Piet Zwart was a Dutch designer born on May 28, 1885 in Zaandijk, North Holland. He had trained as an architect, and began graphic design projects at age thirty-six. His training as architect included designing furniture and interiors. He worked in Jan Wils' architectural office from 1891-1972. His architectural design moved towards a more functional design after he worked with De Stijl in 1919. In the early 1920s Zwart received his first typographic commissions from Laga, a flooring manufacture. Soon enough, he rejected De Stijl's rules of design being a traditional symmetrical layout and strict horizontals and verticals. Zwart began to make rough layouts by ordering words, rules, and symbols from a typesetter. Zwart had no formal training in typography or printing so he was uninhibited by rules and methods of traditional professional practices. Zwart realised that the 20th century's need for typography became an important and influential cultural force so he felt obliged to change it.
Zwart began his education at the School of Applied Arts in Amsterdam 1902. He spent most of his career as an architect and photographer, as well as a designer. He was successful for several years. While in school, the English Arts and Crafts movement was very popular in the 1900s in the Netherlands.
In 1930, Piet Zwart was asked to do the design for "The Book of PTT." The book was to teach schoolchildren how to proficiently use the Dutch postal service. Zwart looked at this as a way to "tickle their curiosity and encourage self reliance." So, the book was full of bright colors and it was meant to be exciting. Also, he created two main characters for the book: 'The Post' and 'J Self'. They were paper dolls that he photographed and would later edit with chalk, ink, and color pencil. Additionally, he used many types of fonts of varying sizes and thicknesses. He was aided in the illustrations for the book by Dick Elffers. The book was finally published in 1938.
Zwart's ideas were very similar to the methods and goals of the Bauhaus School in Dessau. In 1929, he was asked to organise some lessons. He was fired from the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts in 1933 because he wanted to redesign the arts education.
Zwart's design career came to a halt when he was arrested by German soldiers in 1942. He was held hostage along with 1800 other artists. He was eventually released after the war, but the experience affected him drastically. He spent the rest of his life primarily working in industrial design.
Piet Zwart died at the age of 92 in 1977. The Piet Zwart Institute of the Willem de Kooning Academy Rotterdam – the same art school of which he was a professor in the 1920s – is named after him. Piet Zwart was ahead of his time and is an inspiration to present-day designers.
"Zwart was able to manipulate the oblique perspective in such a way that space was not only activated but made to seem irrational in order to heighten the viewer's experience of what would otherwise have been an ordinary rectangular room."
As a designer, and pioneer of modern typography, Zwart was well known because of his work for both the Nederlandse Kabelfabriek Delft (the Dutch Cable Factory in Delft) and the Dutch Postal Telegraph and Telephone. He did not adhere to traditional typography rules, but used the basic principles of constructivism and "De Stijl" in his commercial work. His work can be recognized by its primary colors, geometrical shapes, repeated word patterns and an early use of photomontage.
His commercial print work has influences from Constructivism, Dada and De Stijl, while still adding a playfulness to the mix. In the 1920s, he began to work for Nederlandsche Kabelfabriek (Cable manufacturers) in Delft. While working for the Nederlandsche, he experimented with upper and lower case, lines, circles and screens, and free letter composition. He produced 275 designs within a decade, and then after he moved on to interior, industrial and furniture design. Zwart classified him as a typotect— part typographer, part architect. Zwart's distinct style consisted of strong diagonals, primary colours, use of scale, varying typefaces, and careful asymmetry, rejecting the conventional symmetry around a fixed central axis. These elements were considered functional to him.
Piet Zwart is mostly known for his graphic design work. He started his career as an architect and draftsman and worked for Jan Wils and Berlage in 1919. Two years after working for Jans Wils, he worked with Dutch Architect Berlage for several years.
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) Zwart solved a practical print problem by assembling letters, blanks, and symbols from print houses.
In 1923 Berlage introduced him to one of his relatives. the manager of the Nerderlandsche Kabelfabriek (NKF) at Delft. He had experimented with typography in the early 1920s, but, while working at the NFK, he realised how unaware he was of the terms and methods of printing. He didn't know the difference between lower and uppercase letters. An 18-year old assistant at the NFK helped him learn the principles of printing. He created a total of 275 designs in 10 years for the NKF Company, almost all typographical works. He experimented with small and large letters, circles and rectangles, visual puns, repetition and alliteration. He resigned in 1933 to become an interior, industrial and furniture designer.
Zwart began using photographic images in his compositions in 1926. He first worked with commercial photographers. Thus creating a balance between two-dimensional type and the three-dimensional image. The photographs that he integrated into his work have high contrast, negative images, and are overprinted with colored inks and cropped into geometric shapes. In 1928, he bought his own camera and taught himself the photographic techniques. Zwarts admiration for repetition, structure, lines and planes, and balance show throughout his photographs. Zwart experimented with photography while working for the NFK catalog. He photographed the close-ups of the electric cables.
Ring Neuer Werbegestalter
Zwart was a member of the Ring neuer Werbegestalter which is an avant-garde group of advertisement designers.
Zwart's Industrial Design
In the Netherlands immediately before World War II, activity in the design field grew tremendously calling for new solutions to functional problems. In 1938 Zwart's prefabricated kitchen consisting of independent units was brought out on the Dutch market, revolutionising kitchen interiors which also illustrated the creativity of mass-production of useful objects.
In 1930, Zwart was employed by the Bruynzeel Company. First he designed their annual calendars and other commercial items. He helped with other areas of the company, too. He was the first to design a kitchen for mass production. Zwart is best known for his design of the Bruynzeel modular kitchen in 1937, which is still available today. The design reflects graphic organization and it is considered mass-production. The design was highly-progressive for its time. Zwart's Bruynzeel Modular Kitchen was exhibited in Germany-Netherlands: Interactions 1920-1940 at the Haags Gemeentemuseum. This was an example of a 'rational kitchen.'
Piet Zwart Institute
The Piet Zwart Institute is part of Willem de Kooning Academy Rotterdam University (1885–1977). In the 1920s, he taught at the Rotterdam Academy. The University offers bachelor and master programs in the arts.