1917–2017, 100 Years of De Stijl

The Iconic Modern Art Movement.

Written by Craig Berry
Former Junior Designer at VBAT

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Post NL/Studio Putgootink – De Stijl Centenary Stamps (2017)
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Theo van Doesburg , Piet Mondrian, Bart van der Leck, Gerrit Rietveld, Vilmos Huszár

Piet Mondrian

Piet Mondrian is easily the most recognisable and most well known artist from the movement, in the 1920s he began to create the definitive paintings for which he — and the movement— is best known for. By using a limited palette of shades of black, white and primary colours confined inside straight horizontal and vertical outlines, he created his idea of a new abstract art. The simplification and refinement was noticeably different from other art styles. At a glance it may seem that the colours and lines are random with no order but each painting has a system; they are asymmetrical and usually have a dominant block of colour which is balanced with smaller blocks around it to create a ‘fluctuating rhythm’. To Mondrian, the vertical and horizontal elements represented two opposing forces: the positive and the negative, the dynamic and the static, the masculine and the feminine.

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Piet Mondrian – Composition III with Blue, Yellow and White (1936)

“As a pure representation of the human mind, art will express itself in an aesthetically purified, that is to say, abstract form. The new plastic idea cannot therefore, take the form of a natural or concrete representation — 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.”

His writings and many others from the movement were published across the first eleven issues of the movement’s journal aptly titled ‘DE STIJL’. Most famously included here was his long essay ‘Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art’. The De Stijl journal was important for Mondrian and his fellow artists; it was their vehicle to express their individual and collective ideas. Started in 1917 by fellow movement founder, Theo van Doesburg, the first edition of the magazine’s cover has the words DE STIJL in fragmented square capitals. In this issue, Theo van Doesburg credits the artist Vilmos Huszar as the designer of the letters.

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Vilmos Huszar – De Stijl Journal Wordmark
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De Stijl Journal – Issue 1
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Theo van Doesburg – Logo for Bond van Revolutionaire Socialistische Intellectueelen (1919)
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The Foundry/Theo van Doesburg – Architype van Doesburg (1997)

“The number of dots available, it was a very low resolution machine at that time. So round shapes changed every time. With 6 points lettering or 12 or 24 points lettering. You need more dots to make nicer lines. So I thought I should do a typeface without round curves, only with straight lines because than it always stays the same. And that’s how I came to the idea of the New Alphabet. It is a kind of example. I designed it, knowing that you couldn’t use it. It was unreal, but it was more or less an exercise for myself in thinking for modern machines.”

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The Foundry/Wim Crouwel – New Alphabet (1996)
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Zuzana Licko – Emigre Fonts Lo-Res (1985/2001)
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Craig Berry – Ronde & Scherp (2017)

Theo Van Doesburg

Theo Van Doesburg not only contributed typography to De Stijl but as a key member and co-founded he also produced a large number of paintings using the same principles of a refined colour palette and a reduction of forms. However, he dared to deviate from Mondrian’s ‘perfect’ image of horizontal and vertical lines (Neo-Plasticism) to develop his own sub-style of ‘Elementarism’. This was van Doesburg’s attempt to modify the strictness of Neo-Plasticism, he also began giving a title to each work, to give a sense of dynamism to each of his painting and pieces, something he felt lacked in Mondrian’s composition paintings. Mondrian saw this as an attack on his purist ideals and left the group.

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Theo van Doesburg – Counter-Composition V (1924), Counter-Composition VI (1925) & Simultaneous Counter-Composition (1930)
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Theo van Doesburg – Café l’Aubette – Strasbourg (1926)
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Kurt Schnitters, El Lissitsky, Walter Gropius
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Theo van Doesburg – Satirical comment on the Bauhaus (1921)
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Wim Crouwel – De Stijl Stamps (1963
Gary Hustwit – Helvetica – Wim Crouwel Interview (2007)

Gerrit Rietveld

As mentioned before De Stijl was where Gerrit Rietveld was introduced to the world. Joining the group in 1918/19 the designer and architect is well known for the unique and daring design of his Red and Blue Chair/Rood–Blauwe Stoel. It was designed with a ‘dramatic interplay of straight lines’ each line creating forms; Rietveld believed that the form itself always prevailed over the choice of material. Using primary colours it is described as ‘non-representational’ and ‘austerely objective’; as one of the first 3D pieces of De Stijl art the chair was not designed to be sat in comfortably but more for personal reflection, the stern position was to keep the sitter upright and toned up as much physically as mentally. Rietveld himself said of the chair in very few words:

“The chair was specifically built to show that it is possible to create something beautiful, a spatial creation, with simple machine processed parts”

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Gerrit Rietveld – Zig Zag Chair (1934), Red-Blue Chair (1917) & Berlin Chair (1923)

“De Stijl architecture follows an anti-cubic concept. Rather than attempting to fit all functional spatial cells together into a closed cube, you project them centrifugally from the centre outwards.”

