Piet Zwart

Piet Zwart, [Advertisement for a heavy duty paper insulated cable], ca. 1925 (2012.9.1)

Piet Zwart, [Advertisement for Concentric Paper insulated, Lead-Covered and Single Wire Armoured Cable], ca. 1925 (2012.9.2)

Renowned for his innovative graphic design, Piet Zwart (1885-1977) worked as a photographer, typographer, teacher, interior designer, and architectural draftsman, among many other activities. Zwart’s initial interest in photography was reflected in his experiments with photomontages, collages, and photograms. The collaboration with the Nederlandse Kabel Fabriek (NKF, the Dutch Cable Factory), gave Zwart the opportunity to publish these experiments in trade magazines such as Tijdschrift voor elektrotechniek and Sterkstroom. As early as March 11, 1925 the Tijdschrift voor elektrotechniek published an advertisement for NKF made from a photogram. The advertisement showed a very similar typography to the top image published here, in which Zwart would play with the meaning of words by stretching the letter “H” and compressing the letter “L,” corresponding to the meaning of “Hooge ionisatie spanning” (high ionization potential) and “Laag diëlectrisch verlies” (low dielectric loss).

Although Zwart collaborated with artists such as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray, he was less concerned about the aesthetic aspect of photography and more interested in how and for which purposes the medium could be used. In a 1934 interview with journalist Kasander from The Hague, Zwart explained: “Beauty is one of a number of factors which has a contribution to make but it is essentially too insignificant to play a governing role.”

The conviction that photography had to be a functional and essential part of
art education, Zwart forcefully pleaded for a complete restructuring of the
existing system in the early 1930s. By then he had become engaged in Communism
and involved in the so-called worker photography movement. In the Netherlands this movement was represented by the Vereeniging van Arbeiders Fotografen (Union of Worker Photographers) who trained workers to be photographers and to depict daily life in all its facets: non-idealized, reflecting the reality of their everyday existence.

Although Zwart continued to photograph until the late 1930s, by then his professional
career continued to focus more on industrial design, with the launch of the famous Bruynzeel kitchen in 1938 as one of the highlights of his career. The Nederlands Fotomuseum (Dutch Photomuseum) in Rotterdam shows a large collection of photographs by Piet Zwart.

Broos, Kees. Piet Zwart, 1885–1977. Amsterdam: Focus Publishing, 1997.
The Worker Photography Movement, 1926–1939. Essays and Documents. Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, 2011.

About claartjevandijk

Assistant Curator, Collections at the International Center of Photography, New York
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