It is 100 years since the founding of De Stijl, a movement of artists, designers and architects who came together to develop a new visual language. From 10 June, Gemeentemuseum The Hague is presenting the exhibition Architecture and interiors. The Desire for Style to mark this centenary. The exhibition has been compiled in close cooperation with Het Nieuwe Instituut. ‘For the first time in an exhibition about De Stijl, we will be looking back beyond the First World War,’ explains Hetty Berens, curator at Het Nieuwe Institituut.
Integration of disciplines
"We are showing that there were developments in architecture at the end of the nineteenth centenary that can be seen as precursors to De Stijl,’ Berens explains. ‘For instance, the intensification of the use of new materials, such as concrete, glass and steel. We have always looked at what these materials meant for architecture, but now we are looking at the new visual culture that arose from them and which finally reached maturity in the De Stijl movement. It’s lovely to see how well the De Stijl pieces from The Hague’s Gemeentemuseum complement those from Het Nieuwe Instituut’s architectural archive.’
The integration of different disciplines was essential to De Stijl, Berens explains. ‘Fine art and commissioned design came together in De Stijl. You can also see how different scales were integrated: from buildings and interiors, to pieces of furniture. This striving towards the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, also appeals to the imagination of today. These architects, designers and artists wanted their uniform and abstract visual language to transcend individual differences and contradictions to improve the world. In this sense, De Stijl was certainly a response to the First World War.
A nineteenth-century phenomenon
The focus of the exhibition on the relationship between De Stijl and the late nineteenth century developed out of a conversation between Hetty Berens (curator at Het Nieuwe Instituut), Hans Janssen (curator at Gemeentemuseum The Hague) and Auke van der Woud (Emeritus Professor of the History of Architecture and Urban Design at the University of Groningen). ’Van der Woud has written a number of books about the nineteenth century,’ says Berens. ‘In them he shows how all kinds of changes in what you might call the material culture led to a new visual culture. He argues – but has not yet written about, because the exhibition anticipates this work – that De Stijl, which is considered the highpoint of twentieth-century Dutch art, is, in fact, a nineteenth-century phenomenon.’
When Berens began to delve into the archives of architects who were working in the period 1880 to 1920, she came across all kinds of approach routes to developments that would ultimately culminate in De Stijl. ‘The Desire for Style is a survey show in which we place designs by architects like Lauweriks, De Bazel, Kromhout and Berlage from the 1890s alongside De Stijl designs, such as van Doesburg’s design for Aubette in Strasbourg, Jan Wils’ dance school in The Hague, J.J.P. Oud’s temporary office for the construction site at Oud-Mathenesse, and the hall that van Eesteren and van Doesburg designed for the University of Amsterdam. We begin with a boy’s bedroom designed by Vilmos Huszár and end with a reconstruction of one of Mondriaan’s studios. By placing almost 200 drawings close together, above and beside each other, we are able to show at a glance how certain themes developed from the end of the nineteenth century and into the early years of the twentieth century.’
Important themes here are an intense use of colour, a large degree of transparency through the use of glass, and a growing concern for hygiene, says Berens. ‘In the nineteenth century, doctors showed that health was inextricably linked to hygiene. When hygiene is improved, people’s health improves. This awareness led to new kinds of architectural space.’ The operating theatres designed by the architect van Nieukerken for Groningen’s university hospital are good examples and one of the high points of the exhibition for Berens. ‘Van Nieukerken is famous for his typically nineteenth-century interiors, with lots of dark oak and heavy panelling. Yet, for this hospital, he applied the medical world’s new understanding of hygiene and designed light, sterile spaces and steel-tube furniture. This really illustrates the switch to De Stijl interiors. In De Stijl designs, ceilings, walls and floors run seamlessly into each other, spaces can be closed off or extended using sliding doors, and colour becomes an integral part of the space.’
‘When we began selecting material for the exhibition, I asked myself whether Mondriaan’s work was not too far removed from the nineteenth-century precursors of De Stijl that were in our archive,’ Berens admits. ‘But then I discovered that the architect van Epen was a member of the artists’ club De Onafhankelijken (The Independents), as was Mondriaan, and that they exhibited annually together at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam from 1921. Van Epen’s contributions to these exhibitions already demonstrated that architecture and art could merge seamlessly. This current exhibition contains a study by Van Epen for a country house in which an intense use of colour links beautifully with the work of Mondriaan.’
For Berens, van Epen’s pannenhuisje, ‘tile house’, is one of the big surprises in the exhibition. The desire to develop affordable housing inspired technical innovation. He designed a house in which he extended the tile roof right down to the ground, so that the facades were entirely covered in roof tiles. ‘This led to a unique design with strong horizontal and vertical lines. At the beginning of this century, the architectural office MVRDV developed a row of tile-clad terraced houses for the Ypenburg housing development in The Hague, but here the motive was more one of aesthetics.’
The use of steel also had a major influence on the new visual culture that was developed by De Stijl and, later, Dutch functionalism (Het Nieuwe Bouwen). Berens points to the example of the grain silo by Michiel Brinkman in Rotterdam, for which he designed an enormous skeleton construction of tightly ranked rows of iron columns. In fact, the influence of technical innovation on visual culture continued up until the Second World War, Berens explains. ‘You can even see some of the same designers among the Dutch Functionalists. For example, the colours used in the Sonneveld House of 1933, designed by the architects Brinkman and van der Vlugt, were the same colours De Stijl artist Bart van der Leck had composed for the Amsterdam department store Metz & Co. The same blues, reds and yellows were used in the dining room, and blue and yellow were used in the children’s bedrooms where, this year, we added red chairs upholstered in fabric from the Van der Leck series.
Berens says that the partnership between The Hague Gemeentemuseum and Het Nieuwe Instituut has been very enjoyable. It didn’t take long at all for them to agree on the idea underlying the exhibition. Because this year marks the centenary of the movement’s genesis, several art institutions are holding exhibitions on De Stijl. Utrecht’s Centraal Museum and Kade in Amersfoort both approached Het Nieuwe Instituut to borrow drawings and maquettes from the archive. Berens stressed that there is plenty of material to choose from. ‘We are in a position to be able to lend artefacts liberally while still retaining enough to put on an extensive exhibition ourselves. Some institutions had to wait a little while we made our selection for The desire for style, but there was still more than enough to draw on. The wonderful advantage of an extensive archive like the State Archives for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning is that you can graze in it time and again, each time from a different angle, and still discover new items or make new selections.
Interview by Lotte Haagsma