Portrait of Gerrit Thomas Rietveld in 1963 in Utrecht, image courtesy of the Utrecht Archive.
Dons of Design
Gerritt Thomas Rietveld
We look at the lasting legacy of Dutch designer and architect Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, whose talent for making tangible objects out of abstract ideas left an indelible mark on design culture.
Reading around the subject of Gerrit Thomas Rietveld and the De Stijl movement he is so closely associated with, what really stands out today; around one hundred years on, is how the atmosphere in which they worked was so politically and philosophically charged.
Crate table design, 1934, Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, image courtesy of the Centraal Museum Utrecht, image credit Ernst Moritz.
Crate chair design, 1934, Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, image courtesy of the Centraal Museum Utrecht, image credit Axel Funke.
Rietveld and his contemporaries, whether in the De Stijl movement in the Netherlands, or over at the Bauhaus in Germany, were making art and design that was motivated not just by the desire to make a nice chair, a pleasing reading light, or a beautiful painting, but by the notion that these objects had the potential to change society and culture, and to elevate the living experience of those that used them. Rietveld, by the age of forty, with a relatively small number of objects and one incredible house, had somehow managed to bring the ideas of the group to life, in such a lucid way, that the reverberations are still felt today.
Model children's wheelbarrow, 1923, Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, Image Courtesy of the Centraal Museum Utrecht.
The son of a cabinet-maker, Gerrit Thomas Rietveld was born in Utrecht in the Netherlands in 1888. After taking an apprenticeship in his father’s workshop as a teenager, he went on to train first as a draughtsman at a goldsmiths workshop, and then attended architecture drawing classes in the evenings. He also taught himself to paint, make models and was an active member of the Kunstliefde art association, one of the oldest in the Netherlands. In 1917, he established his own cabinet-making business in Utrecht, and a year later was introduced to the De Stijl (meaning “The Style”) group, a movement centred around a magazine of the same name, and led by artists including Theo van Doesburg, Piet Mondrain, Vilmos Huszár and the architects J.J.P Oud and Rob van t’Hoff.
"The equation of geometric forms with machine production, seen as a means of extending harmony throughout the visible environment, lent a strong social-utopian emphasis to their theories."
John Heskett on the De Stijl group, from Industrial Design, Thames & Hudson, 1984.
The group ideas were based “on an idealist philosophy that sought an art embodying a new vision of modern life”, explains John Heskett in his Thames and Hudson book on Industrial Design. Influenced by ideas about the mathematical order of the universe, the group focused on formal compositions of horizontal and vertical lines, and worked only with primary colours. Heskett asserts that “The equation of geometric forms with machine production, seen as a means of extending harmony throughout the visible environment, lent a strong social-utopian emphasis to their theories.” Rietveld was very taken with the ideas of the group, and became one of the first members. He soon designed a number of objects based on the theories of the group, which were also known, through Mondrian’s ideas, as Neo-Plasticism.
Rietveld drawing featuring the Zig Zag chair and Crate chair. Image courtesy of the Centraal Museum Utrecht and Pictoright Amsterdam.
With a keen interest in production methods, standardisation, and the ideas around modern manufacturing, Rietveld had already been creating chair and furniture designs that he hoped would be mass produced; they also happened to fit well with the idea of the De Stijl group. His High Chair for a child, first created in 1915, and his unpainted version of the famous Red/Blue Chair, from 1917-18, were stripped back utilitarian objects of great beauty and elegant construction. He first painted a version of the Red/Blue chair in accordance with the group’s colour theories in 1921 or 1923, depending on what source you read. A painted version of the chair was included in an exhibition at the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1923, and published in the De Stijl magazine in the same year. It was hugely influential then, and has remained so for over a century. As Heskett puts it: “It was a fundamental structural redefinition of the chair, without precedent.” It has remained a kind of motif for the modern movement, and is probably one of the few chairs that is recognised the world over.
"A fundamental structural redefinition of the chair, without precedent."
John Heskett on the Red / Blue chair, from Industrial Design, Thames & Hudson, 1984.
Red Blue chair at the Rietveld Schroder House, with matching overshoes. Image courtesy of Rob Oo on Flickr.
Following on from this, Rietveld continued to experiment with furniture designs based on the theories of the group, while in 1921 he also began a fruitful collaboration with the socialite and interior decorator Truus Schröder-Schräder. They worked on the development and build of a house in Utrecht, which was completed in 1924 and became known as the Rietveld-Schröder House. Much like the Red/Blue chair, the house is “the programmatic expression of De Stijl.” As detailed in the entry on Rietveld in the Encyclopedia of 20th Century Architecture by Thames and Hudson. “Here the use of a lightweight steel skeleton made possible a flexible, continuous interior space without enclosed rooms, and even the boundaries between inner and outer spaces are minimised.”
"This is a house which is both highly artistic and unconventional, yet intensely intimate."
Tim Benton, in The Modern Home, 2006.
Designed for Mrs Schröder and her three children, the house is both a sculptural masterpiece and a resolutely functional environment to live in. Tim Benton in his book The Modernist Home sums up the essential duality of the house perfectly. “Here, everything has its place, from toys and clothes to the film projector which could be wheeled out to provide proper Modernist entertainment and instruction. Countless small details show the attention paid by the client and architect to using the space to best effect. This is a house which is both highly artistic and unconventional, yet intensely intimate.”
Crate chair at the Rietveld-Schröder House, HAY x Rietveld, images courtesy of HAY.
Rietveld would go on to collaborate with Truus Schröder-Schräder on a number of other architectural projects, including houses in the Erasmuslaan in Utrecht in 1934, and on the Vreeburg Cinema in Utrecht in 1936. He would also design a number of significant buildings in the post-World War II period, including the Netherlands Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1954, the sculpture pavilion in the Sonsbeek Park in Arnhem in 1954, and the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh in Amsterdam in 1963.
Sonsbeek Park Pavilion, 1965, Thomas Rietveld, image courtesy of --V on Flickr.
Despite the extraordinary Rietveld-Schröder House, it is Rietveld’s furniture designs that have proved most influential. His curvaceous Beugelstoel chair from 1927, reveals a nice interplay between himself and Marcel Breuer in their choice of materials, while his Zig-Zag chair from 1932 saw him return to simple wooden construction methods.
Beugelstoel, 1927, Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, images courtest of the Centraal Museum, Utrecht, image credit Axel Funke.
The Crate chair and table from 1934, which was re-issued in early 2023 by Danish brand HAY, continued the theme of simplicity in materials and construction. The Crate chair was first intended for weekend or holiday homes and was seen as a direct response to the economic slump that affected Europe in the 1930s. Its re-appearance nearly a century later, albeit in more vibrant colours, is testament to the enduring appeal of designs that are coherent, fit for purpose, and easy to make.
Rietveld was a true pioneer of the modern movement, a kind of creative polymath, whose ability to bring complex ideas to life in tangible objects and buildings left an indelible mark, one that is likely to be referenced for many years to come.