Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Scott Waelde
Theory I
Dr. Carpenter
October 1, 2005

The Life and Work of Gerrit Rietveld

Gerrit Rietveld’s contribution to architecture has been significant to design principals through the years. During his short lifetime, 1888 through 1964, Rietveld revitalized future architect’s philosophies about what architecture is supposed to be. Rietveld was one of the most innovative furniture and architectural designers of the 20th century and was a key member of the Modern Movement. His materials, methods and forms proved to be deeply influential to many of the mid-century masters of design.

Rietveld was born in Utrecht, Netherlands in 1888. Gerrit lived and worked there for the greater part of his life. He grew up learning to make cabinets with his father at the young age of twelve, and then in 1911 he started his own cabinet making business. Rietveld studied architecture, painting anatomy, modeling, drawing while attending night school until 1924, when he became an Architect (Overty). While maintaining his cabinetry business and studying architecture he meet many of the founding founders of the De Stijl movement he would later be apart of. De Stijl translates to “The Style”.
As an architect Rietveld designed in a way that many call “total design”. He would design everything for his client such as the structure, the interior finishes, and the furniture for the specific building. Frank Lloyd Wright is probably the most famous follower of this design theory. Overty says that Rietveld probably abandoned the idea of a professional painter for the profession of architect purely for economical reasons. During the 1920’s Rietveld worked within the community of avant garde artists like El Lissitzky and Piet Mondrian honing his modern design theories. He strived to design prefabricated furniture for the common man. Rietveld wanted anyone to be able to afford his work.
In 1917, the famous red-blue chair was designed and made, changing modern architecture theory across Europe. Its clean lines and vibrant colors stunned the architecture world. The chair was reduced down in form to its essential angles and plains

that were defined by the colors yellow, blue, and red. The colors defined the spatial boundaries of the structure. The red-blue chair got Rietveld recognized in the magazine by Theo van Doesburgand, and slingshot his career by joining the De Stijl movement of art and architecture.
The dematerialism of the De Stijl movement flourished so did Rietveld’s work. He began getting commissioned for more and more furniture designs especially chairs. Rietveld's Zig-Zag Chair is made up of four wooden planes joined with dovetail joints and fixed with brass nuts and bolts through triangular corner blocks of wood. The concept is simple its design, but the forces and moments involved with its construction are complex. It was designed for the Schröder house in Utrech, Holland and is and example of Rietveld's De Stijl modernist design principles. Rietveld also designed a hanging lamp fixture that was made up of four independent light tubes that was intentioned to accent Rietveld’s interiors.
In the 1920’s Rietveld became increasingly interested in the social role that architecture plays in society. He was affiliated in the CIAM (Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne) where he and others designed social housing, prefabrication
methods, and standards (Van Gogh). He had already begun working with pre-fab concrete slabs, which was before its time. Unfortunately, Gerrit was only getting

commissions from private individuals who did not share Rietveld’s ideas on progressive construction methods.
Gerrit Rietveld’s most famous architectural work can be found in Utrech. Built in 1924 for Truus Schröder, the house was built after Truus’ husband died to house her three children. Rietveld kept his studio there from when the doors opened until 1933.
In 1951 Rietveld designed a retrospective exhibit in Amsterdam, Venice, and New York about De Stijl that improved Rietveld’s workflow. In the coming years Rietveld would get increasingly impressive commissions like the Dutch Pavilion for the Venice Biennale, art studios in both Amsterdam and Arnhem, a building for the UNESCO in Paris.
From around 1944, he also taught at a number of universities and designed the Netherlands pavilion for the 1954 Venice Biennale. It was Rietveld's furniture, however, rather than his architecture that was of greatest influence. The geometric formal vocabulary of his red-blue chair, for instance, inspired Marcel Breuer's tubular metal furniture designed at the Bauhaus in the late 1920s.
In 1963 Rietveld could only complete the sketches on the last structure he would ever do, the Van Gogh Museum. The plans were produced by his partners after his death

on June 25th, 1964. The museum opened its doors to the public in 1973(Van Gogh).
One of Rietveld’s earliest influences was his father and the cabinetry business that he ran. There Gerrit learned invaluable training about wood and construction methods. This early influence would prove detrimental to the De Stijl movement by exhibiting Rietveld’s vast furniture collection in De Stijl magazine. You can see on the picture on the first page Rietveld sitting outside the studio that he designed. He wanted to show off his work. He wanted to let the world know that the De Stijl movement was not a fad.

Buffet made in 1919. Years of apprenticing under his father pays off.

Another Huge influence on Rietveld’s design theory started when he joined the De Stijl movement. He joined the movement after his red-blue chair was featured in an article. De Stijl was Dutch arts movement started in Amsterdam in 1917, which meant “The Style. The main founders of the movement were the painters Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg…Rietveld joined later.
The Tenets of De Stijl
· Coloration must be in the primary colors of red, blue and yellow or the "noncolors" of black, gray and white.
· Surfaces must rectangular planes or prisms.
· Aesthetic balance must be achieved and this is done through the use of opposition.
· Compositional elements must be straight lines or rectangular areas.
· Symmetry is to be avoided.

