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."
Kees Broos (the Hague, 1940 - Arnhem, 2015)
catalogue Piet Zwart exhibition