Dutch architect and furniture designer Gerrit Rietveld was a pioneer of modern design; finding that handcrafted furniture of the time was too heavy, too expensive, and too labor-intensive, he revolutionized the way modern objects are designed and produced by machines, so they are simpler in style, unencumbered by that which is not essential, and more readily available to be mass produced.
Born in 1888 in Utrecht, Rietveld gained exposure to the delicate craft of furniture making at an early age in his father’s furniture workshop, where his father worked as a joiner. He worked with his father for a time during his youth, and later apprenticed as an architect, where he earned admiration for a balance of proportions, lines, forms, and volumes that would later define his work. After opening his own workshop in 1917 and a furniture factory in 1918, his self-taught prowess would be manifested in works that are stunning in their simplicity and regal in form, classic styles that grace the collections of museums and pepper modern homes with tasteful immutability to this day.
His distinctly vibrant and efficient early style is closely associated with De Stijl, a modernist art movement that valued pure abstraction and universality by a reduction of the essentials in color and form, with followers like Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg who made generous use of primary colors and coy geometries. Influenced by De Stijl, Rietveld painted his Slatted Chair from 1919 red and blue in 1923, making what is now the iconic Red and Blue Armchair a riveting contribution to the annals of design history, captivating in style and modern in form. With a dynamic interplay of right angles and floating planes of color, mixed with movable walls and a judicious theater of glass, the house he designed for Truus Schröder in 1924 is also undeniably De Stijl, an architectural masterpiece and UNESCO World Heritage site that inspired many modern architects and designers, including Eileen Gray, whose famous E 1027 house was speckled with its influence.
Rietveld’s later work is marked by a clean sobriety of material and structure, raw yet elegant with brilliant contrasts and delightful shapes. In 1932, he introduced the classic Zig-Zag chair, which, as one of the first examples of a cantilevered seat, inventively reduces the archetypal silhouette of a chair to a single sheet of wood in an overturned Z shape. Still produced today by expert carpenters at Cassina, the Zig Zag chair remains a timeless testament to the magnificence of modernity, lissome in form and functionally graceful.
Whether discovering inspiration in humble masterpieces like his series of furniture made from leftover material of transport crates, or finding oneself enveloped in natural light and transcendent grace of his Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, from his vibrant and geometrically rigorous Utrecht chairs to the glass-framed Hildebrand House that rests like a lantern in the soothing staging of Blaricum, Rietveld’s persuasion of organic artistry and creative charisma can be felt still today, awakening our senses with a fresh perspective and clever sophistication.
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