Cat on a silken thread

My Swiss friend Guido Seiler (now professing linguistics in the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München) just sent me the latest news from the Zwicky thread company, a firm I’ve posted about several times on this blog, partly because it’s a Zwicky company and partly because of this famous 1950 ad poster by Donald Brun:


Earlier on this blog:

on 3/3/10 “Zwicky and the Cat Museum”, with the Brun poster:   “This is not a poster of a cat named Zwicky … but a poster advertising the Zwicky thread firm … The cat is wielding a spool [or bobbin] of silk thread (soie á coudre, literally ‘silk for sewing’).’

on 3/20/11 “Zwicky-cat in NYC”, the poster on display at the Chisholm Gallery

And now to the Zwicky site, northeast of Zürich (near Wallisellen):

(#2) Dabei sein, wenn Neues entsteht

Auf dem Areal der traditionsreichen ehemaligen Seidenzwirnerei Zwicky & Co. AG entsteht in mehreren Etappen ein neues lebendiges und urbanes Quartier mit vielfältigem Wohn- und Arbeitsraum.

Bautätigkeit auf dem Areal: Entwicklung

Vermietung: Wir vermieten neue Wohnungen und Gewerberäume in den ehemaligen Industriegebäuden…

Immobilienverwaltung: Die Zwicky & Co. AG verwaltet auch Ihre Immobilie…

Be there when new things arise! No longer just a respected silk thread factory (Seidenzwirnerei), but now also a construction and realty firm. But the logo preserves the Brun cat with its spool of silk thread.

Meanwhile, the revamped company has produced another symbol, the Zwicky smokestack with its crowning rainbow band. Unquestionably phallic (complete with a flaming head), but surely not intended as an lgbt symbol; instead, it’s a symbol of diversity (Vielfältigkeit; note “mit vielfältigem Wohn- und Arbeitsraum” above). Still, I’m tempted to adopt the smokestack as a personal symbol (though I note that it’s missing the crucial purple / violet color band):

(#3) Zwicky sein Schwanz

To come: notes on Donald Brun and his animal and bird ads; on Seidenzwirnerei ‘silk thread factory’ ( Seiden-Zwirn-er ‘silk-threader’ + abstract nominalizer –ei) and the suffix combination –erei; and on the significance of rainbows.

Donald Brun. My current practice is to categorize commercial art, graphic design, illustration, graphic propaganda, folk art, outsider art, and erotic art of all sorts (including the frankly pornographic), along with religious art and commissioned portraiture as art, period, even though much of this material serves functions outside pure artistic expression and is produced outside the Art Establishment. So Donald Brun’s work is definitely art, and worth attending to, despite the modesty of his ambitions.

A characteristically Swiss-modest sketch of Brun’s life and work from the Artfiche site (“The leading art gallery for Swiss poster design”):

Donald Brun was born in 1909 in Basel and died in Clarens in 1999. After his apprenticeship as a publicity illustrator, he attended several art classes in Basel and Berlin. From 1933 he worked as a freelance artist for many important companies in Switzerland. He was a founding member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI).
Donald Brun designed a large number of remarkable posters, mainly for consumer goods. He gained a reputation as one of the most successful graphic designers in Switzerland: his posters are outstanding in terms of brilliance of colour, displaying subtle humour and solid craftsmanship.
Donald Brun never restricted himself to a single style: his creativity required freedom from fixed rules. However, he always brought across the advertising message intended by his clients with great professionalism.

Though many of his posters featured human subjects, his specialty was animals and birds — playful and funny, but with enough expression of character to steer clear of Disneyoid or Japanese-kawaii cuteness, while of course keeping the product front and center. After the Zwicky cat, my favorite is the marmot [misidentified as a beaver in my original posting; see comments] touting the Alpine ski resort of Davos:

(#4) Poster marmot poster

Then, in no particular order, a dog, a toucan, a bull, and a frog:





Seidenzwirnerei and other –er-ei nouns. The complex suffix — agentive –er plus abstract nominalizer –ei — seems to be fairly productive as the name of a shop or factory having to do with an occupation denoted by a stem plus the agentive suffix: Fleischerei / Metzgerei ‘butcher shop’ (Fleischer / Metzger ‘butcher’), Bäckerei ‘bakery’ (Bäcker ‘baker’), Brauerei ‘brewery’ (Brauer ‘brewer’).

But there are also many –er-ei nouns in which the –ei is simply an abstract nominalizer, and most of these have connotations that are either silly (Küsserei ‘kissfest, smoochfest’, Liebhaberei ‘hobby’) or unsavory (Seeräuberei ‘piracy’, Zauberei ‘witchcraft, wizardry’,  Arschkriecherei ‘ass-kissing’, Schweinerei ‘mess, filth’,  Schwärmerei ‘enthusiasm, fanaticism, rapture’, Ketzerei ‘heresy’).

