The Wizard of Design – Piet Zwart (1885 – 1977)


As it happens with all geniuses ,Piet Zwart didn’t get the sort of recognition that he deserved. He was a rebel during his days and did not want to follow the set rules for design back then. Working late nights and swimming against the tide were his passions. His work covered a wide spectrum of industrial design. Alongside, Piet Zwart spent a lot of time excelling in the world of photography and typography. This article is a small tribute to one of the geniuses of the design industry. A human being who gave new meaning to the world of design and didn’t even ask for anything in return. I am sure that right now Piet Zwart is busy redesigning heaven!

Who Is Piet Zwart?

Piet Zwart was born on May 25 1885 in Zaandjijk, the Netherlands. Piet spent his time between 1902 to 1907 in the School of Applied Arts in Amsterdam. I guess it was his time in this school that gave fire to the rebel inside him. The school was perfect combination of various teachings like applied arts, architecture, painting and drawing. But, somehow Piet did not find the teaching methodology of the school as innovative as his brain was.

“A smashing school with no idea of a programme” ~ Piet Zwart when asked about his School of Applied Arts in Amsterdam.

Piet was highly influenced by the De Stijl movement of those days. If any influence can be noticed in his out-of-the-box work then it will be the effects of this Dutch Artistic movement which started in 1907. It was his zero attention span to whatever was being taught in school that resulted in path breaking designs. It was like he never knew about any design chapters and books. Henceforth, he had his own brain to follow which as a result took him to unimaginable heights. Piet was smart to use his own photography in his design which resulted in photomontages.

“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’s Career in Graphic Design

Piet Zwart’s career in graphic design got a kick start in the year 1919. He had started to work as draftsman for a famous architect Jan Wils, a member of the De Stijl movement. It was two years later when he grabbed the position of assistant for H.P. Berlarge, a Dutch architect. Piet ended up working several years for Berlarge and it was this stay with Berlarge when Piet worked on some of his first few legendary designs. The most famous of them all was the breakfast set for which he used hexagon shapes as shown in the image below:

An article on New City Art describes the work of Piet in fine words:

The emphasis on form rather than decoration not only severs ties with the clutter of the Victorian past but identifies everyday items with the values—efficiency, durability, mass distribution—of emerging industrial and communications technologies.

Piet was trained as an architect, yet he gained fame in the world of graphic design. It was at the age of 36 when Piet produced his very first work on typography. This was stationary for Wils’ office. His stint with the opinionated format of De Stijl didn’t last long as he was a free bird of sorts.

Piet’s energy and vision to come up with unique styles has been widely appreciated by some prominent speakers. One such statement popped up during a workshop at MIT:

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. ~ The Omega Workshop by Judith Collins.

Piet smartly tagged himself as a typotect which he said was a perfect blend of typographer and architect.

Surprisingly enough Piet wasn’t aware of the difference between lower case and upper case during his early years with typography. While working with Nerderlandsche Kabelfabriek (NKF) at Delft he realized how little he knew about printing. He learned the basics of printing from an 18-year old worker in the printing firm where NKF adverts were printed.

The Book of PTT

This is one of the most talked about projects of his life. It was the year 1930 when Piet was approached for the design of “The Book of PTT” which taught school children the basics of Dutch postal service. Piet wanted to tickle the kids imagination with his design and this is clearly visible in the final book design.

His major goal was to fill the book with bright colors as it was targeting children. He thought deeply and came up with two brand ambassadors for his book: ‘The Post’ and ‘J. Self’. Piet created two dolls with these names and took pictures of these dolls. Later on he used pencil and colors to edit these photos. Piet worked hard for years on this book and it was finally launched in the year 1938.

One must understand that it wasn’t easy to come up with such a concept during those old days and this was the reason why Piet Zwart took extra time to finally complete his piece of art.

In Closing

Piet left this world at the age of 92. It was the year 1977 when Piet moved on to design some other world. The Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam is named after Piet himself. He used to teach in this school in 1920. As is the case, he was awarded (Association of Dutch Designers) with the title Designer of the Century in the year 2000 long after his death. Though Piet is now no more on this beautiful plane, his work and his genius continues to come up every now and then on various occasions.


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