De Stijl: Mondrian and His Influence
De Stijl was a radical movement in art and design, which can be understood as the Dutch version of Modernism. Modernism was not a monolithic entity. Each of the major European countries produced their own version: Germany had the Bauhaus; France had Le Corbusier; and Russia had Constructivism. The Dutch version was known as De Stijl, which is Dutch for ‘the style.’
The De Stijl movement actually began before the Bauhaus. It was founded in 1917 by the painter and critic Theo Van Doesburg (1883–1931). Holland was neutral during the war, which meant that Dutch artists could not leave the country after 1914. They were isolated from the international art world, particularly from Paris. In response, Van Doesburg set up a new art movement to ensure that Dutch art continued to progress. Van Doesburg had a flamboyant personality and was adept at gaining support. A number of radical artists gravitated towards him.
The artist Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) was a member of the De Stijl movement and his work was a crucial influence. He produced a series of paintings composed entirely of a white background, grid pattern and primary colours. These became the key elements of De Stijl design.
Van Doesburg met Mondrian at an exhibition in the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum. Mondrian had moved to Paris in 1912, but became trapped in Holland when the war broke out. Van Doesburg also knew the architect J.J.P. Oud (1890–1963) and the Hungarian artist Vilmos Huszàr (1884–1960). In 1917, they founded the De Stijl group. A young architect called Gerrit Rietveld (1888–1964) joined in 1918. The principal members of the group were the painters Piet Mondrian, Vilmos Huszàr and Bart van der Leck (1876–1958), and the architects Gerrit Rietveld, Robert van ‘t Hoff (1887–1979) and J.J.P. Oud.
The movement revolved around a magazine called De Stijl, which was first published in 1917. The title came to be used for the movement itself. Van Doesburg was a writer as well as a painter, and he used the journal to propagate the group’s theories.
Where did the theory come from? De Stijl was inspired by a school of thought known as Theosophy. An eccentric mathematician called M.H.J. Schoenmaekers devised a mystical philosophy about ideal geometric form. This was a Neo-Platonic philosophy – it was influenced by the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato. Schoenmaekers believed in the beauty of pure geometry. Geometric forms never change and exist beyond physical reality in what Plato called the ‘world of ideas’. Schoenmaekers published The New Image of the World (1915) and Principles of Plastic Mathematics (1916). These publications had a great influence on members of De Stijl.
From Schoenmaekers’s work, the group developed an artistic philosophy known as Neo-Plasticism - the new plastic art (Nieuwe Beelding). The term was coined by Mondrian in 1917 and articulated in twelve articles called Neo-Plasticism in Painting. They were published in the journal De Stijl. In 1920, Mondrian published a book entitled Le Neo-Plasticisme. In one of the essays, ‘Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art’, Mondrian defined the new aesthetic:
This new plastic idea will ignore the particulars of appearance, that is to say, natural form and colour. On the contrary, it should find its expression in the abstraction of form and colour, that is to say, in the straight line and the clearly defined primary colour. [This art allows] only primary colours and non-colours, only squares and rectangles, only straight and horizontal or vertical line.
De Stijl was not trying to imitate nature. Instead, it tried to achieve pure abstraction by reducing everything down to its essential form. They only used straight lines and rectangular forms. The colour palette was reduced to primary colours, plus black and white. They avoided symmetry and achieved aesthetic balance by the use of opposition. De Stijl can be interpreted as a Modernist movement because it tried to achieve ultimate simplicity and abstraction. De Stijl expressed a utopian ideal of spiritual order by using pure geometric form. The members decided that primary colours represented formal purity, so De Stijl used colour extensively, meaning that it’s more sympathetic than most Modernist design.
The designer Gerrit Rietveld translated Mondrian’s experiments into three dimensions. This is his experimental Red-Blue chair (1917), constructed from sheets of plywood screwed together and painted. It’s the most famous piece ever produced by the movement. The chair is essentially a three-dimensional version of a Mondrian painting, composed of flat planes of colour. You can see that De Stijl was inspired by mathematics: this looks as if lines of force and planes have coalesced in space. The ends are painted yellow to emphasise the sense of vectors shooting off into infinity.
Rietveld’s chair was one of the first expressions of the new aesthetic. However, practicality was somewhat lacking because it’s said to be incredibly uncomfortable. This is the clearest case of design being influenced by fine art that I know of. Surprisingly, however, Mondrian and Rietveld never met in person. The members of the group knew each other, but most of the communication took place by letter.
De Stijl tried to create the ultimate design object that would reflect the universality and perfection of simple geometric forms. This is a table by Rieveld. It consists of a circle, two rectangles and a square.
In many of the group’s three-dimensional works, horizontal and vertical lines are positioned in separate planes that do not intersect. This means that each element exists independently; it is not unobstructed by the other elements.
De Stijl produced few architectural structures. Rietveld was commissioned to design a private house for Mrs Truus Schröeder. This came to be known as the Schröeder House. It was an incredibly radical house built in a conventional suburban area of Utrecht. This uses the same principle of reducing objects down to their underlying geometry in order to discover their essential form.
