Rietveld Designs the Red-Blue Chair Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Gerrit Thomas Rietveld’s red-blue chair illustrated the program of the Dutch avant-garde de Stijl movement and was an influential early example of the machine aesthetic of modernism.

Summary of Event

At the age of eleven, Gerrit Thomas Rietveld was an apprentice in his father’s cabinetmaking shop, designing and building pieces derivative of medieval and Louis XV styles. By 1915, after he had finished an additional apprenticeship with the premier goldsmith in Holland and had successfully completed several pieces of furniture in the studio of his drawing teacher, the Dutch architect J. P. Klaarhamer, Rietveld opened his own shop in Utrecht. His early work was typical of the rectilinear craftsman style of early twentieth century architects and designers in Western Europe and the United States, displaying a simple, unpretentious attitude toward both materials and construction. Art movements;de Stijl Red-blue chair (Rietveld)[Red blue chair] Stijl, de Furniture design [kw]Rietveld Designs the Red-Blue Chair (1918-1919) [kw]Red-Blue Chair, Rietveld Designs the (1918-1919)[Red Blue Chair, Rietveld Designs the (1918 1919)] [kw]Chair, Rietveld Designs the Red-Blue (1918-1919) Art movements;de Stijl Red-blue chair (Rietveld)[Red blue chair] Stijl, de Furniture design [g]Netherlands;1918-1919: Rietveld Designs the Red-Blue Chair[04440] [c]Fashion and design;1918-1919: Rietveld Designs the Red-Blue Chair[04440] [c]Arts;1918-1919: Rietveld Designs the Red-Blue Chair[04440] Rietveld, Gerrit Thomas Doesburg, Theo van Mondrian, Piet

After World War I, however, Rietveld’s work moved in a new direction. From 1918 to 1920, he designed a variety of domestic objects, ranging from chairs and lamps to a baby buggy, that were experiments in a new sort of modern sensibility, dependent on neither historical precedents nor craft production concerns. Rietveld “exploded” his designs, reassembling the parts so that normally massive everyday objects were replaced by pieces that were lighter than the originals in both appearance and construction. His chairs, in particular, united functional and theoretical concerns.

Perhaps influenced by the writings of the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Wright, Frank Lloyd who visited Holland in 1909 and whose designs generated considerable interest in Europe, Rietveld began to test the variety of ways in which construction, form, and materials might be manipulated. A central innovation of Rietveld’s work was a redefinition of the meaning of space. In all of his designs, from buildings to buffets, from chairs to toys, Rietveld recognized that space was a central, significant, and neglected element in design. Space became a meaningful component of every piece, intersecting with and penetrating its structure. The range and depth of these experiments, especially in furniture design, were the basis of much of Rietveld’s later achievement in architectural design.

The red-blue chair, built in 1918, is a perfect illustration of the ways in which Rietveld’s interest in space allowed him to attend to both practical and abstract design objectives. From 1916 on, Rietveld and his craftsmen experimented with a variety of construction theories and practices. The most provocative of these was a manipulation of the Cartesian coordinates of zenith, abscissa, and ordinate into a structural module, the elements of which might be pivoted, extended into planes, and repeated to form furniture. Rietveld decided to construct a chair that would exploit this theoretical idea while at the same time using the dimensions and proportions of the furniture he had made in Klaarhamer’s studio.

The prototype chair was made of inexpensive pieces of unpainted wood. Thirteen listels acted as the chair’s structural framework, and two pieces of plywood formed the back and seat of the design. In addition, traditional wooden pegs were used to join the pieces of the chair together; for the most part, however, the pegs were invisible. The original design included pentagonal sidepieces set below the arms, but these were removed soon after construction.

Although the red-blue chair’s appearance does not seem to promise the comfort of a traditionally upholstered chair, the seat and back of the chair do support the body comfortably in a relaxed seated posture. The hard surfaces and angular qualities of the red-blue chair, however, reinforce the design’s primary purpose as a kind of three-dimensional theorem: a demonstration of seat construction, an examination of spatial plasticity, and a diagram of the forces of pressure and weight. For example, the separation of supporting and supported parts infuses the chair with the appearance of weightlessness and celebrates the mysterious properties of space. The red-blue chair reveals that although space may seem to be defined by juxtaposed, contrasting solid forms, it is simultaneously an uninterrupted void.

