For members of the De Stijl design movement, achieving the perfect combination of style and function was their whole raison d’être. They become a powerful ancestor of modernism in furniture design – what was it about their ideas and their products that had such a lasting influence?
First things first. What was ‘De Stijl’?
It’s Dutch for ‘the style’ and the name of a radical minimalist art movement founded in The Netherlands in 1917. Co-founder Piet Mondrian was probably its most famous member, but others include its other co-founder Theo van Doesburg, Gerrit Rietveld, Vilmus Huszar, J. J. P. Oud and Bart van der Leck.
Much of our modern love of open-plan living and geometric furniture comes straight out of the experiments of De Stijl. It was highly influential in furniture design, architecture, painting, sculpture and even literature – which is as well, because they advocated close collaboration between all art forms – and it inspired many well-known 20th century designers, including Miles van der Rohe.
What’s Mondrian got to do with furniture?
De Stijl furniture looks like a Mondrian painting in three dimensions. If you know the famous paintings – the grids of black and white lines, with rectangles of red, blue and yellow – you’ll recognise Gerrit Rietveld’s famous 1918 wood chair, a perfect example with its rectangular red back and accents of yellow paint.
This sort of design was typical of De Stijl. Rietveld reduced his furniture designs down to the most simple forms, using pure geometric shapes, straight lines and circles, and stuck to a limited palette of black, white and primary colours.
Why was it considered so radical?
They rejected any attempt at representing visual reality as it seems and instead explored ideas of strict abstraction, what can be, using only straight lines and a limited palette of colour.
They forced the designer to think about proportion, geometry and colour and achieve some kind of harmony. The result was a new simplicity of imagery, something that was revolutionary at a time when fussy still life paintings or landscapes were still very much the norm.
Are their chairs…actually comfortable?
Not massively! These pieces were experimental and sculptural. They were not primarily designed for relaxation, but as part of a wider idea of open-plan living. In these idealised spaces it was hoped there were more important things to do than just slump in a comfy wood chair all day. They were a bit elitist like that.
I like open-plan living rooms.
So did they – they were obsessed with them. Rietveld designed revolutionary houses with sliding doors and wide open rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows. In these rooms, his minimalist furniture was deliberately designed to ‘float in space’ and allow the viewer to look right through it to other parts of the rooms, unlike the heavy wooden Victorian furniture of yore which blocked sightlines and broke the space up.
Right. Where do I buy?
Well, we’ve got bad news for you there. Pieces sell at auction for tens of thousands of pounds, sometimes more. On the bright side, major museums such as the V&A in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York have important pieces in their collections.