New York

Gerrit Rietveld

Barry Friedman Ltd.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Gerrit Rietveld’s birth, this gallery organized a modest, focused, and significant retrospective of this seminal architect/designer’s work, focusing on his chairs and furnishings. Rietveld was one of the major proponents of the De Stijl esthetic, whose ambitious objective was to galvanize a universal, mass-produced style—“the style”—distinguished by simple, Spartan forms and a palette of primary colors, blacks, whites, and grays. It was Rietveld who transformed the abstract, two-dimensional ideas of Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg into spatial, volumetric reality through his early chair designs, 1917–20, and the Schröder House, 1924. His potent integration of the pure, unembellished forms of the machine with the tough, raw tactility of hand-wrought work helped endow De Stijl theory with a visceral presence.

This exhibition provided an opportunity to see early prototypes of individual pieces, as well as subsequent editions adjusted in size, scale, color, finish, and production technique. These prototypes suggest that the “classic” design is never a fixed proposition—that what seems essential in fact contains the possibility for endless variation. The Red/Blue Chair, 1919, for example, was realized in a number of formats of varying size, surface treatment, and construction. The earliest prototypes from 1918 were made of deal, a firwood, left in its natural state or stained a deep brown; he did not begin to paint the chair in its well-known primary colors until at least a year later.

In addition to more familiar designs, the exhibition included an exceptional range of objects—posters, a doll house, children’s furniture, as well as an unusual fitted desk and chest of drawers originally installed in the Birza Room, 1927. A small photograph of the room hung above these pieces, showing Rietveld’s extraordinary ability to create a harmonious interior space. Also included was a hanging lighting fixture, 1920, remarkable for its stark design. It consists of a single wire for both suspension and electrical current, and three narrow, cylindrical incandescent bulbs, crisscrossed to imply a three-dimensional, orthogonal grid.

Rietveld’s esthetic of spareness was based on principles of deconstruction—as understood 70 years ago. For Rietveld, the idea of breaking architecture down and pulling elements apart was a quest for purity of form, rather than an investigation into form’s “contaminants.” For all the stripped, tough qualities of this work, it still projects a palpable optimism. Rietveld believed that the stimulants for an emergent modernity could be directed toward and discovered in a chair, a poster, or a toddler’s wheelbarrow. The clarity of his thinking and the continued potency of his work—as well as his socially and politically impassioned, if naive, intentions—are worth reinvestigation.

Patricia C. Phillips