The addition of color to the design reinforced the chair’s sculptural qualities. The first versions of the chair were either bleached to emphasize the lines of the wood grain or stained a neutral black. After Rietveld joined the de Stijl movement in 1919, perhaps at the suggestion of its founder and leader, Theo van Doesburg, a painted version of the chair appeared on the cover of the magazine De Stijl. The chair’s design evolved to include a red backrest and a blue seat, and the listels were lacquered black, with bright yellow ends. These color choices were not capricious; rather, Rietveld sought to emphasize the chair’s abstract qualities and to reinforce the active interplay between the continuous and contiguous spaces that surround and penetrate it.

The color scheme and the form of Rietveld’s red-blue chair point up a number of the issues with which Rietveld grappled throughout his distinguished career. In Rietveld’s hands, furniture became both architectural and sculptural, symbolically and communicatively uniting function and aesthetics. In the early 1920’s, he built a group of dynamically formalistic wooden buffets, tables, and chairs. His experiments with metal, however, were less successful and less innovative. In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Rietveld’s rather clumsy tubular-steel designs were manufactured by the Dutch firm of Metz and Company, and in the 1940’s he made a few pieces in bent aluminum.

Happily, Rietveld continued to create wooden chairs throughout his life. In 1934, he cantilevered the seat, back, support, and base planes of his “zigzag” chair and added the oblique angle to the vocabulary of seating. Rietveld’s “crate” system, designed during the Great Depression for Metz and Company, celebrated the material qualities of wood itself. Although the crate design was originally commissioned to create furniture suitable for weekend houses, Rietveld’s intention was to offer a readily available collection of useful and inexpensive pieces. Using industrial-quality untreated red spruce of the sort used for packing cases, Rietveld designed the first “knock-down” furniture. Many of these pieces repeated the projection and crisscrossing of structural lines into space that were characteristic of Rietveld’s work beginning with the red-blue chair.

Despite the breadth, depth, and quality of Rietveld’s work, he is best known for one of his earliest pieces. His important interior designs, his innovative architectural commissions such as the Schroder House Architecture;Schröder House (1924) and Ilpendam House (1958-1959), and his experiments with furniture, which lasted into the 1950’s, were all outgrowths of Rietveld’s interest in the geometry of lines and planes and the shape and meaning of enclosed and enclosing space. These preoccupations were first made manifest in the red-blue chair, which illustrated a provocative and significant new way of thinking about the relationships between objects and their environments. The red-blue chair is a classic illustration of important developments in modern art, architecture, and design.

Significance

Because furniture making is generally considered an “applied” or “minor” art, individual pieces are rarely given the status that was almost immediately attached to the red-blue chair. Whereas artists often use designs for domestic objects such as furniture to experiment with stylistic and technological innovations, architecture is more commonly celebrated, both as an art form and as an exercise in functional problem solving. Furniture and its design are thus commonly viewed as less important than architectural projects or the visual arts.

This was not the case in the de Stijl movement, which generated high-quality projects in architecture, typography, painting, and furniture. Within de Stijl, furniture design received an unusual amount of attention, a fact that accounts for Rietveld’s early prestige in the group. Although he joined de Stijl after designing the prototype for the red-blue chair, the chair is regarded as a significant example of the movement’s aesthetic and as a prime illustration of de Stijl principles of neoplasticism and abstract geometry. The chair’s significance in this regard is underscored by its role in stimulating the theoretical and conceptual work of two central members of de Stijl, Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian.

De Stijl, Dutch for “the style,” is the name taken by a group of radical artists, writers, and architects organized by the semitheoretical architect Theo van Doesburg in Leiden in 1917. The group published a monthly magazine, De Stijl, in which it argued for a new style of visual arts that might stimulate and mirror the new style of life emerging in post-World War I Europe. Van Doesburg edited the magazine from its conception until his death, and he used the publication to espouse the “neoplastic” aesthetic, which rejected overt representation, celebrated the straight edge and the plane, and used a palette limited to the primary colors and black, white, and gray. Van Doesburg’s inclusion of Rietveld’s design in a 1919 issue of De Stijl signaled a long-lasting collaboration between the two men and a broadening of the movement’s concern with development of a unified approach to the arts.

