Rare & Beautiful

Dutch Book Design: 1914–1945

From trade catalogues to children’s stories, Dutch graphic designers during the first half of the 20th century produced a memorable body of work that deserves revisiting.

By Peter Kraus April 13, 2021

During the period 1914–45 in Europe, an era encompassing two world wars, a seemingly endless outpouring of avant-garde creativity took place in all aspects of the arts, a significant amount of which was in the form of book design and illustration. It therefore comes as quite a surprise to find that Holland, a country with a great tradition in both the fine arts and book production, should have produced only a handful of books at this time, despite giving birth to a flourishing avant-garde movement in the graphic arts.

Interior pages from Piet Zwart’s promotional catalogue for a cableworks factory, NKF: N.V. Nederlandsche Kabelfabriek Delft (1928), which has become a landmark in graphic design.

The Dutch masterpiece from this period is a trade catalogue, and apart from three important magazines, the bulk of the material produced was done for commercial purposes, and is largely ephemeral in nature—trade catalogues, advertisements, posters, and letterheads—but nevertheless remarkable.

Cover of Wendingen, no. 11, designed by El Lissitzky (1921). The issue, edited by Hendrik Wijdeveld, was devoted to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

The first glimmerings of the avant-garde can be seen in the initial publications created by members of the De Stijl movement, such as Theo van Doesburg’s Klassiek Barok Modern of 1920, with its dramatic black-and-white cover. Another book with an attention-getting cover is the 1927 anthology De Ploeg (The Plough), which showed the work of experimental artists in the group of the same name, and featured text using the distinctive typography of H. N. (Hendrik Nicolaas) Werkman. During World War II when Holland was under Nazi occupation, he set up a clandestine printing house and was murdered by the Gestapo right before the end of the war.

The years 1918 to 1931 saw the publication of the 116 issues of the magazine Wendingen (whose title translates into English as “Turnings” or “Changes”) under the editorship of the architect Hendrik Wijdeveld, who was also responsible for its innovative design and typography. Each issue was monographic and had an original graphic cover, the most celebrated of which was devoted to Frank Lloyd Wright, with a lithographed cover designed by El Lissitzky.

Der Geesten Gemoeting (The Spirits’ Fulfillment) , designed by Hendrik Wijdeveld (1927).

Wijdeveld, like his colleagues, did a lot of commercial work, most notably for the Amsterdam department store De Bijenkorf, but in 1927 he also produced one book, Der Geesten Gemoeting (The Spirits’ Fulfillment), which mixes his avant-garde typography with a certain Art Deco extravagance. One other illustrated book was published in Holland in 1927: Louise “Lou” Loeber’s Gouden Vlinders (Golden Butterflies), a delightful children’s picture book combining elements of Cubism, De Stijl, and the Bauhaus.

Another key Dutch magazine was published in nine issues between 1923 and 1926. This was H. N. Werkman’s The Next Call, a tour de force of inventive typography, ingenious layout, and eye-catching illustration.

The third of the three great Dutch magazines was the architecture magazine De 8 en Opbouw, which came out between 1932 and 1943. Its striking design was mostly the work of Paul Schuitema, whose other work is almost exclusively to be found in the many commercial commissions he received, which ranged from furniture to expositions.

Gouden Vlinders (Golden Butterflies), illustrated by Lou Loeber, with text by S. Franke (1927).

After Wijdeveld, the key Dutch figure of the period is Piet Zwart. Trained as an architect but known mainly as a typographer, industrial designer, and photographer, he also relied on commercial commissions, producing a substantial body of work for various companies as well as for the Dutch government. His masterpiece came out in 1928 in the form of a promotional book for the Dutch cableworks factory NFK. What the recipients made of Zwart’s stunning triumph of typography and layout, so different from traditional advertising at that point, is anyone’s guess. Today it is considered a landmark of avant-garde graphic design. It is also unique in that, unlike all the other books that make up the canon of twentieth-century illustration, it is not as an illustrated work of literature, but rather a straightforward piece of corporate promotion, which, because of the genius of its creator, can be conceived of as a magnificent piece of abstract art.

Het Boek van PTT by Piet Zwart (1938).

Exactly ten years later, Zwart produced Het Boek van PTT for the Dutch post office, a brilliantly imaginative book intended to introduce schoolchildren to the Dutch postal and telegraph system, which cements his place as the key figure in the graphic art in Holland of the period.

Cover of brochure designed by Fré Cohen for Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam (1931).

The other important book by Zwart, which was frequently revised, is the trade catalogue he designed for the Bruynzeel Pencil Company, beginning in 1930. In it he incorporated a thumb index much in the style that Lissitzky employed in his 1923 masterpiece, Dlya Golosa.

A graphic designer whose work should not be overlooked is Fré Cohen, who perished under Nazi occupation. She was extremely prolific, executing exclusively commercial work, the most substantial example being the brochure she designed for Schiphol, Amsterdam’s airport, in 1931.

In 1934, the German designer Gerd Arntz immigrated to Holland and all the way through World War II was responsible for a steady stream of booklets illustrated with “Isotype,” a collection of visual statistics that anticipated the later field of infographics, he had developed in Vienna with the social scientist Otto Neurath. While small in nature, these publications are powerful graphic objects with a substantial aesthetic appeal.

Examples of “Isotype,” designed by Gerd Arntz during the 1930s and ’40s. 

The only noteworthy actual book of the entire period was published in 1941. At just a dozen pages, Het Vlas (The Flax), a story by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by De Stijl artist Bart van der Leck, is truly a small masterpiece.

The fact that the period produced so few major works and that the bulk of what was published is ephemeral has resulted in a certain amount of neglect of the material. However, what there is for the most part visually dramatic and certainly deserves renewed attention.

Het Vlas (The Flax)illustrated by Bart van der Leck, story by Hans Christian Andersen (1941).

For those interested in finding out more about the books highlighted in this article, including questions pertaining to possible acquisition, please contact Peter Kraus at Ursus Books & Gallery: (212) 772-8787 or ursus@ursusbooks.com.

Peter Kraus is the founder and current owner of Ursus Books & Gallery in Manhattan, which offers a comprehensive selection of art reference books, superb copies of rare books in all fields, and decorative prints.

This is the thirteenth installment in a collaboration with Peter highlighting important books from the past.

Previous articles in this series are “The Photo Book in Japan: 1920s–1940s,” “The Artist’s Book in America: The Arion Press in the 20th Century,” “Unusual Book Design for Unusual Times: Revisiting the Work of Iliazd,” “Desert Island Books,” “Architecture and the Illustrated Book,” “The Way It Happened: Modern Art Exhibition Catalogues,” “Matisse as Book Illustrator and Designer,” “Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler: Publishing Artists and Authors in the Early 20th Century,” “Paris and the Artist’s Book in the 1920s and ’30s,”  “Discovering Old Design Books in Japan,” “A Dialogue with Color,” and A Flowering of Creativity: Ladislav Sutnar and F. T. Marinetti.”

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