Het boek van PTT – Telegrafie en Telefonie

Cover (illustrates color scheme and style).

Image retrieved from: NCSU Libraries Special Collections

I was initially attracted to Het boek van PTT (The Book of PTT), because of how wonderfully weird it looked. The color scheme is reminiscent of the CMYK basics, and was engaging to me because I have been collaging single, bold colors in contrast with black hand-lettering in my process books recently. While I was handling the text, Virginia Ferris came up to provide information about my selection and told me it was intended as an instructional manual for children to teach them how to use the Dutch Postal service, peaking my interest and finalizing my decision to pursue this book. The idea of creating a manual explaining the postal and telegraph systems to a child is a bizarrely interesting concept, and specifically intriguing to a non-Dutch speaking millennial, like myself.

This Special Collections item did not have any specific tactile feel that stood out to me personally, but was printed on what I perceived to be between a silk or gloss coated paper. Compared to the other books I touched and flipped through, this one was not spectacularly interesting based on its weight, heft, presence, or size. The text is medium sized (about the same as a magazine), thin, and soft-cover bound, but its design attributes shined.

Page 15 demonstrating collaging and CMYK coloring.

Image retrieved from: Het boek van PTT (e-book) Koninklijke Bibliotheek.

The layout of the book is chaotic in nature and looks like a primitive collage on some pages, and a children’s story book on others. It has the feel of a 90’s band poster or a strange ransom note in the way it is assembled, looking like Zwart cut, pasted, and photocopied things together. Even taking into account the context of this book being in a language I cannot read, the layout makes it seem hectic and quite hard to follow. Considering it is intended for children’s use, I find it difficult to understand why there is a complete lack of simplicity. The author incorporates large blocks of text, several images on one page, various different styles, and many overlapping and busy compositions. When dissected though, there are relatable sections, accessible ideas, and magnetic imagery spread throughout.

Page illustrating introduction of toilet paper roll dolls, named ‘The Post’ and ‘J. Self’.

Image retrieved from: Het boek van PTT (e-book) Koninklijke Bibliotheek.

In the parts of the publication that are reminiscent of a story-book, the photos look yellowed, old, and strangely positioned. Zwart sets up dolls to establish characters (which he repeatedly uses throughout the story) and positions them against walls in a classic arrangement. These images look almost like something a child would create themselves in their own room, and are relatable in a playful sense.

The imagery in most parts of the book (including the cover) is disjointed and pieced back together methodically to create things like robotic-looking characters out of toilet paper rolls, only adding to the eccentric feel of the whole work. These collages are colored with cyan, magenta, and yellow, but saturated at different levels, I’m assuming to try to create clear emphasis and hierarchy. I don’t know if this technique is effective in the way it was intended, but it is certainly a main component of what drew me to the style of this publication, and kept me intrigued throughout my exploration.

On other pages (and sometimes on the same pages), envelopes, postage stamps, and handwritten notes are laid in, presumably to provide examples to children on how these things are supposed to look. These images are very clear, and almost jump out as realistic objects on the page. They are exciting in the way they create tactile and personal interest, almost like you could feel the ridges of the handwriting if you tried. Though the imagery changes throughout the publication, it is all purposeful and intended for its strict and peculiar use; the entire manual maintains an imaginative, child-like, and engaging nature.

Het boek van PTT as a whole is inherently quirky and unique. Its graphics, construction, and subject matter all make it important and special enough to collect. Created explicitly for the Dutch National Postal, Telephone and Telegraph Service, the book is extremely rare and there are only three copies that were catalogued in United States Libraries as of 1999.

This publication is valued for several things including its author, design, illustrations, printing quality, and production information. The author is Piet Zwart, a Dutch designer initially trained in architecture who moved on to become renowned in the fields of graphic and eventually industrial design. Zwart is mostly known as being a influencer of modern typography, but was also a well-rounded pioneer in the design world, awarded “Designer of the Century” in 2000 by the Association of Dutch Designers. His ideals are said to have aligned with those of the Bahaus school, and during his earlier years as a designer were considered too radical to be influential. Het boek van PTT was started just two years after Zwart adopted photography and has become one of his most notable and prolific designs because of the way it exemplifies him as a photographer, typographer, and designer as a whole. The connection to Bahaus is obvious in this publication; it boasts a strong simple color palette and distinctively geometric text arrangement, but diverges away from the minimalist favoritism of Bahaus in its complexities.