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Gerrit Rietveld – Rietveld Schroderhuis (1924)

Rotterdam

When I was in Rotterdam at the end of 2016 I made sure to check out the building, De Unie as it is immediately recognisable and reminiscent of De Stijl with its red, yellow and blue vertical and horizontal shapes. Built in 1925 by J.J.P. Oud who was a more lesser known member of De Stijl. Like the Rietveld Schröderhuis it stands out in the street, but for all the right reasons.

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J.J.P Oud – De Unie Building (1925)
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Sabine Marcelis – Spatial Composition in Red, Blue and Yellow (2017)

Amsterdam

Towards the end of 2016 and at the start of 2017 the Stedelijk Museum began their celebration of De Stijl. Two main exhibitions were held at the museum; ‘De Stijl at the Stedelijk’ and ‘Chris Beekman: De Stijl Defector’, the latter being less interesting and the former being very interesting. I covered some of the works on show at the exhibition in a VBAT blog that came out in March this year but there was more that I wasn’t able to mention then, such as the work of General Idea and their Infe©ted Mondrian painting. Here they used one of Mondrian’s paintings but instead of using the traditional red, yellow and blue, the yellow was replaced with green to represent the idea of the painting being infected.

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General Idea – Infe©ted Mondrian (1994)
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Ellsworth Kelly – Blue Red Rocker (1963)
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Studio PutGootink – Modernism in Print (2017)

Amersfoort

Amersfoort is known as the birthplace of Mondrian and therefore it is where the national Mondrian museum is based: the Mondriaanhuis, (they use his Dutch surname before he changed it to Mondrian to appear less Dutch in Paris) although I feel that this was built out of necessity and just for tourists and the inquisitive – something to pull people to the small city of Amersfoort (like me) but also probably for educational visits.

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Mondriaanhuis – Mondrian’s Studio Replica
Mondriaanhuis – Video Installation
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Kunsthal KAdE – De Kleuren van De Stijl exhibition space
Kunsthal KAdE – De Kleuren van De Stijl (2017)

Den Haag

Across the city of Den Haag, multiple buildings were covered in renditions and inspired designs of De Stijl artist’s work aka ‘the Mondrianisation’ of the city. Officials called it “the largest Mondrian painting in the world to celebrate the Netherlands’ ‘best-known abstract artist’” which to me just screams ‘COMMERCIAL TOURISM’. However I imagine that it was well perceived in the city. If it means that normal and dull glass skyscrapers were transformed into something more visually stimulating then that is good and from the perspective of a graphic designer they are attractive graphic shapes. If anything, it shows that people appreciate the work of the artists and the importance they have, accepting that the Netherlands is known for De Stijl just as much as van Gogh.

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Den Haag Mondrianised Buildings (2017)
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Piet Mondrian – Victory Boogie Woogie (1944)

Eindhoven

I visited the Van Abbe Museum whilst I was in Eindhoven for Dutch Design Week where they had a small exhibition regarding De Stijl: the usual stuff now such as De Stijl magazines, Mondrian paintings and van Doesburg sketches. However there was something there which I really connected with, it was exactly what I thought whilst in the Mondriaanhuis in Amersfoort and in the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag which was a collection exploring “The Blanketing of De Stijl’s Visual Language”.

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De Stijl-esque products
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De Stijl-esque Paper Pad, The White Stripes – De Stijl Album, Raf Simons De Stijl-esque boots

Utrecht

I was able to go inside the Rietveld Schröderhuis in Utrecht and I was amazed by the architecture and design of the interior way more than the exterior. Rietveld designed the house with incredible attention to detail and a genius way of utilising space. During the 1 hour I was able to walk around all of the house across both floors with an audio-guide explaining everything; the museum guide also gave a demonstration of how the space could be changed from open during the day to closed during the night like I mentioned earlier. I loved this demonstration and was amazed how every single aspect was considered, even today I find this design almost too modern and radical. The video below shows the house and the interchangeable interior.

Gerrit Rietveld – Rietveld Schroderhuis Demonstration
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General Idea – Infe©ted De Stijl Artworks (1994)

“Let’s refresh ourselves with things that are not art: the bathroom, the W.C., the bathtub, the telescope, the bicycle, the automobile, the subways, the flat-iron…Art, whos function nobody knows, hinders the function of life. For the sake of progress we must destroy Art,”

To conclude, the highlight of 100 years of De Stijl in 2017 for me is Post NL’s commissioned stamp set commemorating the movement by studio Putgootink. The set showcases the paintings, sculptures, diagrams, buildings and principles of the movement for what they are, it doesn't fetishise them. It is distinctly functional with the set being a large composition with each indivudual stamp having its own beautiful composition; it perfectly summarises the movement as well as being a great piece of design.

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Post NL/Studio Putgootink – De Stijl Centenary Stamps (2017)

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written by
Craig Berry, Creative Intern at VBAT
edited by Connie Fluhme, PR at VBAT

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