: New York, 1966

advertising for Vickers House,

This work seems to have been influenced by El Lissitzky’s “About 2 Squares” which had been published by Van Doesburg in 1922. In this pun one single N serves as the final letter of the first three words.

'vierkant plat rond',
advertising for NKF,

'Hot Spots',
advertising for NKF,

In 1923 Berlage introduced him to one of his relatives. the manager of the Nerderlandsche Kabelfabriek (NKF) at Delft. During ten years Zwart made many 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.

advertising for NKF,

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 realise 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.

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.

Sein via Scheveningen Radio
2 designs for an advertisement with photogram

In 1923 Zwart met Schuitema and El lissitzky whom frequently used, and at this occasion demonstrated, the new ‘photogram’ process. Zwart used this technique for a short period, but felt these pictures did not complement his work.

find more information on the photogram-process on wikipedia

4cm vrij baan,
poster for PTT,

broadcasting station Scheveningen,

As working with photographic images became increasingly realizable, Zwart embraced the use in his compositions. This created a tension between the two-dimensional type and the three-dimensional image. 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.

NKF catalogue
page 58, 59

NKF catalogue
two spreads

His experiments with phototypography reached its height in the design of the eighty pages long and full colour NKF catalogue in which he incorporated close-up photographs of the electric cables. He managed to achieve a fragile balance between text, photographs and white space on the page.

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. Zwart’s photographic no-nonsense experiments show us an admiration for repetition, structures and balance, a fondness for lines and planes and a keen eye for detail.

Early 1927 Zwart closed the door of Berlage’s office and continued as an independent designer with a focus on architecture, a title he believed he could claim after such long time of being an apprentice. Working for NKF and teaching at the Rotterdam Academy provided a trustworthy source of income.

Bruynzeel kitchen

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. Piet Zwart was the first to design a kitchen for mass production. It consisted of standardized elements that could be mounted in different ways so that customers could combine them as they wished. In 1938, after three years of research, his Bruynzeel-kitchen was produced. It was highly progressive for its time.

bruynzeel kitchen

Also in 1930 Piet Zwart was approached for the design of "The Book of PTT” which taught schoolchildren how to make use of the Dutch postal service. Zwart wanted to tickle their curiosity and encourage self-reliance.

The book of PTT

He wanted it to result in a book full of bright colours, each page exciting and worth watching. He devised two key players for the booklet: 'The Post' and 'J. Self'. These two paper dolls were photographed in different poses after which he edited the photos with colour pencil, ink and chalk. Apart from photography, he also used collages, drawings and various types of fonts in different sizes and thicknesses. Dick Elffers assisted in making the illustrations. After years of work the book was published in 1938.

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.

Monografieën over Filmkunst
book covers

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. 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.*

*Yvonne Brentjes, Piet Zwart vormingenieur, Waanders Uitgevers Zwolle, 2008

All work comes to an end in July 1942 when he is arrested by German soldiers. Zwart, along with 800 other prominents, is being held hostage. After the war, when being released, he mainly focussed on industrial design.
Piet Zwart died at the age of 92 in 1977
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.

Monografieën over Filmkunst
book covers

Pomona's food

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NKF catalogue




Yvonne Brentjes, Piet Zwart vormingenieur, Waanders Uitgevers Zwolle (2008). find this book on ftnbooks.com

Piet Zwart, Piet Zwart, Focus Pub (1997). find this book on amazon.com

Cees W.de Jong, Alston W. Purvis, Dutch Graphic Design: A Century of Innovation, Thames & Hudson Ltd (2006).
find this book on amazon.com

Kees Broos, Paul Hefting, Dutch Graphic Design: A Century, The MIT Press (1997).
find this book on amazon.com


Piet Zwart on flickr
Piet Zwart fictional tribute video by grasshopperpt
Posters by Gert Dumbar on Piet Zwart for sale at internationalposter.com