Piet Mondrian is probably the best-known member of de Stijl. Van Doesburg may have been the driving force behind the movement, but Mondrian was its most successful practitioner. He championed the primacy of painting in the creation of the utopian future that was at the center of the de Stijl vision. He was particularly concerned with reforming the visual arts so that they could take their proper place at the center of life, providing organizing principles and generating a new moral code. Like Rietveld’s red-blue chair, Mondrian’s paintings experiment with the neoplastic aesthetic. Neoplasticism As a matter of fact, Mondrian wrote a pamphlet in 1920, Le Néo-plasticisme, which he dedicated to a future shaped by this new form of art. Curiously, Mondrian believed that as reform took hold, painting would gradually disappear as a meaningful art form. This concept is nicely paralleled in Rietveld’s red-blue chair, which may be seen as dissolving into the surrounding space.

De Stijl, like the Russian constructivist and the German Bauhaus movements, explored a broad spectrum of art forms. The de Stijl vision was a modern one, emphasizing an abstract, rational, and revolutionary relationship between the arts and industrial production that, adherents believed, would lead to the creation of a modern, utopian society. The modern movement in design was characterized by an emphasis on the illustration of abstract principles and a passion for simplicity, flavored by interest in the emerging promise and requirements of machine production.

In an interesting evolution of his early training, all Rietveld’s post-World War I designs, including the red-blue chair, were produced according to a sort of industrial rationale. Rietveld was interested in producing furniture that could be manufactured by machine for a modest price—at once making it readily available and freeing the craftsman from the tedium of repetitive manual labor. This romantic connection of industrialization and social ideals was typical of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For the most part, the resulting designs were pseudomechanistic at best; although the modern aesthetic celebrated, and perhaps even revered, the machine, few such designs were produced under industrial conditions, and even fewer were mass-produced. Most of Rietveld’s furniture, like the red-blue chair, was built in his Utrecht shop. It was not until 1971, when the Italian firm of Cassina began to reproduce a number of classic designs of the early modernists, that the chair was part of anything resembling factory production, and its price has remained beyond the purchasing power of most consumers.

Given Rietveld’s background and his interest in producing well-designed products for everyday use, it is ironic that his most famous chair is valued more as a work of art than as a functional seat. The contradiction, however, does not diminish the significance of what he accomplished. The red-blue chair occupies a central position in the history of design because of its preliminary conclusions to the issues that would preoccupy Rietveld in his other designs (including seventy-four other pieces of furniture), because of its power as a physical manifestation of the tenets of de Stijl, and because of its concrete illustration of the philosophy of modern design. Art movements;de Stijl Red-blue chair (Rietveld)[Red blue chair] Stijl, de Furniture design

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baroni, Daniele. The Furniture of Gerrit Thomas Rietveld. Woodbury, N.Y.: Barron’s, 1977. Translated from an Italian original, this volume continues to be a central source for those interested in Rietveld’s work. Divides Rietveld’s career into three phases and contextualizes his furniture designs within the larger body of his oeuvre. Well illustrated, although with mostly black-and-white plates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Theodore M. The Work of G. Rietveld, Architect. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1958. Although primarily concerned with Rietveld’s architectural commissions, this detailed and organized (and somewhat dry) volume does address his furniture designs. Includes translations and transcriptions in Dutch of several essays by Rietveld, notes, index, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friedman, Mildred, ed. De Stijl, 1917-1931: Visions of Utopia. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1982. Lavishly illustrated catalog of an exhibition organized by the Walker Art Center. Includes well-written essays on various elements and personalities of the de Stijl movement by prominent scholars. Excellent and comprehensive biography section with short bibliographies, chronology, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jaffé, Hans Ludwig C. De Stijl, 1917-1931: The Dutch Contribution to Modern Art. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1986. A complete and exhaustive history of de Stijl that also considers the movement’s influence on modern arts and life. Particular emphasis on the work of Piet Mondrian. A few plates (all black-and-white), notes, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Overy, Paul. De Stijl. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991. Excellent general overview of the ideas, projects, and personalities associated with de Stijl. Includes illustrations, select bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, Michael. De Stijl and Dutch Modernism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003. Focuses on the local context of the de Stijl movement in examining Dutch modernism. Discusses the relationship between mass culture and the fine arts.

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