In 1917 the cartography of the new Europe was drawn to the rhythm of the Allied cannons. Gerrit T. Rietveld, busy in the daily work of his furniture workshop in Utrech, remained oblivious to this reality. He preferred to draw the plans of a new chair.
Gerrit T. Rietveld had worked in his father’s workshop since 1900. At twelve he had dropped out of elementary school and had begun his relationship with furniture design. Night drawing courses at the Kunstindus-Trieel Onderwijs der Vereeniging and subsequent studies with P. J. C. Klaarhamer aroused in Gerrit T. Rietveld an interest in architecture and applied arts. The atmosphere in Holland during those first decades of the twentieth century stimulated new aesthetic searches, in a country whose avant-garde advocated the collapse of old ways of doing based on historical and naturalistic inspiration.
A chair did not seem to fit in this climate of artistic catharsis. Vilmos Huszár, Antony Kok, Johanes Jacobus Pieter Oud, Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg founded De Stijl magazine in 1917 with the will to find new ways of expression adapted to their time. His first issue contained the Neoplasticist manifesto – it was a time of great manifests, in the arts and in war – praise of the geometric order, pure colors and disciplinary integration. That same year, Gerrit T. Rietveld finished his red and blue chair, which then had no color yet.
‘Deep down, sitting is a simple activity’,
Gerrit T. Rietveld wrote in 1930. That is why he was surprised that – unlike other objects such as the bicycle or the spoon, which seemed to have found their optimal shape – the chair had not yet been satisfactorily resolved.
‘The chair should not necessarily be a representation of the idea of sitting, but that the chair is as if it were the bottom of a seated man, prolonging an agile spine; That is why its structure has not been solved so easily … in each period this has been done differently. In this way a huge variety of types of chairs emerged’.1
So the red and blue chair wanted to be the chair of his time, and – deliberately or not – it was also his place. It was the chair of neoplasticism, of the avant-garde Holland of the beginning of the 20th century. Its strict geometric configuration and its rigorous chromatic hierarchy – black for the skeleton, yellow for the edges of the pieces that compose it, red and blue for the seating and backrest surfaces – make the chair another Neoplasticist manifest, more eloquent than that published in the first issue of De Stijl.
Gerrit T. Rietveld had conceived the chair without color, and only later began to experiment with this new factor: the first attempts with white, gray and black were later – due in part to the influence of Piet Mondrian – replaced by the definitive ones red and blue, unchanged since 1918.
La silla se convirtió entonces en el primer ensayo tridimensional de los postulados neoplasticistas, que hasta ese momento no se habían emancipado de los lienzos de Piet Mondrian y sus The chair then became the first three-dimensional essay of the Neoplasticist postulates, which until then had not been emancipated from the canvases of Piet Mondrian and his companions. The design of the red and blue also responded to another premise: the ease of assembly and the possibility of mass production, thus demonstrating a desire for ‘applied art’ that satiated the original aspiration of the Leiden group.
But the red and blue chair is not a comfortable seat to get rid of, since the human body – unlike it – is not made of straight lines and drying planes. Gerrit T. Rietveld never aspired to that, but to bring the new art to an everyday object.
The red and blue chair does not rely on ergonomics to justify itself. The driving force at birth this object seems to have been instead the nonconformity, the weariness towards what we have already seen that we recognize in an unprecedented chord, in a novel stroke or in the insolent penalty invented by Panenka. Maybe because Gerrit T. Rietveld drew her looking forward. Without turning my head.
Borja López Cotelo. PhD architect
A Coruña. august 2011