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The architecture and interiors of De Stijl are famous around the world. Dutch architects and designers like Gerrit Rietveld, Theo van Doesburg, Cornelis van Eesteren and J.J.P. Oud blazed the trail for generations of progressive thinkers who came after them. The historical roots of De Stijl are less well-known. From 10 June until 17 September, the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag and Het Nieuwe Instituut (which holds the greatest architecture collection in the world) present a marvellous overview of drawings, architectural models and examples of furniture by members of the influential art movement. Exhibited side by side for the first time ever, the works offer surprising insights: what seems simple and straightforward at first sight proves to be ambiguous and complex. And what appears new may turn out not to have been.

Determinedly progressive, optimistic, unconventional and idealistic – that’s De Stijl all over. What started out as a magazine title in 1917 ended up as a worldwide icon of modernity. In 2017 the Netherlands is celebrating the centenary of De Stijl with a year-long programme of events under the banner ‘Mondrian to Dutch Design’. As the home both of the world’s greatest Mondrian collection and of one of its most wide-ranging De Stijl collections, the Gemeentemuseum is right at the heart of this year’s celebrations. Its Architecture and Interiors. The desire for Style exhibition will focus on the work of the Dutch proponents of modernist design in the applied arts field. 

By exploring four themes – colour, space, transparency and technical innovation – the exhibition will trace the roots of De Stijl right back into the 19th century. It will show how much De Stijl artists and designers owed to past generations: they appropriated existing techniques and re-interpreted concepts, themes and ideas advanced by previous engineers and craftsmen. As the same time, the exhibition will also reveal differences: unlike their predecessors and contemporaries, who tended to look for functional solutions to problems, the members of De Stijl regarded art as the solution in itself.

The exhibition will bring together drawings, architectural models, paintings, objects and furniture by artists associated with De Stijl and show them alongside design drawings and three-dimensional objects produced in previous decades. By doing so, it will tease out the way in which members of De Stijl created a radically new formal idiom while at the same time exploiting existing techniques and materials in the implementation of their ideas. Many of the notions advanced by De Stijl architects and designers will be shown to have determined the course taken by international architecture later in the century and still to be influencing our own domestic and public lives today.

De Stijl

Around 1914, when the First World War broke out, a wind of change was blowing through the neutral Netherlands. A new generation of artists, architects and designers was keen to continue in the established tradition of gemeenschapskunst (‘communal art’) – the integration of different artistic disciplines in projects aimed at the moral improvement of the population – but to do so in a completely new visual idiom. They felt that the decorative brown brick domestic architecture and dark interiors associated with that tradition were ill-suited to the modern era. Daily life should be lived in a bright, transparent environment designed in an abstract idiom that blurred the boundaries between art, architecture and design.

In 1917, the artist, architect and art critic Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931) invited a number of avant-garde artists in the Netherlands to write articles for his new art magazine De Stijl. A statement on the cover said that the aim of the journal was to further “the development of a new aesthetic sense” in order to make the public more receptive to new ideas in art.

Design = art

The magazine soon gave rise to a movement among artists and designers who believed that, in a modern world, art and life should be one and the same. They promulgated a new universal style appropriate to the modern era – a style in which architecture and painting had equal status and design (understood in the broadest sense) became art.

They saw their remit as extending beyond painting, sculpture and architecture to embrace the design of furniture, apparel, advertising, packaging, houses, streets, and even entire towns or cities. After all, they argued, the design of the immediate environment affected people’s whole attitude to life. Not only was the home and interior design central to this vision, but so was colour, since colour was a way of integrating the new, abstract painting into architecture.

Painting, wrote architect J.J.P. Oud (1890-1963) in 1916, “will have the power to ‘bring to life’ the planes that we, as architects, use to create emotion and to make them a vital part of the space”. Painting was no longer merely a form of figurative decoration for buildings, and architecture was not merely a support for paintings: “such paintings will offer architecture greater potential to appeal more intensely to the emotions, but in return architecture will create an atmosphere in which the mind will be receptive to such painting.”

New formal idiom

Architecture and Interiors. The desire for Style will show that the new world that the De Stijl designers were trying to create did not necessarily come out of the blue. Their designs were forward-looking, deliberately unconventional and offbeat, but they were also rooted in the past. For example, advances in technology and new materials had allowed facades and structures to be opened up and shop frontages with uninterrupted expanses of glass to be constructed ever since the late 19th century. Furniture designer and architect Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964) used simple timbers and plywood to create his formally innovative structures. Oud rearranged the functional features of building frontages (lintels, windows and doors) to create uncluttered architectural compositions resembling abstract paintings. And the clean lines and ‘machine aesthetic’ (to use Van Doesburg’s term) of De Stijl architecture were already apparent in some sanatorium and hospital interiors.

Although the Gemeentemuseum possesses a wonderful De Stijl collection of its own, it has prepared this exhibition in close collaboration with Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, a museum of architecture, design and digital culture that has the largest architecture collection in the world. The archives at Het Nieuwe Instituut include, for example, original design drawings and architectural models produced by Theo van Doesburg, J.J.P. Oud, Jan Wils, Cornelis van Eesteren, Gerrit Rietveld and Vilmos Huszár.

2017: 100 years of De Stijl

In 2017, the Netherlands is celebrating a century of futuristic Dutch design. The year marks the centenary of the launch of the De Stijl movement, introducing characteristics that still distinguish the Dutch Design movement of today. To celebrate this milestone, NBTC Holland Marketing and its partners have proclaimed 2017 ‘Mondrian to Dutch Design Year’. The event sees the introduction of a ‘Mondrian to Dutch Design’ storyline, which will take visitors to interesting places all over the Netherlands that are connected with works produced in the De Stijl period or with contemporary design. Museums, heritage sites and events throughout the country will focus on top designers, open studio doors and pay tribute to artists like Mondrian, Rietveld, Van der Leck and Van Doesburg.

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Note for editors
Further information about Architecture and Interiors. The desire for Style and image material is available from Justin Klein, +31 (0) 10 440 13 35 or j.klein@hetnieuweinstituut.nl