Before becoming the father of the most famous rabbit on the planet with Miffy, Hendrik Magdalenus Bruna, known as Dick Bruna, was the son of a Dutch publisher, a rebellious hair, who did not want to "do like Dad". He passed away on February 16, 2017 and we wish to pay tribute to his work as a graphic designer, beyond the simple creation of the minimalist white rabbit. But do you doubt that we won't just talk about little rabbits, even if we like them a lot.
In short, here is a new portrait of our series "the great names of graphic design" !
Over 89 million books sold, translated into 40 languages, and superstar status in Japan and the USA. Miffy's a cute story.
Since we are neither in Japan nor the USA and you have probably never heard of this rabbit, let us start by better introducing you to Miffy.
Nijntje in his native country ("little rabbit" in Dutch, pronounced "nèïntchieu") was born in 1955. Yes, it's a female. A true star on the international scene, she did not change her designer, a mustache well anchored and peaceful in her favorite city, Utrecht, who continued throughout his life to drink his coffee at the corner café and work in his office until his last days.
5 colours, 12 pages, square format: a rolling formula. Attracted by simplicity and minimalism, Dick Bruna was largely inspired by Matisse's work for his solid colours and his simplistic creation (even if it doesn't seem obvious at first glance, we'll talk about it below).
Go for fun, a video of Nijntjie in original version, without subtitles:
Little parenthesis. If you think Miffy looks like Hello Kitty, it's normal, but it's the other way around.
Kitty was born 11 years later, in 1976, when Miffy had already seduced the Nipons. In 2010 there was a trial between the Japanese giant Sanrio and Bruna, annoyed by Kitty and especially the rabbit Cathy, which resulted in the latter's beer. In addition to the pure and hard disappearance of the Cathy rabbit, the 2 parties agreed to each pay 150 000 € not to the court but to the victims of the tsunami of 2011.
We would have seen a book "Miffy prepares a stew (with real pieces of Cathy inside)" but not sure that Bruna was pro-cannibalism. Anyway.
Bruna is as well known as Smith in the US and Durant in France. And for good reason. In 1868 Dick's great-grandfather founded a publishing house -A.W.Bruna & Son- and there was a distributor of Bruna books in every station. Like his great-grandfather and his father, Dick has his destiny mapped out: he will be an editor and a businessman.
Yes, but then the second war breaks out, and his family takes refuge in a house in the Dutch countryside. Without access to school, Bruna spends her time drawing.
Several years later, his father offered him an internship with him. He thus had the opportunity to discover Paris, London and Utrecht (Netherlands), which would become his home town. In Paris, he spent more time in museums and galleries than with his father. From there 2 certainties are born:
1 - Picasso, Léger, Matisse and Braque became his models,
2 - it is not made to be editor.
He now draws his inspiration from Braque's shapes and solids:
Cut-outs and Matisse's lines:
which he mixes with Fernand Léger's primary colours:
In the 1950s, he visited the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, designed entirely by Matisse.
Condensed minimalism going to the essential in the raw forms, cuts and primary colors, it is a real click for Dick Bruna.
A drawing by Dick Bruna in 1953, inspired by Matisse.
But at the time, Miffy had not yet seen the light of day. After the war, in 54, Bruna Editions launched the collection of the Black Bear, a series of thrillers in which Maigret's adventures can be found. The idea is to align prices with the competition's paperback books, and sell lots of books in stations. Dick's trying his hand at cover art.
At the time, books were more of the type to put forward blonde women with strong breasts and the arms of strong and virile men. We are after the war, men are back, and this is the beginning of the female object, sexy symbol now dependent on the "strong sex". We are also preparing an article on the evolution of book cover illustrations, and this period is definitely the most glamorous, but also the most macho.
Some examples of book covers and illustrations from the 50's (see larger by clicking):
The 1950s were still marked by the influence of the Soviet style of the beginning of the century, with symmetry and capital letters, and increasingly by Hollywood which transformed women into victims or devourers of men.
Dick is working on a style very different from what was done at the time. Inspired by Matisse, he cuts simple shapes out of paper of primary colours which he assembles, preferring the happy accidents of shapes linked to the blows of scissors. He also considers the writer's name, his signature or the title of the book as elements in their own right that he juggles on paper, without any real grid or constraints.
(click to see large images)
It was this minimalist style that he would later develop when he created Miffy's adventures. "I'm not an illustrator, I'm more of a graphic artist. I always think in terms of form and try to reduce the elements to the essential."
A bit like Picasso, who worked to simplify his lines as much as possible, Bruna seeks to capture the essence of everyday life; home, flower or grass field.
"If I have to draw an elephant, I go to the zoo to make an elephant sketch, then I remove all the superfluous things, to have only the essence of the elephant. It's like an alphabet or graphic language, the international symbol of the subject... maybe that explains why my work is so popular in Japan."
Picasso's inspiration can be seen in Bruna's work (right) for a "Stop AIDS" campaign.
So inevitably, one would tend to say "I could have done it" or "it looks like children's drawings" yes but, still, one had to think about it at the time, and do it.
In his studio in Utrecht, Bruna went so far as to type the text in the machine and iron the letters one by one to get this handmade texture, and this line an irregular hair. He spent hours thinking about how to create a rabbit with multiple expressions, with only 2 dots and a cross.
He used the colours to the rescue - red, yellow, blue, green, black and white - to accentuate emotions.
"The most important thing is to reduce everything to its very essence. No lines are redundant. Each form appeals to the imagination, and I leave enough space for the reader's imagination. That is the power of simplicity: the art of omission."
To go further: