Louis Kalff, the man who drew the future

In 1966, a UFO lands in Eindhoven: the Evoluon, a brilliant white, disc-shaped structure on twelve V-shaped legs. It embodies the unbridled optimism of the time: man is preparing for a first trip to the moon. If it is possible, anything is possible. Belief in the future is as infinite as the universe itself. The gray years of war and reconstruction are over.

Evoluon is a museum dedicated to technology and science. It shows how much man has already achieved, but it mainly looks to the future, to the discoveries that will be made in the foreseeable future. Of course, it is in Eindhoven, the city of Philips, the world group that makes great inventions. School classes come from all over the country, here the children can smell the world they have to live in.

As the fresh optimism of the 1980s fades, so does the building’s luster. The museum closes in 1988, the spaceship becomes a conference center. But this year, fortunately, it reopened as a museum. And although our vision of the future is now fraught with great anxieties, and the survival of Earth and humanity seems to be in danger, Evoluon still breathes that atmosphere of optimism; we’ll make it – thanks to science.

The inventor and designer of Evoluon would have been happy about that. Engineer Louis Kalff believes in the future like no one else. He has been the trendsetter at Philips throughout his working life. He is a designer, advertiser, architect, artist. In 2006, his biographer Peter van Dam called him ‘Philips’ artistic conscience’.

Hanging lamps designed by Kalff himself and his team.Image Royal Philips NV

Bright ideas

The common thread in his work is illumination, emphatically in the double sense of the word: illumination of a bulb, but also illumination of the mind. The two things, he says, are closely linked. Clear ideas arise in a well-lit room, he believes.

Kalff was born in 1897 in Amsterdam. He is the son of Jan Kalff, editor-in-chief at Ordinary trade magazine. A well-off environment where great attention is paid to art and culture. The parents’ home, a spacious ground floor apartment in Oud-Zuid, is lit by gas and kerosene lamps. In the evening, the street lighting is still switched on manually. But there is electric light on Leidseplein. Little Louis was immediately sold.

In those years, the brothers Gerard and Anton Philips experimented in Eindhoven with bulbs that should be suitable for use in any household. By the time Kalff has completed his studies – the School of Applied Arts in Amsterdam and Architecture in Delft – Philips is well on its way to becoming a global concern. Every day, a quarter of a million lamps are produced in the factories.

Kalff admires that, but he’s less enthusiastic about the company’s announcement. The light bulbs are marketed on posters and in advertisements by figures dressed in traditional costumes. Peasants in clogs, peasant wives in white caps, that has nothing to do with this hyper-modern product, does it?

Full of confidence

As a skilled draftsman, he has already designed various posters for student associations. In 1924, full of confidence, he sends a letter to director Anton Philips, in which he quite brutally states: ‘Philips’ advertising does not have the same status as the company’s greatness and importance’.

He is immediately invited. The big boss immediately likes this 27-year-old, who is bursting with creativity and self-confidence.

Kalff immediately becomes head of the commercial and artistic advertising department. Philips makes only one condition: that Kalff quickly marries his fiancee Johanna Obbes. It is time, says the director.

Kalff starts with the design of what we now call a house style. Until its arrival, the company name will be printed in up to 25 different fonts. Kalff designs the slim letters that can still be found on all products, offices and industrial halls to this day.

His first poster is beautiful: a cat with glowing eyes – advertisement for the headlights of a car. But it’s still a little too poetic; then he shows much more concretely what effect light can have. Dark streets where cars drive safely thanks to strong lighting, romantic terraces above which dangle colored lights, brightly lit shop windows and cozy living rooms.

Poster Duplo car lights, 1925. Image Koninklijke Philips NV

Poster Duplo car lights, 1925.Image Royal Philips NV

Spectacular light shows

Kalff is rapidly expanding its team with skilled designers. He gets busy with other tasks. Philips organizes spectacular light shows at world fairs in Antwerp, Barcelona, ​​​​Paris, Brussels. The festival area lit up in different colors gives people the feeling that they have ended up in a futuristic Fritz Lang film.

To teach other architects to do this, Kalff founded Lysrådgivningen. There he learns that you don’t just hang some bulbs from the ceiling, but that lighting is an integral part of a design. Kalff introduces indirect lighting – by pointing a lamp at a white ceiling or a white wall, the entire room is illuminated.

He was one of the first to realize that the design of a product is as important as its function. ‘The art of showing’, he calls it. Industrial design was not a known concept at the time, but Kalff did it. If Philips also starts making radios, it will give them a fashionable look. The technicians call him a “closet chest of drawers”. Kalff knows better than anyone that the consumer’s eye also wants something. He eagerly uses the new plastic Philite, developed by Philips itself. But his most beautiful radio, the Art Deco vaulted chapel, is simply made of wood.