The work’s design and construction is notable because of its place as a historical piece on several levels. This masterpiece and Zwarts design style, which is evident throughout the publication, recalls inklings of De Stijl, constructivism, and Dada, while maintaining his radicalist, progressive, and playful attitude. The playfulness is not only because of the content and audience of the book, but also seems connected to Zwarts supposed personality. Though I can’t find any solidly cited quotes, much of the information I’ve read describes him as a quirky and innovative person. Later in the construction process of Het boek van PTT, Zwart acquired the help of Dick Elffers, who helped with illustration, and also went on to become a successful Dutch designer.

As far as I can tell, this book is not explicitly mentioned in any other books about the history of printing, but seems connected to the timeline. The book would have been constructed with manual editing techniques and (based on the publisher) using the rotogravure printing process, which was not widespread until the early 20th century. Het boek van PTT was produced shortly after this processes became popularized, enabling it to be dynamic, colorful, and complex. It represents not only an explorative time in printmaking, but an adventurous example for its period.

A book written by Laura Ingalls Wilder in 1932, used for comparison.

Image retrieved from: Little House in the Big Woods (auction) WorthPoint.

Though this work is connected in many different ways with books in Special Collections, and with others designed by Piet Zwart, the relationship that stands out to me is comparing the work to other children’s books at the time. While researching books geared toward youth that were published in the 30’s, most of what I could find was very traditional and novel-like, with limited illustration, and large runs of text. Though the books I looked at were American, they look nothing like Zwart’s work, which puts Het boek van PTT in perspective, and makes it that much more interesting. Comparatively, this work is an absolute contrast and rejection of the time period it is a part of, truly proving its worth as an object that belongs in Special Collections as an example of forward thinking graphic design.


Bibliography of sources:

G, Leigh. “A Brief History of Print Design.” 123RF. 2018. https://blog.123rf.com/history-print-design/.

NCSU Libraries. “ NCSU Library Exhibits Recent Acquisitions in NCSU’s Special Collections, 1999.” NCSU Libraries. 1999. https://www.lib.ncsu.edu/archivedexhibits/newbooks99/.

“Newspaper Pictorials: World War I Rotogravures, 1914 to 1919 – The Rotogravure Process.” Library of Congressn.d. https://www.loc.gov/collections/world-war-i-rotogravures/articles-and-essays/the-rotogravure-process/.

RKDartists. “Dick Elffers.” RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History. 1992. https://rkd.nl/nl/explore/artists/25941.

The J. Paul Getty Trust. “Piet Zwart.” The J. Paul Getty Trust n.d. http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/artists/1361/piet-zwart-dutch-1885-1977/.

Tudor, Sebastian. “Piet Zwart /dutch Design.” Visualinvolved. 2010. https://web.archive.org/web/20110921013623/http://visualinvolved.com/design/piet-zwart-dutch-design/.

Van Capelleveen, Paul. “Piet Zwart and the Child of the PTT.” Koninklijke Bibliotheek . 2013. https://www.kb.nl/blogs/boekkunst-en-geillustreerde-boeken/piet-zwart-en-het-kind-van-de-ptt.

Wilder, Laura  I, and Helen Sewell. Little House in the Big Woods. New York: Harper & Brothers1932. https://www.fadedpage.com/showbook.php?pid=20140841.\

Worth Point. “LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS BY LAURA INGALLS WILDER 1932 HARPER & BROTHERS.” Worth Pointn.d. https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/little-house-big-woods-laura-ingalls-1816046529.

Zwart, Piet, and Dick Elffers. Het Boek van PTT. Nederlands: Nederlandse Rotogravure Mij1938. https://www.delpher.nl/nl/boeken/view?coll=boeken&identifier=MMKB06%3A000006396%3A00012.

Discussion — 2 Responses

  • Rachael Paine 02/24/2019 on 11:42 AM

    So well written and I love the look of this publication. I haven’t seen it before. The third image with the toilet paper roll dolls reminds me of the original Gumby and Pokie. Cool and weird, and sometimes things meant for kids give adults a creepy feeling, like old episodes of Pee Wee’s Playhouse 🙂 I appreciate your analysis of this work and I’m glad you’ve brought this publication to my attention.

    • Allegra Matthews Rachael Paine 02/27/2019 on 9:13 PM

      Thanks! Also, no problem! I thought it was so fun and am happy to have brought it to you attention as well, because it was a joy to look at and analyze.

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