Tuesday, April 1, 2008

De Stijl Movement: Theo van Doesburg & Gerrit Rietveld

During the De Stijl movement (founded 1917), a new aesthetic proposal called for ultimate abstraction, simplicity, clarity, harmony, and equilibrium. The designers distilled everything down to the bare minimum and filtered out all representational elements. They believed that the utopian model of spiritual harmony and order would be achieved upon that. Gerrit Rietveld once stated, "I am constantly concerned with this extraordinary idea of the awakening of the consciousness (Romeo)." De Stijl art forced the viewer to ponder about their relationship to the world, relating to theform, color, and space surrounding them.

At the movement’s time, the De Stijl designers strongly advocated pure abstraction and universality, with a reduction to only the essential forms and colors. De Stijl designers believed that with this, they could re-idealize the world, achieve equilibrium (Loeb), and create a future society with real unity and equal rights. The ubiquitous grids of De Stijl art and architecture completely rejected organic nature and showed estrangement towards classic literature and narratives. The De Stijl movement focused solely on promoting geometric abstract art (White). Forms were most always reduced to the horizontal and vertical elements, utilizing only the essential basic colors—red, blue, and yellow—along with the non-colors, which are black and white (Loeb). The aesthetics prohibited symmetry and depth, with all volumes always reduced to flat planes. Compositions were balanced through the contrasting effects of colors, and the variations in the sizes and shapes of the planes. Everything rested on the basis of formal interrelationships (Lemione).

Theo van Doesburg, the chief founder of De Stijl in 1917, established the De Stijl journal as well. The typographical elements of the journal cover and pages are works of art themselves. I chose to examine the De Stijl journal pages from van Doesburg because of the provocative typographic choices. Also, van Doesburg was more successful as an art writer than as an independent artist. Upon closer inspection of a certain issue, Volume 4, Number 11 (November 1921), it can be concluded that the layout has been manipulated with careful consideration. Page 161 from that certain issue contains various typefaces and sizes used in unusual combinations. Three different typefaces are used on that page—one with serifs, and the other two without. The page’s distinctiveness stems from the fact that it strays far from the generic magazine or journal layout, which begins with a large dominant image, and then a formulaic body of text that follows. The De Stijl journal was actually one of the earliest publications to adopt the “asymmetric use of typographical elements (Overy).” A Dutch to English translation of the text would reveal to me significantly more about the formal decisions and choices—content and form are equally important. Van Doesburg’s approach to typography and layout rested on the notions of asymmetry, lack of repetition, absence of embellishment, and strong interrelationships within the composition.


The page begins with a discernable hierarchy of text. De Stijl, in all caps and the largest font size of the composition, introduces the page, and then beneath that is a subhead, carefully kerned and aligned to form a perfect rectangular block that sits neatly below the title. Shifting downwards, there is a thick double bar sandwiching the Volume and Issue Number, along with the date. Beneath that are two almost symmetrical rectangular towers of what seems to be the alphabet, with lowercase and uppercase combined in a methodical order. On the right hand side of the journal page, there are forceful indentations. Snippets of text throughout the page are in bold and all caps, but the majority are situated on the bottom half of the page, making the page rather bottom-heavy. Though van Doesburg’s proposal of elementarism (the diagonal line is more vital than the horizontal and vertical, he argued) came in 1926, it is quite apparent that five years earlier (when this issue was published), heavy traces of that proposition were already configured.

Another important figure from the De Stijl movement is Gerrit Rietveld, a Dutch furniture designer and architect. He stated, “[The] scaling of undefined space to human proportions may be achieved by a line drawn on a road, a floor, a wall, a covering surface, a combination of vertical and horizontal planes, curved or flat, transparent or massive. It is never a partitioning or closing off, but always a defining element of what is here and there, above and below, between and around (Woodworks)." His most important architectural work is the Rietveld-Schroder House in Utrecht, the Netherlands. It was designed in 1924 for Mrs. Truus Schroder-Schrader, a widow with three children. The widow requested that the house to be built preferably without walls, so that the interior could be a dynamic and changeable open zone. The house was literally a machine to live in, with sliding panels and partitions moving around each day to change the spatial arrangements to accommodate the children. De Stijl architecture follows an anti-cubic concept. Rather than attempting to fit all functional spatial cells together into a closed cube, you project them centrifugally from the center outwards. The Rietveld-Schroder House conforms to this concept with its balconies, overhanging surfaces, and glass windows that can open out. Rietveld’s aim in constructing this house was “to give to a yet unformed space, a certain meaning (Overy)."

The Red and Blue Chair, designed in 1917, was one of the first three-dimensional explorations of the De Stijl movement. The chair is composed out of a dramatic interplay of straight lines, where each element still maintains its own identity. Lines produce forms by enclosing space. Rietveld believed that the form always triumphed over the material. A precise color scheme is used—red, blue, yellow, and black—the traditional De Stijl colors. The chair is non-representational, and austerely objective, but still has much character in itself. It shows a dynamic equilibrium through the contrast of the black and yellow. The black verticals and horizontals are sober, while the bright yellow squares exhibit a jazzy motion. The glossiness of the black also adds a bit of liveliness and depth, which is always absent in two-dimensional De Stijl work. This chair was not designed for comfort, but rather for personal reflection. Rietveld felt that the sitter should be kept physically and mentally toned up while sitting (Overy). A chair should not be used to retire from the world or get away from thought (Romeo). Rietveld believed in Aesthetic Realism, which supported the belief that we do not get to true repose by putting the world aside. "The chair,” he stated, “was specifically built to show that it is possible to create something beautiful, a spatial creation, with simple machine-processed parts (Woodworks).”

