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Gerrit Rietveld

Gerrit Rietveld

Gerrit Rietveld with scale model. Photo courtesy of Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany © Rietveld Schröder Archief, Centraal Museum, Utrecht, Netherlands / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany, 2019

Early Years and Training

The highly influential furniture designer and modern architect Gerrit Rietveld was born in Utrecht, Netherlands in 1888. His education was mostly vocational, since he dropped out of school at age 11 to apprentice with his father who was a joiner. At 18, Rietveld began a five-year stint as a draftsman for a jeweler in Utrecht. In his spare time, Rietveld learned drawing, painting, modeling, and cabinet making on his own. In 1917, Rietveld started an independent furniture design business.

Rietveld’s Iconic De Stijl Designs

Almost immediately, he created the now iconic Red and Blue chair, but the form would not get its recognizable bright hues until 1923. The intervening years saw Rietveld come under the influence of De Stijl figures like Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, and Rietveld adopted the movement’s preference for formal abstraction as well as a limited palette featuring black, white, and primary colors. In 1919, Rietveld became a member of De Stijl and started work as an architect; he also first produced the rare Elling sideboard with exposed joints. As Rietveld’s reputation grew, he exhibited designs throughout Europe, including at Bauhaus in 1923. The following year Rietveld built the Schröder House in Utrecht with a conventional ground floor and a second floor with mobile walls to facilitate adjustable interior spaces. This structural innovation garnered considerable attention at the time and the Schröder House was ultimately named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.

Functionalist Design and the 1953 Venice Biennale

Rietveld split from De Stijl in 1928 as he moved in a functionalist direction. For the next two decades, Rietveld dedicated himself to exploring the possibilities of making his architecture and furniture more affordable and scalable to improve society. In addition to pursuing these progressive ideals, Rietveld continued his groundbreaking design work. In 1934, he created the Zig-Zag chair with minimalist slats of wood held together using dovetail joints and also began plans for Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum. Following a traveling De Stijl retrospective that Rietveld organized in 1951, his profile rose again and he was commissioned to build the Dutch pavilion at the 1953 Venice Biennale as well as several buildings and residences in the Netherlands. When tastes shifted towards rationalism, the demand for Rietveld’s architectural work decreased, but the Centraal Museum in Utrecht presented a Rietveld retrospective in 1958.

Posthumuous Rietveld Revival

After his death in 1964, Rietveld was somewhat underappreciated until the centennial exhibitions in 1988 held at Barry Friedman Gallery in New York City and Utrecht’s Centraal Museum properly recognized his essential contributions to the world of 20th century design. Today items by Rietveld bring consistently strong prices at auction and are found in the collections of such institutions as the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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Gerrit Rietveld
Gerrit Rietveld
Gerrit Rietveld