The Dutch were always a very influential part of the Scandinavian Modern movement, if not the most important, as many would argue. From those influential designers, Gerrit Thomas Rietveld stands for his mastery, and for his simplicity. He’s primarily remembered for the Red and Blue chair, but also for his Rietveld Schröder House, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Having an architectural construction being named as basically one of the world’s wonders, one that’s recognized as worth preserving (even though all of them are), is a rare honor for a furniture designer (though not for architects, logically). Rietveld was both, like many of his colleagues, but today were focusing on his interior design legacy.
Early life and aspirations
Born in Utrecht, currently the fourth-largest city in the Netherlands, and a huge cultural center, Rietveld was the son of a joiner, a woodworker specialized in putting together various items (created by carpenters) to make things like cabinets, chairs, and even boats. He learned the trade from a young age while attending night school. The year was 1899.
Around 1906, Rietveld began working as a draughtsman, and became successful enough to open his own workshop about eleven years later. During this time, he taught himself to draw, paint, and build things, on top of what he had already learned from his father and his early jobs. The year was 1917, and he was 29 years old, when he produced the first prototype of the Red and Blue chair.
Rietveld’s reinterpretation of what is basically an abstract painting on the style of Piet Mondrian wasn’t made from a hunch or a shallow kind of inspiration. Rietveld became heavily associated with De Stijl, an artistic movement in Holland from which Mondrian, about 16 years his senior, was a renowned member. The essentialist manner of art that De Stijl was proposing would also heavily influence Rietveld’s work in turn, producing something truly remarkable.
In 1918, Rietveld started his own furniture factory and started working towards becoming an official, recognized member of De Stijl, something he achieved in 1919. He made a lot of friends and contacts, and even got to visit the Bauhaus and do an exhibition in 1923 (invited by Gropius himself). He’s currently considered one of the movement’s foremost representatives, especially in architecture.
Furniture works and legacy
The Red and Blue chair was actually born neutral, colorless, and simple. History tells us that it was effectively a great design, but that it didn’t have the inspiration we know it to have today. The actual primary-colored chair was a second prototype that Rietveld made once he became acquainted with Mondrian and his work.
But Rietveld’s work did not stop there (after all, there’s a reason why we’re including him in this series). He translated Mondrian’s abstract aspirations into furniture, creating a style of his own that focused heavily on basic geometric shapes and simplicity, something he would later abandon. Like most of his colleagues, he yearned for mass production and accessible furniture, and he attempted to bring together both his artistic vision and his practical mission.
Rietveld’s evolution can be seen through his 1923 Berlin chair, his 1926 Chair (which was as much as a return to form as it was a challenge to his own artistry), his 1927 Tubular chair (much more futuristic), and the 1932 Zig-zag chair (a playful modernist precursor). This is only a taste of his work, however, as Rietveld worked all of his life. He’s been licensed by Cassina and other major brands, but has become a brand unto himself, one that’s still very coveted on the chic circles of Amsterdam and Copenhagen.