The conscious mind is one of the most important elements of the De Stijl movement. Returning to the De Stijl journal analysis, every line of text was manipulated through conscious means—the placement and angle of the text, the typeface, its weight and size, kerning, alignment, etc. De Stijl typography and art is simple, but rigorously thought out. The Rietveld-Schroder House is visually simple, but the process of designing such an open house was a very complex task. The Red and Blue Chair is reduced to basic geometric elements and distilled to its essential form, but each element has been consciously manipulated, from the decision to paint the horizontals and verticals a glossy black, to the decision to insert diagonals into the composition (Romeo). De Stijl artists and designers, specifically Piet Mondrian, worked from their artistic intuition (Loeb). Not every line and color choice has a specific meaning, but the designers consciously made those decisions. The De Stijl journal itself was even self-consciously marketed for a specific urban audience. The designers considered the public exposure of the journal-- whether it be left in the home, at a café, or in a train, which led to the journal’s peculiar shape and unique cover to allow it to stand out amongst other journals of the time (White).


Verner Panton’s 1960 “S” Chair is a work that is considered to be influenced by Rietveld’s ZigZag Chair from 1934. They both contain oblique lines and express the cantilever principle in a clear and clean form. Both are spare, austere, and reveal a simplicity in abstraction. Once again, the visual simplicity of these chairs belies a very complex construction. The ZigZag Chair is constructed out of wood, while the Panton Chair is constructed out of plastic, and available in various bright colors. Both chairs are more visual displays of art than practical pieces of furniture. Influenced by the De Stijl conscious ideals, Panton believed that "choosing colors should not be a gamble. It should be a conscious decision. Colors have a meaning and a function (Hive)."

Minimalism (late 1960’s and early 1970s) is quite influenced by the De Stijl movement. This trend in art and architecture has the subject reduced to only the necessary elements. Lines and planes are organized in very particular manners. The motto “less is more”, originally affirmed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (Great Buildings), a pioneering German architect, complements the extreme simplicity. Ad Reinhardt, an Abstract Expressionist, said about the value of a reductive approach to art, “The more stuff in it, the busier the work of art, the worse it is. More is less. Less is more. The eye is a menace to clear sight. The laying bare of oneself is obscene. Art begins with the getting rid of nature (Wikipedia).”

The De Stijl movement’s austere simplicity inspired me to redesign Fruhstuck’s menu. I needed to choose a restaurant that offered very simple, basic, and easy-to-consume foods. That meant no fancy entrees, three-course meals, or crème brulee for dessert. I narrowed my menu choices down to only coffeeshops, and finally came to a consensus on Fruhstucks, which is a humble shop in Sugar Land that sells mainly kolaches, with coffee, pastries, and other beverages on the side. I refined the menu down to the bare bones, offering only the basic flavors and options. All of the items in each category are in pairs, to represent the notions of dynamic equilibrium and interrelationships. The De Stijl movement was a “collective force” (Lemione) that did not promote individuality.

I designed the menu as a sit-down table menu, like a placemat. The layout is a floorplan, where each category of food or drink is displayed in its own room, but still connected with all the other rooms by the open doors. Rietveld’s Red and Blue Chair is abstracted in this floorplan, where the black wall floorplan lines are the black horizontal and verticals of the chair, and the yellow door symbols are the yellow squares of the chair. The Rietveld-Schroder House sliding partitions are abstracted into the slanted hash marks that serve as walls. I tweaked the name from Fruhstucks to V. Stecks to harmonize more with the De Stijl movement founders and overall aura (a reverential tribute to van Doesburg, van der Leck, and van der Lohe). I injected organic elements to add a sense of liveliness, and also to break up the objective floorplan grid and blocky text of V. Stecks. I initially used Dimitri typeface (a heavy block font) for the type of the food and drinks, but then I switched to Quicktype II, which is similar to the typefaces Helvetica and Arial. Dimitri’s heavy weight caused the floorplan to bulk up and become visually cluttered. Quicktype II’s visual neutrality allowed the menu to remain highly objective and clean-looking. In addition to using the traditional primary colors, I also used orange to incorporate the more radical De Stijl artworks (van Doesburg, Vilmos Huszar, and Georges Vantongerloo all used orange, green, and purple in addition to the primary colors (Loeb)). Following the aesthetics of the De Stijl journal, I made very conscious decisions on the text regarding the placement within the rooms, and the hierarchy of text. I made sure that there was a balance between the text in the room, but no symmetry. The lamination was done to enable the wall floorplan lines to extend beyond the white menu plane. The De Stijl movement’s two-dimensional works were all enclosed within the composition, some with thick black frames—which certain designers thought were very compressing and restricting. Consequently, I decided to extend the composition by allowing the floorplan walls to jut out of the tabloid sheet, and spill out into the open space infinitely.

Ultimately, Theo van Doesburg and Gerrit Rietveld aimed for ultimate simplicity in abstraction through strong interrelationships within the composition. Eli Siegel, the founder of Abstract Realism, stated, "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves (Romeo)." A new society composed of balanced relationships was believed to lead to a better future with equal rights (Lemione). The notion of duality is strikingly omnipresent in society, in all dimensions and facets of life.



30 comments:

Anthony Romeo said...

Dear Jen C,

This is a wonderful article and thank you for crediting your sources including my article on the Red and Blue Chair. I couldn’t find your e-mail to let you know that there is one important typo that should be corrected its not “Abstract” Realism but Aesthetic Realism. Thank you again.

Anthony Romeo

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