Rietveld designed the whole building and all the furniture and fittings. The emphasis on horizontals and verticals and the restricted colour scheme give a visual unity to the interior and exterior. You can see that De Stijl has been extrapolated from Mondrian’s two-dimensional images, through Rietveld’s three-dimensional furniture, to an all-encompassing environment.
Again it’s an ensemble of interlocking planes and lines held in balance. The facade is fractured into a series of planes and lines which seem to be suspended in space. The balconies emphasise this sense of detached, free-floating planes. Like Rietveld’s Red and Blue Chair, each component has its own colour: colour is used to articulate the rhythm of the facades.
Modernism stated that a building should reveal its structure, and that’s true here. The construction is clearly expressed in the structural supports, all emphasised by the use of colour. The Dutch word ‘stijl’ actually has a second meaning: it can mean a post, jamb or support. This is visualised in the form of the building because the structural supports are always clearly visible and emphasised with colour. De Stijl furniture also makes the construction visible.
The interior was designed to be a flexible space. The various rooms are separated from each other by loose sliding walls, which enabled the owner to change the layout. Allowing the user to reconfigure the space was unusual for Modernism. It was usually very prescriptive and even tyrannical. This seems more humane and sympathetic than the austere Modernism of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus. Rietveld was inspired by Japanese design and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The sliding partitions are derived from Japanese interiors, and the idea of free-flowing space comes from Frank Lloyd Wright’s work.
This exciting use of space was described in Van Doesburg’s essay ‘Sixteen Points of a Plastic Architecture’ (1924), in which he writes:
The new architecture is anti-cubic, that is to say, it does not try to freeze the different functional space-cells in one closed cube. Rather it throws the functional space cells (as well as overhanging planes, balcony, volumes etc.) centrifugally from the core.’
Rietveld’s design fulfils this requirement. The upper floor was designed to be flexible, with the rooms arranged around a stairwell and sliding partitions to close off rooms, or allow free circulation if left open.
The living room is a fluid internal space. The house had a central stairwell and large windows to reduce boundaries to a minimum. The joints extend beyond their point of contact, again emphasising the construction. You can see the divisions in the floor, which show where sliding partitions could be used to separate living and sleeping areas.
How does this differ from a Bauhaus interior? Many people found Bauhaus design too cold and clinical. De Stijl uses colour more frequently, which makes it more sympathetic. The use of space is less dictatorial than the Bauhaus. The moveable partitions mean that the owner can reconfigure the space according to their needs. So De Stijl is much more generous in spirit than conventional Modernism. Bauhaus interiors tended to make people live a certain way.
The De Stijl movement produced little actual design. Nevertheless, De Stijl has been influential. It influenced the Bauhaus, which was founded in 1919, two years after De Stijl group. De Stijl encouraged Bauhaus designers to move away from their early Expressionist aesthetic, to pure geometrical simplicity. Kandinsky taught colour theory at the Bauhaus, and believed that geometric forms corresponded to primary colours.
The White Stripes released an album called De Stijl, which evokes the style on the cover. The White Stripes have a strong sense of visual design. Like De Stijl, they use a restricted range of colours – in their case red, white and black. The sleeve notes of this album include photos of De Stijl furniture.
The aesthetic is so simple that it is easy to emulate, and some of the influences are surprising. Nike released Mondrian-style trainers, using the basic elements of his work.
The influence spread to fashion. This is a De Stijl dress.
This is a De Stijl swimsuit by Sarah Schofield.
The aesthetic has even reached the digital realm. A designer called Sledge Roffo has created a virtual De Stijl space in Second Life.
Modernism tried to simplify design, to reduce it down to its essential form. In the postmodern period – the 1970s onwards – our visual landscape is becoming cluttered again. The rise of new media gives everyone the space and the tools to create ‘design’, even though they may not have the talent. For example, social media allow people to create their own profiles and personalise them. Very often these profiles are cluttered and uncoordinated, because they’re designed without any visual intelligence. There is a sense that we’re all designers now. We have the technology, if not always the talent.
The graphic designer Jessica Helfand has argued that De Stijl offers a solution. She published an article entitled ‘Geometry is Never Wrong’. Geometry consists of a series of unchanging, fundamental mathematical forms; they are pure and ideal. Again, this echoes the ideas of Plato. Helfand argues that De Stijl and its use of geometry and the grid offers a solution to the visual clutter that surrounds us.
In conclusion, De Stijl was the Dutch version of Modernism. The artistic philosophy that formed the basis of the group’s work was neoplasticism. Proponents of De Stijl advocated pure abstraction and universality by reducing design down to its essential form. They did this by using only straight lines and rectangular forms, and primary colours.
Helfand, J. ‘De Stijl, New Media, and the Lessons of Geometry.’
Overy, P. (1969). De Stijl. London: Studio Vista.
Van Doesburg, T. (1924). ‘Towards a plastic architecture’ in De Stijl, XII, 6/7.
White, M. (2003) De Stijl and Dutch Modernism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.