Impact of De Stijl
For most, De Stijl conjures images of the minimalist compositions of Piet Mondrian and the famous chair and house designed by Gerrit Rietveld, which over the last hundred years have become embedded in the collective memory of Dutch visual identity. They have also become symbols of the idea of ‘innovation and progress’ considered touchstones of the Dutch national character.
One hundred years ago, the frame of reference was completely different. Neither in the stately townhouses of the Dutch elite, with their plush furnishings and walls papered with gold-accented fleur-de-lys, nor in the cramped working class homes with their washtubs, privies and scant running water, was there any inkling that artistic communities in Leiden, Utrecht and Laren were preparing to introduce their vision of a ‘new order’ – first in art, but ultimately in every facet and level of society. Borne by that vision and the power of their imaginations, these artists galvanised the great modernist project that would come to define the twentieth century. What they imagined was utterly new, and the conservative status quo was at first utterly unreceptive to their ideas, even branding them lunatics. Fortunately, there were also some patrons, like Truus Schröder in Utrecht, who were interested in this new vision and commissioned high-profile projects.
Four men with an idea and a conviction. If there is one thing that epitomised De Stijl above all, it is the energy with which its proponents pursued their unprecedented artistic vision, which was unrelated to anything that had existed before and authentically ‘new’. Moreover, they (and their ideological contemporaries of the Bauhaus movement in Dessau) looked beyond the traditional boundaries of fine art – painting and sculpture – translating their idiom into spatial concepts that would reinvent the settings of daily life.
The ubiquity of the white-walled living room in Dutch post-war interiors and the reconstruction-era development of residential blocks built on the principles of modern architecture (called Nieuwe Bouwen in Dutch) characterised by hygienic efficiency (daylight, fresh air and cleanliness) in kitchens and bathrooms, owed to the groundwork laid by Mondrian, Van Doesburg, Van der Leck, Rietveld, Oud and, in Germany, Gropius and Van der Rohe.
Fundamental to De Stijl was the milieu of cross-pollination in which concepts were developed, with artists and architects turning to each other to both share and hone their ideas and insights – sometimes as friends, sometimes as bitter rivals. To begin with, in the journal – De Stijl – where it all began. Though it was anything but a homogeneous movement, there was an unspoken understanding among its members that they were developing concepts as a group, not as individuals.
The artistic legacy of De Stijl lives on to this day. We see it in the minimalism of modern and contemporary art and design. Likewise, in the notion of the innate aesthetic link between form and colour that has become commonplace in artistic practice and has also found its way into graphic and product design. The approach of systematically analysing and then reducing reality to its essence (in terms of line, field, form and colour) in order to build new artificial worlds from these components has had an immeasurable impact, radically changing the visual culture of the twentieth century and to this day influencing everyone involved in aesthetic production, from artists to architects to designers.