The Red and Blue Chair by Gerrit Rietveld: when a piece of furniture redefines modernity
In 1918, Gerrit Rietveld designed a chair that would become a milestone in the history of design: the chair Red and Blue – – Red Blue Chair -. At that time, its apparent and extremely bare structure was a UFO in the world of furniture. The Red Blue Chair marks a singular stage in the history of design, and is rightly considered an iconic piece of 20th century design furniture, influencing generations of designers. Even today, it continues to fascinate the greatest designers. It obviously owes much to its creator Gerrit Thomas Rietveld (1888-1964), a Dutch designer, architect and cabinetmaker who was an avant-garde spirit for his time.
Gerrit Rietveld ‘fell into the pot’ as a child. At the age of twelve, he joined his father’s cabinetmaking business and set up his own workshop in 1910. In the evenings, he took architectural lessons from Piet Klaarhamer (1874-1954), an architect who was involved in the construction of a number of houses for the middle class in Utrecht, which are now listed in a ‘protected urban landscape area’. In 1919, Gerrit Rietveld joined the avant-garde movement De Stijl (The Style). This neo-plastic movement, founded by Theo Van Doesburg in the Netherlands in 1917, theorised by Piet Mondrian – one inevitably thinks of the latter with the use of primary colours for the Red Blue Chair – the movement claims a universal harmony in the complete integration of all the arts
In this sense, the famous chair designed by Rietveld is emblematic of this movement. Nevertheless, for its time, the astonishing seat designed by the Dutch designer intrigued and destabilised the aesthetes. It is hard to find an origin for it, it seems to have come out of nowhere. Looking at Rietveld’s chair, one can think of an astonishing fusion between a primitive aesthetic from Black Africa and the appearance of the structures practiced by Japanese cabinetmakers. The elementary diagonals of the chair also evoke the deck chairs of the famous Transatlantic. Some try to relate it to more familiar pieces of furniture such as the longiligne Hill House (created in 1902) by the Scottish designer Charles Mackintosh or Frank Lloyd Wright’s chair Robie by Frank Lloyd Wright (1908).
In 1918, the Red Blue Chair designed from 17 pieces of wood, an economy of material rarely seen at the time, surprised the critics. This chair, which resembled an armchair, upset the vocabulary of both furniture and architecture. The design of the chair is reduced to its simplest elements: a seat and a structure. Undeniably, Rietveld’s chair embodies modernity even at the time. Centuries of cabinet making were swept away in one fell swoop in favour of radical geometry! Gerrit Rietveld quickly eliminated the original sides to leave a visible structure, the backrest and seat do not touch each other, they are attached to bars. For five years, the chair, which was still produced by hand, was painted in various monochromes. It was not until 1923 that it was painted in the primary colours that we can identify it spontaneously today – red for the backrest, blue for the seat, black for the bars of the base and armrests and yellow to highlight the ends of the bars.
Rietveld continued to experiment and subsequently designed a series of furniture pieces that borrowed from the avant-garde aesthetic vocabulary of the Red Blue Chair s avant-garde aesthetic vocabulary and incorporates its DNA. In 1923, for example, Rietveld designed the Military Chair. Very similar to the red and Blue Chair, the seat and backrest ‘float’ in space. Then he invented the berlin Chair. with a very pronounced geometric shape and a small table. A few years later, the designer worked on the bentwood technique and envisaged the design of the red and Blue Chair this was achieved by using a moulded sheet of plywood. The seat consists of a single sheet of wood resting on an iron rod frame. The chair, called Beugel was presented in 1928 at the exhibition of architecture, painting and sculpture “A.B.S.” at the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art in Amsterdam. For Rietveld, it was a certain culmination, a synthesis of his work on bentwood.
If one evokes the avant-garde masterpiece that is the red and Blue chairIf we talk about the avant-garde masterpiece that is the Beugel chair, we cannot avoid mentioning the other iconic piece by the Dutch designer made between 1932 and 1934: the zig Zag chair. A unique piece, stripped to the bone, with four sides forming the famous Z. The Zig Zag is indeed the worthy heir of the red and Blue chair rietveld’s obsessive search for a simple and functional piece of furniture. He could even be reproached for being extremely rigorous, the colour code of the red and Blue chair is this a Protestant value that is unconsciously expressed in Rietveld’s work? Perhaps… The fact remains that the Zig Zag the fact remains that the “Rietveld” cannot leave one indifferent, like the fear of seeing the seat collapse like a house of cards as soon as one sits on it! But as with its illustrious predecessor, the line is surprising and surprisingly light and elegant, inherited from the precepts of De Stijl in the choice of perpendicular forms. We also find a fundamental idea inherited from the Dutch artistic manifesto: the extension of lines in space. The Red Blue Chair with its slats that form nerve endings, the chair Zig Zag with its vertical, oblique and horizontal lines.
The red and Blue Chair and the zig Zag chair are both published today by Cassina, the great Milanese house that reissues the great classics of design. Cassina started the industrial production of the red and Blue chair in 1973. In order to respect the spirit of the model and its creator, the Cassina employees worked with the craftsmen and collaborators of Gerrit Rietveld, who died 9 years earlier. It is no coincidence that Cassina manufactures the red and Blue chair In addition to Rietveld, the Italian company has works by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in its catalogue, Le Corbusier, Charlotte PerriandGaetano Pesce and, more recently, Philippe Starck and Konstantin Grcic. To consult the Cassina catalogue is to find yourself projected into a century of design!
The red and Blue chair and the zig Zag chair of Gerrit Rietveld, the man who, according to his own words, wanted his seats to come out of a single block of a machine, have profoundly marked the history of design. But who are his successors? Undoubtedly, the zig Zag chair the Danish designer was directly inspired Verner Panton in 1960 when he designed his famous chair, the Panton Chair. The first plastic chair to be moulded in one piece, the simplicity of the shape, the elegance – all of these factors contribute to the pioneering spirit of Rietveld in the chair designed by Verner Panton
Rietveld’s contemporary designer and fellow Dutchman, Piet Hein Eek (1967- ), is one of his worthy successors. Like the great master, he seeks an economy of material. The oblique lines of his as-thick-as-wide-flesh are curiously reminiscent of the Red Blue Chair The younger generation sometimes even feels obliged to ‘kill’ the image of the father Rietveld, which has become too cumbersome. The designer Maarten Baas (1978- ) methodically burns emblematic pieces of historical design whose Red Blue Chair. His series Smoke series is the starting point of a singular creative process, which consists precisely in charring design pieces and then coating them with resin to solidify them. This is ‘non-smoking’ proof that Gerrit Rietveld’s legacy is still very much alive today!
Written by François Boutard