Prominent on that radio is the famous Philips logo. And yes, it comes from his sleeve too. Kalff does not understand how a radio works, a technician in the company explains to him that sound consists of waves that pass through the ether. Kalff visualizes this with three lines undulating through a starry sky.

Radio Chapel.  Image Royal Philips NV

Radio Chapel.Image Royal Philips NV

Huge ad space

That logo can now be seen on everything Philips makes, including on the packaging. In a very modern way, Kalff sees the boxes that the products come in as an important means of communication: “More than a quarter of a million lamps from the Philips factories go out every day all over the world. The hundreds of thousands of square meters of paper and cardboard in which all these lamps are packed form an enormous advertising space per day, which can be made productive’, he says in 1925 in the trade magazine. The commercial. “This packaging appeals even more to the crowd than the bare appearance of the article, for it has the garb in which it appears to the world as a commodity.” Translate this into modern Dutch and any marketing strategist can make a good impression with this vision.

Kalff is a trained architect, and he also finds time for architecture. He builds and renovates commercial buildings and designs villas for Philips executives. He particularly enjoys a task to build a space observatory in Eindhoven’s urban walking park. The ambitious plan comes from the local Meteorological and Astronomical Circle, which has approached Philips for funding.

As was the custom at the time, the company immediately withdraws its wallet. A telescope is being assembled at the Philips factories, Kalff finds it a wonderful challenge to design the tower with a rotating dome from which amateur astronomers can look at the universe from 1938 onwards.

Then the light goes out

Then it will be war and the lights will go out in Europe. The Philips company continues to operate under German authority. There is little room for Kalff’s visions and creativity in the war production. The factories are heavily bombed. First by the Allies and after the liberation of Eindhoven, in September 1944, by the Germans.

As if he wasn’t already, Kalff is appointed General Art Director in 1946. Under his supervision, the shavers, record players, vacuum cleaners and lamps are designed, ‘calved’, as it is described inside. Kalff is a driving force behind the establishment of the Academy for Industrial Design in Eindhoven, the later so-famous Design Academy.

In 1958, Philips does everything to make an indelible impression at the Brussels World Fair, the first since the Second World War. Kalff gets a free hand. He doesn’t just want to show the company’s latest inventions, he wants to show what the technology is capable of in an architectural work of art with images and music. And he knows exactly who he wants to ask for it: the world-famous French architect Le Corbusier.

Together they involve the composer Edgard Varèse in the project. He is allowed to work for seven months in the Philips Physics Laboratory on his electronic composition, where the distorted voice of opera diva Cristina Deutekom can also be heard. Architect Iannis Xenakis designs a futuristic structure of ‘hyperscales’, pointed concrete shells that must provide perfect acoustics. Meanwhile, Le Corbusier gets involved in the interior and compiles a cartoon.

Le Corbusier names gesamtkunstwerk Poem Electronics. Technically, it requires a lot, perhaps too much. It is not possible to synchronize picture and sound. The one and a half million visitors never get to see quite the same performance. But no one cares, the reactions are overwhelmingly positive.

Prince Bernhard and Frits Philips at the opening of Evoluon in Eindhoven on 24 September 1966. Image ANP

Prince Bernhard and Frits Philips at the opening of Evoluon in Eindhoven on 24 September 1966.Picture ANP

Maybe not a UFO after all

Two years later, Kalff retires, but continues to work as a consultant for Philips. And so, six years later, his life’s work came to fruition. He designed the Evoluon together with the Eindhoven architect Leo de Bever. The museum must provide answers to future questions that concern him. “What are we going to do with the insecticides, the hormones, the nuclear power?” He wants to teach the visitor that science can always be used ‘for good or for bad’. Kalff dies in 1976.

The discus shape, it might not be inspired by a flying saucer. Kalff described it this way: ‘It’s a lens that aims to paint a sharp picture of the evolution that people and technology are going through at an ever faster pace’. We need it at least as much now as we did in 1966.


Many designs by Louis Kalff can be seen at the Philips Museum in Eindhoven. The current exhibition Eye catching, about Philips advertising posters, also shows much of his work. until 31/3. See philips-museum.com

Also read:

How we can learn to love the future again

Koert van Mensvoort – philosopher, artist and optimist – takes on the role of a 128-year-old who has already seen a lot of the future ahead. He has ten tips for facing that future without fear.

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