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Title Topics in Modernism: Piet Zwart

Project Visualized research report

Personal Design Project (subset of larger collaborative project)
AIGA Award of Distinction


Reading Bias / Writing ToleranceBodoniTopics in Modernism

Unless it extends off the edge of the page every linear element has its end...

and attention is drawn to the ends of linear elements by aligning their edges...

and provides a strong boundary for white space.

Piet Zwart was an active Dutch designer in the 1920s. He first worked as a draftsman for the architect Jan Wils, and later for Berlage. His interior designs reveal an early concern with function and clarity of proportion. Entering the realm of visual communications at age 40, Zwart developed publicity material for the Nederlandsche Kabelfabriek in Delft. His 1926 catalogue is a classic example of functional modernism, but in its time it employed a radically new design vocabulary. Zwart’s ability to create visual tension within the composition through interplay of form, color, and dramatic use of negative space was a radical departure in corporate graphics. The compositions are incredibly inventive, filling the page with movement yet maintaining a sense of openness.

As the most consistent graphic element in the NKF catalog, the line serves multiple purposes. First there exist concrete lines, as shown by the vertical black bars on the top left and bottom right corners of each spread, which Zwart said were to protect the paper from being marred when the book was handled (Meggs 230). Zwart employed these concrete diagonal lines to create movement across the page. He placed these linear elements (including photographs) diagonally, and parallel to each other establishing a “tilt” in the composition. The essential formal goal of this work was dynamism through asymmetrical composition. Zwart rejected the orthogonals of De Stijl and allowed his intuition to establish the orientation, infusing the composition with fluidity and dynamism that was uncommon to the rigidity of De Stijl.

Zwart also strove for levels of hierarchy within the composition, again facilitating movement across the page. On pages 50 and 58–9, we examine an alternative to the concrete line, defined as the implied line. Implied lines are often comprised of text elements. These lines are implied because while they have the overall form of a line (the shortest distance between two points), the density between the two points varies with wordspaces, letterforms, and changes in typeface. While we can agree that these implied lines have an orientation (usually parallel or perpendicular to other linear elements), they can be described as only having an “implied” weight due to the texture of the letters within.


The most important color element on this page is the red overlayed onto blue.


Color is employed in its solid form: graphic elements in red, blue, or yellow. The dynamic value lies in its connection to other elements on the page, through their shared color. For example, on pages 46–7 (upper right), a triangular movement of the eye around the page results from the strength of three red compositional elements. First the eye is drawn to the large “H KABEL” in the middle, then up toward the smaller, “H” and “21” at the upper right, and then back to the “21” at the left, creating a triangular movement. It is this movement that strengthens the dynamic quality of the page.

From the opening of the catalog on pages 2–3 (lower right), Zwart introduces us to the components of his system: a large, flat yellow circle, a large, thrusting red polygon, and a blue half-toned image. Additionally the design focuses our attention to the layering of transparent red onto blue, highlighting the NKF factory. Therefore the most important color element on this page is not actually a solid color, rather the implied secondary purple hue.

Graphic devices, such as the circle, bracket, and solid line become a visual information vocabulary. While their forms are concrete, they carry an implied meaning of scale and proportion. On pages 56–7 (upper right), one sees two sets of a circle with parenthetical bracket. The proportional relationship between the two sets reflects the scale shift between the two photographs. The text on the page references the highlighted section of cable. These red graphic devices tell the viewer, “this is the important section of the cable, and here is how much I have enlarged it to reveal its details”. This same concept is employed on the next spread, through a new graphic device: a simple linear element. Where the visual forms change, the proportional meaning remains consistent. Zwart’s action of changing form, yet maintaining consistent meaning, increases the viewer’s intellectual engagement with the catalogue. Color continues to play its important formal role by supporting movement across pages 56–9, therefore heightening tension in the compositions. We see a combination of conceptual design tactics on page 60. A red circle overlays a blue halftone image, alluding to the purple area of focus previously seen on pages 2–3. Where an area of color denotes this focus, it is the area’s shape, a circle, that draws the connection to the detailed section at the right. The proportion of scale shift is revealed by the size relationship between the two graphic forms. In this example, the relationship between forms is established only through shape, not color. Zwart has shifted the graphic device again, stimulating the viewer’s mental engagement. He challenges our expectations by shifting the system previously established.


Works referenced

Meggs, Philip B. “Piet Zwart’s NKF Catalog.” In Graphic Design History, edited by Steven Heller and Georgette Balance. New York: Allsworth Press, 2001.

Müller, Fridolin, ed. Piet Zwart. New York: Hastings House Publishers, Inc., 1966.

Piet Zwart: Retrospektive Fotografie. Düsseldorf: Hub. Hoch, 1981.



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