The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Dick Bruna 1927-2017

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Dutch illustrator and designer Dick Bruna died last week, aged 89. Much of the coverage has focused on Miffy, the picture book rabbit he created in the 1950’s, but as The Guardian obituary notes, he was also well known as a book cover designer:

Bruna was born in Utrecht, the son of Johanna Erdbrink and Albert Bruna, and the intention was that he should join the family publishing firm, AW Bruna & Zoon. But Bruna, having been sent to Paris and London to learn about publishing and bookselling, including a brief spell working for WH Smith, opted instead to train as a graphic designer. He had been a keen artist throughout his childhood, especially during the second world war years, when his family lived in the Dutch countryside and he did not go to school, educating himself instead by studying the art of Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

He studied briefly at art school in Amsterdam for six months before leaving to join the family firm in 1951. There he worked as a designer and illustrator, creating more than 100 posters and 2,000 book jackets, including, most famously and distinctively, the covers for Georges Simenon’s Maigret titles in the 1960s, with a black pipe superimposed on a variety of backgrounds.

And as obituary in New York Times makes clear, the flat minimalism of Miffy and his design work is very much part of a graphic tradition in Dutch art and design:  

Mr. Bruna never became the fine artist he had originally wanted to be, but his work has nevertheless been recognized as part of the Dutch canon of art and design.

“Bruna very much continues a Dutch tradition which we call the ‘klare lijn’ — you could translate it as the clear line, or you could just call it simplicity,” said Taco Dibbits, director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which in 2015 organized an exhibition devoted to a half-century of Mr. Bruna’s art and graphic designs. “You see that’s he’s part of a tradition going from Pieter Saenredam through Vermeer to Mondrian.”

During his time in Paris, Mr. Bruna was influenced by the bold lines and two-dimensionality of Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger, Mr. Dibbits said. He also used primary colors and clear lines favored by members of the Dutch de Stijl movement, a pared-down, abstract aesthetic heralded by artists like Mondrian and the designer Gerrit Rietveld.

“He eliminates anything that’s not essential from the face of this little rabbit until it’s really reduced to the absolute minimum,” Mr. Dibbits said. “And he does the same for the text of his children’s books. He uses a language that’s not simple or stupid, but he reduces to the bare essentials.”

You can find an incredible collection of Bruna’s book covers (over 3,000 of them!) here (via Present & Correct). I’m particularly fond of his De Schaduw covers for Havank:

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