De Stijl Movement, historical Dutch design
2021-05-04 | By Lynette Croxford
While you may not know the name ‘De Stijl’, you might certainly be familiar with the visual language of this artistic movement, especially if you’ve lived in the Netherlands for any amount of time.
The iconic and simple graphic design with blocks of primary colour and straight lines appear in many places all over the country. A number of notable buildings in The Hague were decorated with the look in 2017 for the 100th anniversary of De Stijl’s inception. The art movement, also called Neoplasticism, was founded in 1907 by a group of Dutch abstract artists, including Theo van Doesburg, Gerrit Rietveld and Piet Mondrian.
The name of the movement originated from simply meaning The Style, which was the name of a publi- cation exploring the group’s theories and promoting their innovative ideas, published by van Doesburg. The publication represents the most significant work of graphic design from the movement, and their ideas of reduction of form and colour are major influences on the development of modern graphic design.
The idea of the movement was formed mostly as a reaction to the horrors of World War One and was one of complete simplicity and abstraction, thereby expressing a Utopian notion of harmony and order. By reducing elements to their purest geometric forms and using only primary colours, the designers could establish this harmony through art, pulling society back together as such. Its precision and orderly form heavily contrasted the chaos and disorderliness of the war. The founders viewed it also as a universal visual language much better suited to the modern era.
The members envisioned nothing less than the ideal fusion of form and function, thereby making De Stijl in effect the ultimate style. To this end, De Stijl artists turned their attention not only to fine art media such as painting and sculpture but virtually all other art forms as well, including industrial design, typography, even literature and music. Enduring works of De Stijl are those by Piet Mondrian, who was the most celebrated member of the movement and his work has been displayed all over the world. His simple, abstract style developed from his knowledge of cubism, and created after spending three years in Paris, is well known in the art world and has been adopted in fashion, furniture and architecture.
Architectural icon of De Stijl
The highlight of De Stijl from an architectural point of view is undoubtedly the Rietveld Schröderhuis in Utrecht. Designed in 1924 by Gerrit Rietveld, Dutch architect and member of De Stijl, the home was built as a symbol of a kind of rebellion against conventional homes. Commissioned by Truus Schröder, herself a famous furniture designer, the brief was simple. She wanted a sober and minimal construct for a home that lived and wasn’t just lived in. Something totally different from the homes that were being created at that time.
Rietveld, who had only designed and built furniture up to that point, set about crafting a home with minimal and stark proportions, straight lines and the use of primary colours, as had never before been seen in the Netherlands. His love of simplicity saw him innovate and design quirky but useful additions to the house, such as movable walls and hidden staircases. He was thereby redefining the limits of space, making the house more flexible. Schröder found the flow from outdoors to indoors of utmost importance and Rietveld made the most of this by maximising the views from the top floor over the adjacent countryside. The large corner window upstairs can be opened, as well as the small window perpendicular to it, making the corner disappear, which creates the feeling of actually being outside. The view was so important to Truus Schröder that she bought the neighbouring land when it came up for sale, hoping to safeguard her precious outlook over the fields.
Schröder lived in the house until her death in 1985, after which she left the care and preservation of her beloved home to the Rietveld Schröderhuis Foundation and the Centraal Museum. Gerrit Rietveld also stayed involved and interested in the home he designed and was given a studio space on the ground floor to work on new designs. After his wife passed away in 1957, he moved in with Truus Schröder and lived there until he died in 1964.
The red blue chair
Also on display in the house, The Red Blue Chair, consisting of only 15 slats and two rectangular panels, is one of the first three-dimensional explorations of De Stijl and typifies their simplicity and abstraction themes. Primary colours take centre stage with the seat of the chair lacquered in blue and the back in red. The surfaces of frame slats are yellow and the slats themselves are black, so against the black walls and floors of the house these coloured parts appear to hover.
The first design of the sculptural seat dates back to 1917 with prototypes of the pure and rationalist form coming out in 1918. The original design and several early versions were simply stained wood, and the now-famous painted versions were not produced by Rietveld until 1923.
Calling it a “spatial creation”, closer to a sculpture more than simply a piece of furniture, Gerrit Rietveld appears to have regarded his chair as a work of art. The Red and Blue Chair appeared in the journal De Stijl and made a strong impression when exhibited in a contemporary Bauhaus show.
In 1965, world-renowned designer Yves Saint Laurent, a passionate art collector, designed the Mondrian collection, inspired by the work of Piet Mondrian. At the time the dialogue between art and fashion was particularly strong and Saint Laurent challenged that juncture, taking it further than it had ever gone before. The couture collection consisted of six dresses in deference to the Dutch painter’s linear style. The story goes that the idea struck Saint Laurent after his mother gave him a book about Mondrian for Christmas.
The colour-blocked, geometrical print on wool and jersey dresses seemed like a straightforward idea, but the shift dresses weren’t as simple as they looked. The brilliance of it all was actually in the architecture of the dress itself, colour-blocking moved with the natural lines of the body while also hiding the seams. The dress had a defined silhouette with a cleverly hidden structure dubbed “the dress of tomorrow”.
Although they agreed in the significance of both art forms, and the necessity to reflect the modern world, at the centre of De Stijl there had always been a conflict between painters and architects. Collaborations became more demanding and confrontations arose over the hierarchy of creativity and the control of space. In his studio, Mondrian played with the organisation of cardboard planes of primary colours. He also accepted his theories being revealed in architecture and for a moment the movement looked to be saved, with once again the merger of painting and architecture envisioned by van Doesburg in the Schröder House.
While the artists persisted in their efforts to achieve their vision of a utopian world, it was profoundly an overwhelming task unattainable in reality. The failure to realise the vision led to the ultimate downfall and splitting of the group. In the end, De Stijl dissolved and died with Theo van Doesburg in 1931. None too soon, the age of utopia came to an end.
Click here if you want to read more about Dutch Design.
About the author
Lynette Croxford is a British copywriter and translator living in Delft with her husband and daughters.