PIET ZWART 1885 - 1977
Kees Broos: PIET ZWART 1885 - 1977. Amsterdam: Haags Gemeentemuseum Van Gennep Amsterdam, 1973. Second edition from 1982. Text in Dutch. A very good or better softcover catalogue in photographically-printed stiff wrappers: wrappers lightly worn. Interior unmarked and very clean. Out-of-print and uncommon.
8.25 x 11.75 perfect-bound catalogue with 96 pages devoted to Piet Zwart's design work, including graphic design, packaging, furniture, photography and more. Most Zwart items tend to focus on his typographical works from 1923 -1933, so this is an exceptionally comprehensive overview of a designer who referred to himself as a Typotekt. My highest recommendation.
During his prolific career, Piet Zwart (1885-1972) worked in many spheres, often concurrently. These included graphic design, architecture, architectural criticism, furniture design, industrial design, painting, writing, photography, and design education. His association with the advanced design movements in other parts of Europe and his acquaintance with artists such as Schwitters, Berlage, Schuitema, Van Doesburg, Huszar, Rietveld, Wils, Kiljan, and Lissitsky all helped to crystallize his own convictions and aesthetic visions. Glimmers of the Bauhaus, De Stijl, Constructivism, Nieuwe Bouwen (New Construction), and Dada all surface in Zwart's oeuvre.
In 1919 Zwart worked as draftsman for Jan Wils' De Stijl company. Two years later he became assistant of architect H.P. Berlage. Zwart later wrote: "At that time the relationship of architect to co-worker was completely different from today. Assistants are now usually mentioned, at least if they are of any importance. In those days not, you were the humble employee, the architect was your employer and the relationship was quite fixed."
At the age of 36 Zwart did his first typographic work for the Dutch importer Vickers House. Zwart's 1923 Vickers House Metamorphic advertisement for "zagen, boren en vijle" (saws, drills and files) clearly has its roots in El Lissitsky suprematisch worden van twee kwadraten in 6 konstrukties Published by Van Doesburg in 1922. Like Lissitsky, Zwart made use of the visual pun, and a single N serves as the final letter of the first three words, Zagen, boeren en vijlen. Then the design is shifted so that another N becomes the first letter of the word Nu. Finally, the N is transformed into an H, becoming the first letter of the words Het and Haag. The center diagonal stroke of the H is separated from the two verticals, and comes to a horizontal rest in the last stage. This design already shows hints of Zwart's phenomenal N.K.F advertisements, which began in 1923. The viewer is guided through the labyrinthine composition, an early example of Zwart's intent to include the time factor and structure information in a design.
In 1923 Berlage introduced Zwart to his son-in-law, who was on the board of directors for the Nederlandsche Kabel Fabrick (Dutch Cable Factory). This began an extraordinary client-designer relationship that would continue until 1933. During these ten years, he produced no less than 275 advertisements for the Tijdschrift voor Electrotechniek (Magazine for Electro-technology) and the publication Sterkstroom (Strong Current). Essentially typographic, these advertisements constitute Zwart's major contribution to Dutch typography and form. Together with Werkman's The Next Call and Schuitema's work for the Berkel Scale and Meat-Packing Companies, it is the most original, venturesome, and provocative work by the avant garde in The Netherlands during this period. It is the genesis of what would eventually change the face of Dutch graphic design.
Like most others during this period, Zwart was self-taught in typography, and although he had been designing printed pieces since the end of 1921, acquiring the Nederlandsche Kable Fabriek as his main client made him realize just how little he actually knew about printing technology:
"The first design that I made for the NKF was hand drawn. I was still not finished with it when the publication had already come out. At that time I realized that this was not a very good way to work and then plunged headfirst into typography. The nice thing about all of this was that I actually learned about it from an assistant in the small printing company where the monthly magazine in electro-technology was being produced.
"... After going through the bitter experience of that piece being too late, I made more sketches and then played typographic games with the assistant in the afternoon hours, how we could make this and that....
"Actually, that's how I came to understand the typographic profession, I didn't know the terms, I didn't know the methods, I didn't even know the difference between capitals and lower case letters."
