Few Dutch artists were as self-centred as Piet Zwart. It is recorded that on his deathbed he remarked that even a delegation from the German Democratic Republic had visited him to say their goodbyes. Zwart lost no opportunity to promote himself and his achievements, always concerned to correct those who might have the wrong impression of him. This paranoia was unjustified for his fame was widely recognized and several exhibitions have been dedicated to his work. In particular, the efforts of the design historian Kees Broos have done much to present Zwart's work to a wide audience, drawing on a series of interviews he conducted with the designer. Although his first publication Piet Zwart (1885–1977) (Gemeentemuseum, The Hague 1973) was subject to Zwart's interference, after his death Broos was able to become more critical and objective. The recognition of Zwart was such that he was awarded the title of the most influential designer of the twentieth century by the professional organization of Dutch designers in 2000.
The question of whether Zwart was, in fact, the most important Dutch designer of the twentieth century, has been the point of departure for Yvonne Brentjens's new monograph. Unlike other designers such as Paul Schuitema, the ‘visual organizer’, the industrial designer W.H. Gispen or the towering figure of Gerrit Rietveld, the real significance and value of Zwart has not been established. In a beautifully produced book, Brentjens goes systematically through Zwart's life and charts his struggle to arrive at an objective, scientific and technically perfect design, hence the word Vormingenieur (engineer of form) for the title of the book. She thereby brings the wide spectrum Zwart's designs to the foreground for the first time. The singularity of this work becomes clear but at the same time it becomes evident that he was as much a product of his time as the other masters of the twentieth century. Zwart's battle against all sorts of romanticism in the end turns out to have been driven by romantic forces too, whether they were politically or aesthetically informed. However abstract in form, his work clearly possesses decorative features.
In twenty-two chapters, the lifespan of Zwart is captured and analysed. We see that he followed almost every fashion that he encountered. The expressionistic design of the Amsterdam School marked the beginning of his career. He was a capable, if unnoticed, adapter of this artisan-driven fashion. Soon after he became one of the few fervent promoters of a Viennese-inspired design in the Netherlands. Moser, Hoffmann and others were more or less copied by Zwart, again in a very convincing manner. During the First World War, he came into contact with the members of de Stijl. With Van Doesburg, the contact was not really friendly but with the others such as Huszar, Wils and later Mondrian, he became well acquainted. He even worked for a period in the office of Jan Wils in Voorburg near The Hague introducing a more radical modernist approach. Through this Voorburg connection (many of the artists lived in Voorburg as did Zwart himself), he was introduced to the industrialist C. Bruynzeel for whom Wils designed a factory in Zaandam. Zwart soon superseded Wils and was appointed Bruynzeel's chief designer (although he continued his freelance practice). It is remarkable how Zwart was able to insinuate himself in certain circles, taking over the position of his friends. Wils was, for some time, a correspondent for the newspaper Het Vaderland in The Hague. Zwart took over this role and would publish many reviews in this newspaper in which he both heavily criticized his colleagues and promoted new directions in design. In the 1930s, he designed a kitchen for Bruynzeel that became famous. It was conceived as a perfect ergonometric machine; everything was calculated to take its logical position in correspondence to the function in the housewife's work process.
Politically on the Left, with communist aspirations and affiliations, Zwart demonstrated his righteous and moralistic standards in his vehement discussions of his former employers; he would work for Berlage after his time in Wils’ office. Under the signature P. followed by a black square, he presented his ideas for an objective, de-romanticized architecture even if at that time he was only sporadically employed on the design of buildings. The ideas were fed by what he witnessed abroad. It is his role as a writer that in the book has been taken less into account. Even the bibliography at the end is far from complete.
In the late 1920s, Zwart saw the new light coming from the other side of the Dutch border and immediately recognized the important developments taking place in Germany. He subsequently started following and promoting these new directions. He experimented with typography, photography and other ‘industrialized’ arts. Like many other contemporaries he believed and trusted in the machine as the avant-garde device. He borrowed motifs and perspective from Albert Renger-Patzsch, Max Burchartz and other photographers who are now considered as representatives of the Neue Sachlichkeit. He much admired El Lissitzky and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, even if this admiration was not reciprocated. In 1929, Zwart was invited by Jan Tschichold to be one of the few Dutch contributors to the Fifo-exhibition in Stuttgart. Moholy-Nagy was disappointed by Zwart's contribution, considering some of the work ‘bourgeois’.
As Brentjens skilfully points out, through his influence by and promotion of many national and international trends, Zwart tried to bring the Dutch design standard to a higher level. He pleaded for more and better professional schools and targeted education for designer. In that respect, he played an undoubtedly crucial role in the Dutch design world of the 1930s. It was in this decade that he made many of his most famous works, such as the catalogues and stamps for the PTT (Dutch Postal Services).
The cover of Brentjens' book indicates brilliantly how Zwart saw himself. We see his head, apparently floating, held up only by two hands, and he is clearly deep in thought, someone who has put all his confidence in the rationalization of his art. This self-portrait of 1931 shows Zwart's tormented personality. He believed in the new art, an art that was pushed farther and farther in the direction of a non-signifying abstraction, but at the same time he was convinced that there was still a long way to go and that his work was no more than an intermediate phase. Indeed, as he grew older, figurative elements were introduced in his work and it became more conventional. Although still very active during the Second World War and post-war period, his work then stands in pale contrast to that of earlier periods. It is thus not strange that only a few chapters cover this later period of his oeuvre.
The question of whether Zwart was the leading Dutch designer of the twentieth century remains unanswered by Brentjens, but she does provide an abundance of material to re-evaluate his particular significance. The book raises the question of how important imitation was for artists in the last century. We too often focus only on innovation, on the notion of genius, but Zwart illustrates that a high level of original design can also be achieved by studying carefully, adapting and reworking themes that others have already discovered. This does not diminish his worth but puts it into the context in which he clearly wanted to work, namely that of a progressive artist working for the best of the working classes. When he took over ideas and images from others, he did not only function as a filter but also as an amplifier. In a certain sense without Zwart, Dutch design would not have had the reputation in the applied arts that it had in the last century. Zwart was and remains a key figure in understanding Dutch modernism. Brentjens has not only charted all his enterprises and endeavours but also made him more human. Her book deserves an English translation.