Seidenzwirnerei fits in with the first set of –er-ei nouns, but with the added complexity of Seiden ‘silk’. Otherwise, it’s: the noun Zwirn ‘thread’; the occupation noun Zwirner ‘threadmaker, spinner’; and the workshop noun Zwirnerei ‘thread factory’.

I wasn’t familiar with Zwirn ‘thread’ (the ‘thread’ noun I knew was Faden), so Zwirnerei and Seidenzwirnerei struck me at first as having an unserious or unsavory connotation, but the Zwicky firm seems to have had no such thing in mind.

Rainbows. A rainbow is a meteorological phenomenon and as such has no meaning for human life. But human beings are inclined to find all sorts of meanings in natural phenomena (in some systems of thought, everything that happens happens for a purpose and has a deeper meaning): rainbows evoke feelings of surprise and delight and judgments of beauty; they look like bridges; they can be seen as indications that a rainstorm is almost over and thus serve as a symbol of a new beginning; the range of hues in the rainbow can serve as a symbol of diversity and variety; and so on.

In addition, human beings will interpret the continuous spectrum of colors in a rainbow as bands of discrete colors. This interpretation gets carried over in representations of rainbows as (5 to 8) discrete bands of colors, representations that are themselves invested with meanings by users.

These representations are visual symbols, with meanings supplied at first by their creators — but, like all symbols, their meanings are constantly in negotiation by their users and so are subject to change over time and to variation from one social context to another.

In consequence, there can be contestation over the use of rainbow symbols of various kinds. The rainbow Pride flag, for example, was intended as a symbol of diversity and inclusion, but has come to be viewed (for good reason) by some lgbt people as symbolizing the exclusion of significant lgbt subcommunities. I’ll take up this case in some detail in another posting.

Then there’s the fact that in some systems of thought — in particular, in Protestant fundamentalism — this multiplicity of interpretation is flatly denied: there is one true interpretation, and it’s given by the Bible. So it is that you can find many fundamentalist sites that claim that lgbt people have stolen the rainbow for their own ungodly purposes.

From Answers Magazine, in “Taking Back the Rainbow” by Ken Ham on 3/27/07 (I’ve boldfaced some passages for emphasis):

[Beautiful rainbows] remind me of my parents’ teaching of what the Bible says about God’s purpose in giving us the rainbow.

From my childhood days as a lad in Australia to my travels today as a speaker with Answers in Genesis, I’ve seen scores — probably hundreds — of these amazing multicolored arches. Whether seen from the back seat of the family station wagon as it bounced down a dirt road in rural Queensland, or the window seat of a jetliner flying over a storm below, these beautiful bows remind me of my parents’ teaching of what the Bible says about God’s purpose in giving us the rainbow.

Twisted Truth

Rainbows have come to be identified as symbolic of three basic concepts:

Promises — The Bible in Genesis 9 records God’s promise to Noah that He would never again destroy all flesh with a global flood.

Creation — Folklore and regional legends position the rainbow a bit differently. For example, Australian Aborigine and American Indian legends link it to creation events, and the Chinese have a legend concerning the rainbow and the creation of their first emperor Fohi.

Bridges — The rainbow has also been used to represent a bridge from earth (from humans) to a brighter, happier place. For instance, Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” represents connecting to a happier place. The New Age religious movement also uses the rainbow as a bridge.

The rainbow has been used as a sign of a new era and a symbol of peace, love, and freedom. Sadly, the colors of the rainbow are even used on a flag for the gay and lesbian movement.

A Biblical Covenant of Grace

However, the true meaning of the rainbow is revealed in Genesis 9:12–15:

This is the sign of the covenant which I make between Me and you, and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. It shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud; and I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh (NKJV).

Back to the rainbow at the top of the Zwicky smokestack: this would appear to be constructed from the three primary colors of pigments, red, yellow, and blue, with the two transitional secondary colors orange and green interposed (orange between red and yellow, green between yellow and blue). If you’re inclined to Christian symbolism, you can then see this flag as symbolizing the Last Days, which will end either in fire (red at one end) or in flood (blue at the other) — well, since we had the flood last time (with Noah), it will be, as James Baldwin wrote in 1963, The Fire Next Time.


One Response to “Cat on a silken thread”

  1. Emery Snyder Says:

    I think that poster depicts not a beaver, but a marmot. As I learned a few weeks ago in this exhibit:,
    marmots are often used as a symbol of Grisons/Graubünden, and they are suprisingly popular in the Confederatio Helvetica, e.g.:

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