Gerrit Rietveld: Pioneer of Modernist Design
Gerrit Rietveld was a Dutch architect and furniture designer associated with the avant-garde movement known as De Stijl (The Style). Influenced by the abstract paintings of Piet Mondrian, Rietveld’s work emphasised pure geometric form and primary colours. Rieveld demonstrated how Mondrian’s abstract style could be translated into three dimensional design objects and architecture. His work helped to formulate many of the principles that became integral to Modernist design of the 1920s and 30s.
Born in Utrecht, Rietveld was the son of a cabinet-maker. He worked with his father from the age of eleven and this experience gave him a thorough grounding in craft skills; he then worked as a draughtsman for a jeweller in Utrecht from 1906 to 1911. Opening his own furniture workshop in 1917, he established himself as a cabinet-maker and attended night-school to study architecture.
Rietveld designed his now-famous Red-Blue chair in 1917. The following year, Rietveld encountered the pioneering work of Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, the principal members of the De Stijl movement. Inspired by the mystical ideas of Theosophy, Mondrian sought an art of pure abstraction. His paintings consisted of black orthogonal grids and flat planes of primary colour. Rietveld joined the De Stijl group in 1918 and painted the chair in primary colours and black, thus transforming it into a three-dimensional realisation of a Mondrian painting. Rietveld’s chair gave powerful expression to the emerging De Stijl aesthetic and remains an icon of Modernist design.
In 1921 Rietveld designed a jewellery shop in Amsterdam, which successfully applied the new aesthetic to architecture and interior design. However, the most complete expression of De Stijl principles is the Schröeder House. In 1924 Rietveld was commissioned to design a private house for Mrs Truus Schröeder in a conventional suburban area of Utrecht. The elevations are fractured into series of planes and lines suspended in space. The Dutch word ‘stijl’ can also mean a post, jamb or support and this is visualised in the form of the building, where the structural supports are emphasised by the use of colour. Such honest expression of structure became a central tenet of Modernist architecture. The emphasis on horizontals and verticals and the restricted colour scheme establish a powerful visual unity between interior and exterior. Internally, the various rooms are separated from each other by loose sliding partitions, which enabled the owner to reconfigure the space. This fluid use of space was described in Van Doesburg’s essay ‘Sixteen Points of a Plastic Architecture’ (1924): ‘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.’