Some of the early work of Frank Lloyd Wright, which had been published in Europe in 1910, influenced Rietveld’s notions about form. His use of warm materials like stone and concrete were used in Rietveld’s designs. The open floor plan idea that Wright took to the next level influenced many of Rietveld’s designs. Also the built-in furniture Wright would build specifically for each project was mimicked in the Schröder house.
Rietveld designed many different chairs during his career but they all seem to me to be relevant to each other. They act like a theoretical timeline of ideas in construction and sculpture.
One of the functions of Rietveld's chairs, with their hard seats and backs, is to focus our senses, to make us alert and aware. Rietveld was not interested in conventional ideas of comfort (the 19th century armchair that relaxes you so much that you spill your coffee or fall asleep over your book). He wished to keep the sitter physically and mentally "toned up."

This design consists of only four rectangular sections. The seat and back have been dovetailed together, and the seat and base reinforced with two triangular wedges. Many people called this type of joint a “Rietveld Joint” because it was so original. The brass nuts and bolts holding these wedges together represent one of the few times in De Stijl design where the hardware became part of the overall decoration. This system of joining demonstrates the complex construction of the piece. The nuts and bolts must pass through each of the panels to produce the necessary strength for the cantilevered structure (central museum). The form of this chair is so simple that it looks like it defies the laws of physics. I like how Rietveld did not paint the chair; he decided to leave the chair in its purest form.

Around 1923, Rietveld introduced two new elements into his furniture design asymmetry and construction in planes. He wanted to create an open, spacious structure in his furniture. The Berlin chair is built up from four broad planks and three smaller slats that are placed at 90 degree angles to one another and form both the frame and the supports of the chair (central museum). Here Rietveld does not highlight the hardware of the chair. He lets the free form planes of the wood take all the credit. I like how the black back wooden plane goes all the way down to the floor, as if it is homage to Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous hearth designs.

At the end of the 1920s Rietveld experimented with designs in which the seat and back were fashioned from a single curved board, while the front and back legs were replaced by side pieces. The curved board was connected to the side pieces to stabilize the chair. The 'beugel' or stirrup chair is an original version of this construction. In this tubular steel piece, Rietveld utilizes the material’s strength and malleability in making the load-bearing side pieces. Light and strong, they slide easily over the floor (central museum). This chair to me seems cold and too light... It seems that the chair needs more substance more bulkiness so that it would not look so fragile and breakable. Also the armrests placement seems contrived. It seems like an afterthought to add the armrests. I do not like the fact they account for the only horizontal lines in the piece.

In the Red-blue chair, Rietveld takes the armchair back to its most elementary form. He wanted to create a piece of furniture with neither volume nor weight that did not interfere with the space in which it was placed. Rietveld also wanted to design furniture that could be easily machine manufactured so people would not be doing tedious repetitive jobs all day in factories. It appears that the slatted chair only acquired its famous color scheme around 1925. The colors reinforce the chair’s spatial form (central museum). The chair seems like it was once a large upholstered chair that has been stripped down to its bare bones. The similarities with the work of Mondriaan have made the Red-blue chair an icon of De Stijl.

Gerrit Rietveld’s 1919 Buffet shows the principles of construction, the prevailing relationship between line and plane, the qualities of lightness, and the use of the module in construction. Here he wanted to make another piece of furniture that was “simple” enough to be reproduced by machinery. To the left is Rietveld’s sketch of the layout of the buffet.

Although the Schröder house was not Gerrit Rietveld’s most remembered work, it still has great architectural significance. It was placed on the world heritage list of historical buildings in 2000. The house is the only one of its kind to be built completely in the De Stijl style. It is supposedly the first private house to incorporate an open floor plan. Rietveld’s De Stijl 3d interpretation of Mondiran’s paintings have been described as:
"Gerrit Rietveld worked closely in collaboration with the client for this house. More than any other, this is either—in Banham's words—'a cardboard Mondrian' or an enormous piece of furniture masquerading as a house. All windows could only be opened up completely, at right angles to frames, repeating the devices by which the upper floor could be transformed from one single space into a series of smaller ones—the point being that in either positioning of windows or moveable walls, the house retained its neoplastic hypothesis."

This is the plan of the first floor showing the service side of the house. Notice how each subdivision of service kitchen, office, and housemaid have their own individual spaces from the other spaces with a center stairway linking them all together.

Here we see the second floor plan showing the various living spaces. Rietveld used the furniture and the color scheme to differentiate the different sleeping and living spaces. The moveable partitions can make a space more private or inviting by sliding the walls open or closed.
In 1923 Truus Schröder decided to leave Bilsrtaat after her husband died. She moved with her three children to the small town of Ultrecht. She asked Rietveld to design her home with an upstairs living room and to separate public and service spaces. Rietveld wanted a house that moved away from the passive lifestyle of traditional houses (Overty). Rietveld in turn designed a very active living structure that encouraged “conscious living” (Kuper).
Adaptability was the key concept of the design. During the day the walls could be opened up to form one large open space. Also at night the sliding walls could be rolled out to separate the bedrooms or the bathroom for more privacy. Rietveld had once said that “sitting is a verb” about his red-blue char, the Schröder house took this theory and expanded it broader to a lifestyle.

In Conclusion Rietveld’s contribution to modern architecture has felt the ripples of his work all over the world. He has said of his work “that he designed his furniture as if it were sculpture, but often it fell somewhere between function and symbol” (Dunster).



Marijke Kuper, Ida Van Ziji. Gerrit Thomas Rietveld : The Complete Works 1888 1964. ISBN 1-8782-7178-4




Overty, Paul (1991) De Stijl, Thames & Hudson

David Dunster. Key Buildings of the Twentieth Century Volume 1: Houses 1900-1944.


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