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Gerrit Rietveld (Dutch, 1888–1964)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

Dutch architect and furniture designer. He started work in his father’s furniture workshop at the age of 12, and then from 1906 to 1911 he worked as a draughtsman for C. J. Begeer, a jeweller in Utrecht. During 1904–8 he took evening classes in drawing and the study of ornamentation at the Kunstindustrieel Onderwijs der Vereeniging of the Museum van Kunstnijverheid in Utrecht. His interests nevertheless extended further than the applied arts. Around 1906 he attended classes given by the architect P. J. C. Klaarhamer (1874–1954), a like-minded contemporary of H. P. Berlage. This contact with Klaarhamer, who at that time shared a studio with Bart van der Leck, was of great importance for Rietveld’s development, for it was through them that he learnt of recent national and international trends in architecture and the applied arts.

In 1917 Rietveld set up a furniture workshop in Utrecht; the following year Gerard A. van de Groenekan (1904–94) came to work for him as an apprentice, and he was to make a significant contribution to the execution of the furniture designs throughout Rietveld’s career. The workshop was a turning-point, for it allowed Rietveld to make furniture according to his own judgement and taste. In 1918 he designed an unpainted armchair, of which he produced a coloured version in red, blue, yellow and black probably not before 1923. Known as the ‘Red–Blue’ chair (e.g. Amsterdam, Stedel. Mus.), it brought him international fame. It is composed of horizontal and vertical rectilinear planes that overlap at the point of intersection, thus blurring the volume of the chair and its surrounding space. In 1919 he became involved with the journal De Stijl: Maandblad voor nieuwe Kunst, wetenschap en Kultur, probably through Robert van ’t Hoff; he continued as a contributor until its demise in 1931. The contacts that he made at De Stijl gave him the opportunity to exhibit abroad as well. He collaborated with Vilmos Huszár on the model of an interior, which was exhibited in Berlin in 1923. This included two scale models of pieces of furniture of his design. A number of life-size examples were made from one of these, the ‘Berlin’ chair (e.g. Amsterdam, Stedel. Mus.), an unconventional, asymmetrical design, composed of flat surfaces in shades of grey and black. During the same year Rietveld made three more asymmetrical pieces of furniture and took part in the exhibition Les Architectes du groupe ‘de Stijl’ (Hollande) in 1923 at the Galerie de l’Effort Moderne in Paris, where his model of the rebuilding of the G. Z. C. Jewellery Store (1920–22; destr.), Amsterdam, was exhibited. Under the influence of De Stijl painters, Rietveld began to experiment for a few years during the early 1920s with the use of primary colours in combination with white, black and grey on his furniture and architecture. He believed that the principle behind using colour was that the colours must follow the form and even emphasize it. Although the journal De Stijl supported a unity of the arts and De Stijl colleagues often collaborated, Rietveld usually worked alone. He determined the colour schemes used on his designs and designed the lettering on his façades, for example for the department stores Zaudy (1928; destr.) in Wesel, Germany, Gonsenheimer (1929; destr.) in Cleve, Metz & Co. (1938; destr.) in Amsterdam and Steltman (1964; destr.) in The Hague. Indeed Rietveld was concerned with typography throughout his career. He designed all his own printed matter and received commissions from private individuals and from such magazines as De Gemeenschap and Nieuw Rusland.

In 1924, having reconstructed four buildings, Rietveld obtained his first comprehensive architectural commission. He designed a house for Mrs Truus (G. A.) Schröder-Schräder (1889–1985) in collaboration with her; built on the outskirts of Utrecht, the Schröder House realized the architectural ideas of De Stijl for the first time. The exterior is built up of grey and white planar surfaces of varying sizes, which are combined with horizontal and vertical accents in primary colours and black, a technique known as Elementarism, which blurred the divide between external and internal space. In the interior the first floor can be divided from one area into six by the use of concertina walls.

Subsequently, variations appeared in Rietveld’s work and ideas, as are apparent from his (sporadic) publications in the magazines i10 and De 8 en Opbouw. He became affiliated with Functionalist architecture and participated in CIAM (for photograph of members see Ciam). From the late 1920s and during the 1930s he concentrated on designing mass-produced furniture and architecture. Examples of these are his experiments (1927–42) with chairs made from one piece of material, the chauffeur’s dwelling with garage (1927) in Utrecht, made of prefabricated sheets of concrete on a steel frame, and designs (1929–58) for housing modules (kernwoningen), all the essential parts of which—kitchen, toilet and shower—could be mass produced. Between 1932 and 1934 he designed four housing blocks, three in Utrecht and one in the Vienna Werkbundsiedlung (1932). He executed a number of shop renovations for the Dutch company Metz & Co., who between 1930 and 1955 produced his furniture including various models of the ‘Zig-zag’ chair and the so-called ‘Crate’ furniture (Kratmeubel; e.g. Amsterdam, Stedel. Mus.). During this period Rietveld was also commissioned by private individuals to build villas, for example the Klep House (1931; altered), Breda, the Mees House (1936; altered), The Hague, and the Stoop House (1951; altered), Velp. In the 1950s Rietveld received an entirely new kind of commission: the design of exhibitions and exhibition areas, such as the Dutch pavilion for the Venice Biennale (1954) and a temporary exhibition centre for the Sonsbeek exhibition in Arnhem (1954). In the latter Rietveld once more displayed his interpretation of space: the walls and roofs, built at various levels, define the space in and around the building without entirely enclosing it, and the boundary between internal and external space is blurred by the structure of the building with its large glass surfaces.

Critical reception of Rietveld’s work has always been mixed. He enjoyed the recognition of the international avant-garde, especially in his De Stijl period, but he also had a reputation for lacking constructional ability and knowledge of building techniques. This probably contributed to his difficulties in obtaining large building commissions. Not until Rietveld was in his late sixties was he given sizeable commissions, such as the construction of the Julianahall of the Jaarbeurs (1956), Utrecht, the Hoograven flats (1954–7), Utrecht, the textile factory De Ploeg (1956), Bergeyk, the Akademie voor Beeldende Kunst (1957–63), Arnhem, and the Instituut voor Kunstnijverheidsonderwijs (1956–67), Amsterdam, now known as the Gerrit Rietveld Akademie. In 1961 Rietveld formed a partnership with the architects Johan van Dillen and J. van Tricht. His last commission was the design for the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh (1963–73), Amsterdam; plans were still at an early stage when he died, and the building was completed by his associates.

Marijke Küper
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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