At the turn of the 21st century, the Association of Dutch Designers Voted to honor the legendary Piet Zwart with the title of Designer of the Century. It was a fitting posthumous tribute to a design visionary whose seventy-year career crossed into many disciplines, including architecture, industrial design, interior design, graphic design, typography and photography. In short, Zwart was a designer in the broadest sense of the word.
He graduated from the Amsterdam based National School of Applied Arts with a certificate in drawing and art history in 1907, after which he held several teaching posts. In 1919, he got an important career break as a draughtsman in the office of De Stijl architect Jan Wils. This led to his first typography and graphic design work. Two years later, he was invited to take on a similar in-house role with renowned Dutch architect H.P. Berlage. Zwart and Berlage would work together until 1927. During that period, when architecture projects were scarce, he was offered various freelance advertising and design opportunities through Berlage’s personal business connections.
One fruitful opportunity was with the Delft-based Netherlands Cable Factory or Nederlandse Kabelfabriek (NKF). For NFK, he designed close to 300 advertisements between 1923 and 1933.
By the late 1920s, he returned to teaching as a design and art history professor, this time at the Rotterdam Academy of Visual Arts, now known as the Willem de Kooning Academy. He left the school in 1933 because the administration did not agree with what they considered to be his radical approach to the direction of the design curriculum.
In 1930, Zwart was commissioned by the Dutch Postal Telegraph and Telephone Company to design the Book of PTT, an educational book intended to teach children about the basics of the Dutch postal system. The Book of PTT was eventually published in 1938 and became one of his best-known and most beloved pieces of work. He also excelled at postage stamp design.
Zwart later worked as a graphic and interior designer for the Bruynzeel Kitchen Company. In 1937, he applied highly functional, ergonomic and practical thinking to the commercial design of a modular kitchen for Bruynzeel. It was an ambitious and all-encompassing task which pushed his ideas of efficiency and ergonomics to a new level. His ergonomic cabinet system featured standardized drawers, extendable shelves, racks and hooks, and glass sorting containers. Zwart’s socially committed approach to design was driven by the idea that quality design should be available and affordable to all. Today, nearly eighty years later, the Bruynzeel Kitchen Company still commercially produces the Zwart retro-designed kitchen.
His career came to a sudden halt in 1942 when he was arrested by German soldiers and held in an internment camp for harboring Marxist ideas. He was released in 1943 and spent the rest of his career and life focusing on interior design, photography and film. He died in 1977, in Wassenaar at the age of 92..
Since the 1990s, an expert jury assembled by the Association of Dutch Designers awards the prestigious Piet Zwart Prize to a Dutch designer whose career has made a significant impact and contribution in one or more fields of design. The biennial award covers Zwart’s areas of expertise: typography, photography, spatial design and industrial design. In 2001, a new postgraduate art school, the Piet Zwart Institute (PZI), was launched as a tribute to the Dutch pioneer of modern typography.
For more on Piet Zwart's long and successful career, read Issue 64 of Dutch the magazine.
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