Dutch De Stijl + The Bauhaus

De Stijl is Dutch for “the style.”  It was the name of a magazine and design movement co-founded in Holland by Piet Mondrian and Theo Van Doesburg in 1917.  The movement was inspired by the utopian belief that society could be made more perfect through technology.  Like the Productivists, De Stijl artists believed that art was obsolete:  in a new age, art would be totally integrated with life through design (think Ikea).  The De Stijl movement included architecture and functional design, and the style was embraced as a “new classicism” devoid of pretentious ornament or old-fashioned clutter.

Modernism:  De Stijl (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Piet Mondrian, Composition in Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930

Piet Mondrian was the leading representative of Dutch De Stijl.  In his pursuit of a radically pure art, he limited his pictorial vocabulary to the primary colors of red, yellow and blue, the primary values of black and white, and the primary directions of vertical and horizontal.  He arranged these elements in compositions that strove to achieve a balance of non-symmetrical elements.  He explained that he wanted to achieve equilibrium “through the balance of unequal but equivalent oppositions.” Mondrian believed that these purely non-objective designs embodied a universal spirit of calm order, balance, and harmony.

Mondrian, Composition No. II, with Red and Blue, 1929 (Smarthistory)

Piet Mondrian – Ovation TV

Mondrian at Tate Liverpool

Gerrit Rietveld, Red and Blue Chair, 1923
Museum of Modern Art

De Stijl was intended to be more than a style of “painting;” rather, it was a blueprint for a new movement in design.  Gerrit Rietveld applied Mondrian’s style to furniture.  His “zig-zag chair” combines painting (color), sculpture (construction) and functional design.  Devoid of ornamentation, the chair proclaims a marriage between function and design that expressed the utopian ideals of the movement:

“Rietveld believed there was a greater goal for the furniture designer than just physical comfort: the well-being and comfort of the spirit. Rietveld and his colleagues in the de Stijl art and architecture movement sought to create a utopia based on a harmonic human-made order, which they believed could renew Europe after the devastating turmoil of World War I.”
Museum of Modern Art

Gerrit Rietveld, Schröder House, Utrecht, Netherlands, 1923-24

Rietveld also applied Mondrian’s style to architecture.  The Schröder house was the only building built in the De Stijl style.  The building is a rectangular block, made up of various planes and protruding decks, suggesting a three-dimensional version of one of Mondrian’s paintings.  Inside, the living quarters are open in design, separated by sliding panels.  Completely devoid of ornament, the building emphasizes simplicity and functionality.

Bauhaus:  Germany, 20th Century

In 1919 Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus in Germany — a school for art and design.  Reacting against the backward-looking Baroque ornament of official architecture under the Kaisers, the Bauhaus advocated functional architecture, and was dedicated to what Gropius described as “a clear, organic architecture, whose inner logic will be radiant and naked, unencumbered by lying facades and trickeries; we want an architecture adapted to our world of machines, radios and fast motor cars, an architecture whose function is clearly recognizable in the relation of its forms.”

Walter Gropius, The Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany, 1925-26

The Bauhaus building was a “manifesto” of the school’s ideas about architecture.  Made of modern industrial materials and functional in design, the building is stripped bare of “romantic embellishment” or fussy ornament:

“We want to create a clear, organic architecture, whose inner logic will be radiant and naked, unencumbered by lying façades and trickeries; we want an architecture adapted to our world of machines, radios and fast motor cars, an architecture whose function is clearly recognizable in the relation of its form… With the increasing strength of the new materials – steel, concrete, glass – and with the new audacity of engineering, the ponderousness of the old methods of building is giving way to a new lightness and airiness.”
Walter Gropius

Modernism:  Bauhaus (Minniapolis Institute of Art)

International Style

The Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis in 1933, and many of the instructory emigrated to the United States, where they laid the groundwork for the International style of architecture — the signature style of the modern skyscraper that is all too familiar to us today.

Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, Model for a glass skyscaper, Berlin, 1923

Walter Gropius was succeeded by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe who coined the famous slogan “less is more.”  In 1923 he exhibited this revolutionary design for a skyscraper made of transparent glass.  The building was influenced by the ideas of the Constructivists (the use of modern materials) and Dutch De Stijl (open spaces).  The glass exterior revealed (rather than concealed) the structural elements.  It exemplified what the architect referred to as “skin and bones” architecture.  Though never built, the design became the basis for the modern glass skyscraper.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, Seagrams Building, 1958

When the Bauhaus closed, Van Der Rohe came to United States and took a teaching post in Chicago.  He designed some of the most seminal works of modern architecture, including the Seagrams Building in New York City.  The familiar glass skyscraper, which we take for granted today, can trace its history back to the many artistic movements that were influenced by Cubism, and the utopian ideals of the early 20th century “machine age.”


Web Resources:

Dutch De Stijl (MOMA)

The Bauhaus

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