By 1924 the influence of Lissitsky on Zwart was evident, and some of the telephone cable advertisements of that year were again very close to pages from El Lissitsky suprematisch worden van twee kwadraten in 6 Konstrukties. The NKF assignment can be divided into four segments: the magazine advertisements (1923-1933); Het Normalieenboekje (Normalization Booklet) (1924-25); the 64-page catalog published in Dutch and english (1928-29); and the information booklet Delft Kabels (1933). Het Normalieenbockje, one of Zwart's least known works, represents a turning point in his typography. One major difference is the use of an additional contrast, color, which was absent in th advertisements. However, color was included not as a decorative element, but more as a graphic cue.
Zwart referred to himself as typotekt, a combination of the words typographer and architect. To a large extent this term did indeed express Zwart's conception of his profession-the architect building with stone, wood, and metal; the graphic designer building with typographic material and other visual elements; As the architect finds the right place for the windows, doors, and other parts of the building, the typographer assigns the positions of letters, words, lines and images. For Zwart, typography was also a question of ideology, and he wanted to free the reader from what he considered to be the monotonous typography of the past. Reading would now be a process that directly involved the reader. He felt that it would be possible through the new typography actually to change the way people read. Le Corbusier defined a house as a machine a habiter, and in the same sense Zwart's typography could be called a "machine for reading."
Others such as the poets Mallarme and Apollinaire in France, Van Ostaijen in Belgium, and Marinetti in Italy, had already accentuated words in their work through typography. Lissitsky had used this method in, for example, his poster Beat the Whites with the Red Edge, as had the Futurists and Dadaists. Zwart took the idea a step further by developing it into an unprecedented, transcendent, and feasible typographic method.
In 1923, when Zwart became acquainted with Schwitters and Lissitsky, the latter showed him the "photogram" process and his constructivist interpretation of Vladimir Mayakovsky's poem "For Reading Out Loud." In the photogram technique elements are placed on of above light-sensitive paper, which is then exposed to an enlarger light. Zwart produced photograms as early as 1924, but for the next several years the were used sparingly, for Zwart felt the their value in functional typography was limited.
Later in 1938 Zwart referred to his work as "functional" typography. Its purpose was "to establish the typographic look of our time, free, in so far as it is possible, from tradition; to activate typographic forms; to define the shape of new typographic problems, methods, techniques and discard the guild mentality." Functional and constructive typography were basically one and the same. It was called functional because it discarded aesthetic norms and was based on purely utilitarian objectives; constructive because it had a rational structure and renounced subjectivity and relied on modern technology.
As the printing of photographic reproductions became increasingly more feasible Zwart began to use them in his compositions, and by the summer of 1926 this "phototypography" also started to become part of his visual inventory. His first use of photographs was in the 1928-29 catalog for NKF in which he incorporated close-up cross-section photographs of electric cables. Products had never before been presented with such clarity. He achieved a dynamic balance between text, photograph, and white space on the page. Double-page spreads work as single compositions, and the catalog is distinguished by dramatic contrasts, asymmetry, and spaciousness.
At first Zwart had to use the work of commercial photographers, but he soon became increasingly dissatisfied with the then-popular soft-focus approach, which was essentially an attempt to imitate painting. In 1928 he bought his own camera and very quickly learned the photographic technique. Within a year eh was able to supply all of his own pictures. Zwart's work was characterized by sharp, fine-grained, close-up images and the use of angles and textures. He was also secretary of the Dutch contingent to FIFO, the 199 international photography exhibition in Stuttgart where Zwart, Schuitema, and Kiljan were among the Dutch participants. After being exposed to the advanced work of photographers such as the American Edward Weston and the Russian Alexander Rodchenko, he lamented the rudimentary state of contemporary photography in The Netherlands.
Zwart's designs fulfilled most of Jan Tschichold's criteria for Elementare Typographie, published in Typographische Mittelungen in 1925. Zwart's typography was functional, simple, and organized and restricted to basic typographic elements and photography. By 1930 he began to use mainly lowercase letters. The typefaces were unpretentious variations of sans serifs, nonessential decorative elements were excluded; color was used only for accent; and romantic "artistic" tendencies were rejected. With his 1925 card and envelope designs for the experimental theater group in The Hague, WijNu (We Now), Zwart briefly reverted to his Dada phase with a profuse use of assorted kinds and sizes of typefaces and symbols.
Spreads from this volume can be viewed here.
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