May 4, 2018

Bio-Feedback: The Work of Jan de Swart

Jan de Swart first grabbed my attention at a Sanford Smith Modernism show in the early aughts when Peter Loughrey of LA Modern Auction brought a sampling of his work to New York—LAMA was representing the de Swart estate at the time. I was as unfamiliar with the work as most everyone else but was impressed enough to buy a piece; I’ve been tracking it since. De Swart himself was hardly unrecognized in his day—his work graced the pages of Arts & Architecture magazine beside Claire Falkenstein and Ruth Asawa (among others); while Jules Langsner, writing in Zodiac 5, likened him to John Paxton (of Crystal Palace fame), Robert Maillart, and Felix Candela. And he had a museum retrospective in California in 1986. But with an essentially private body of work, de Swart had slipped out of view.

Jan de Swart, from Craft Horizons, Jan/Feb 1958. Photography by Conrad Brown.

“The rest of man is just waste, but this wonderful thing—originating—is the one permanent thing that man has, and it is the least used…” —Jan de Swart, 1958

Artist, engineer, craftsman, inventor, and philosopher: so is Jan de Swart variously described in a 1958 article in Craft Horizons. Holder of more than 50 patents, de Swart made enough money designing plastic fasteners and other useful objects to indulge his lifelong passion for pure or basic research in design. Seldom exhibiting, he became something of a legend among artist-craftsman, who were familiar with his experiments in color, form, and line, and his exploration of the techniques and properties of new materials, without ever seeing his work in person.

Born in Holland in 1908, de Swart immigrated to America in 1928, winding up in California. His career represents a sustained meditation on the interrelationships of art, science, and technology. He was absorbed, as was Emerson before him, with the creative act itself, with the wellspring of inspiration, which he located in the subconscious, intuitive realm. “Nothing is so ugly,” he noted, “as a self-conscious attempt to discover beauty.” His methods and metaphors were at root organic: “[pure] research is brought about by the force of curiosity, and reveals facts that enable us to approach a problem from within, letting the answer grow toward the greatest possible harmony.” So, too, were his forms, which were often biological in both the biomorphic and molecular senses.

Experimental vase forms in colored plastic, Craft Horizons. Photography by Conrad Brown.

De Swart’s formal explorations were rendered in plastic, wood, and cast cement. He experimented endlessly with wooden shapes that were hand-cut with a power tool. Deemed a wizard with the band saw, and likened to a concert violinist, de Swart produced countless studies for architectural ornament, intended to be integrated directly into the structure of buildings as columns, screens, and panels. Significantly, de Swart worked quickly, tempering his perfect control of the saw with the immediacy and spontaneity of a sketch.

Forms in wood based on microscopic research, Craft Horizons. Photography by Conrad Brown.

To understand de Swart’s work on a deep level, it must literally be looked at through a microscope. His quest for new functional forms led de Swart to the invisible world of molecular biology. Here, he sought nothing less than the essence of structure in nature. Drawing on fundamental principles of organic cell structures, he developed seven man-made structural patterns adaptable to plastic wall panels. These punched, three- dimensional modules confer structural integrity—maximum strength with minimum weight—and, in series, can become a screen or an exterior surface of a wall.

Model for a cast concrete play structure, from Zodiac 5.

Writing in Zodiac 5 in 1957, Jules Langsner grasps the significance of de Swart’s work, and sums up his career admirably. De Swart, Langsner writes, “is a restlessly inquisitive spirit seeking new forms appropriate to the new kind of world taking shape before our eyes.” Langner judges de Swart’s plastic panels to be extremely satisfying as visual forms.

“Here is a mode of ornamentation,” Langsner concludes, “integral to modern concepts of building without nostalgic references to motifs of earlier periods.”

This adaptation of living cells as modular architectural building blocks at once structural and ornamental represents a conceptual breakthrough of stunning elegance and power. I don’t know of too many others—then or now—exploring this avenue of organic design. That de Swart’s work remained largely hidden from view in its day is perhaps apropos. Since his death in 1987, however, his estate has come on the market, and examples of his work are available through Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

Mystery box in various woods, circa 1970. Photography by Larry Weinberg.

Happy to say that this post, originally posted on April 23, 2009, had an immediate impact:  I was contacted by Jan de Swart’s son, Jock, who heeded my suggestion to start developing a website for his father; that site is now the go-to resource for information about this still under-appreciated artist and designer. Unfortunately, Jock passed away a little over a year ago, leaving the de Swart Foundation without its primary champion. For scholars, de Swart’s papers are at the Smithsonian. For collectors, a handful of de Swart pieces can be found on 1stdibs, and the work turns up periodically at auctions such as LAMA, Wright, and Rago. And Dennis Clark, while no longer representing the de Swart estate, still has access to pieces and plans to contribute to further scholarship.

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