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Distinctly Dutch: Modernism in The Netherlands

The puzzle of 20th Century design has many pieces, and Dutch modernism is a big one. Our appreciation for this particular era and origin goes way back, and with an exciting selection of just-restored pieces ready to share from some of the most iconic mid-century Dutch designers and manufacturers, we’re jumping back in.

By Millie Thwaites

20th Century Dutch designers were driven by a desire to affect people’s lives with good design.

Dutch designers of the 50s and 60s created simple, superior quality and functional furniture within the context of industrial production. They were inspired by the latest technology and materials, but at their very core, they were driven by a desire to affect people’s lives with good design.

Many similarities can be drawn between the widely known Danish modernism and the lesser known Dutch modernism. While both were defined by functionality and simplicity, the Danes favoured natural materials, organic forms and hand craftsmanship, whereas the Dutch wholly embraced industrial processes, and materials such as steel and plastic utilising the latest post-war technologies.

Dutch designers of the 50s and 60s created simple, superior quality and functional furniture within the context of industrial production.”
The Dutch have long been at the forefront of design and culture; exploring, fostering and celebrating design is a natural way of life in The Netherlands.

It should come as no surprise that The Netherlands is a crucial thread in the fabric of 20th Century design; the Dutch have long been at the forefront of design and culture. Good design is effortless and widespread – the sentiment that beautiful, functional products should be available to all is still prevalent today and infiltrates everyday life.

What’s more, there is no division between disciplines – art, fashion, music, photography, graphic design and product design all overlap in a delightful melange of feel-good design for all. Exploring, fostering and celebrating design has been a natural way of life for the Dutch for many years, and it had a particularly strong moment in the post-war period.   

Good design is effortless and widespread in The Netherlands - the sentiment that beautiful, functional products should be available to all is still prevalent today and infiltrates everyday life.”
Dutch modernism was largely influenced by the De Stijl movement of the 1920s. This petite side table is a great example of the furniture of this era.

Largely driven by a select group of designers who embraced new materials and technologies, modernism was also a flow-on from the De Stijl movement. De Stijl, which means ‘the style’ in Dutch, was a Netherlands-based movement that gained legs in the 1920s. Seen as a departure from the decorative nature of Art Deco, it embraced an abstract, pared-back aesthetic that championed basic visual elements such as geometric forms and minimal or primary colours (this petite side table in the style of De Stijl is a great example). De Stijl helped pave the way for International Style which dominated the 20s and 30s, and later, modernism.

In recent years, Friso Kramer has been credited as the originator of the pared-back, utilitarian approach that came to define Dutch mid-century design.”

At the heart of modernism was designer Friso Kramer and his ground breaking Revolt chair designed for steel manufacturer Ahrend de Cirkel in 1953. Even at the time, it was considered highly innovative, and marked the start of a revolution. The original frame was made from pressed and curved sheet steel; the back and seat used new plastic bending technology; and the ‘click system’ used to attached the seat and frame indicated it would become a highly original and inventive piece.

In the 50s, it was used widely in commercial environments, but has since become a covetable Dutch design piece and is often used in residential spaces too. It can be easily recognised by its sharply angled scissor steel legs and perfectly moulded back (similar to the Result chair).

In recent years Kramer has been credited as the originator of the pared-back, utilitarian approach that came to define Dutch mid-century design.

Pictured is Friso Kramer's Revolt chair. This piece was considered highly innovative and marked the start of a revolution in design.
The Result chair (pictured) designed by Kramer and Wim Rietveld honed the production process that was pioneered in the Revolt, but with sharper angles and more harmonious arcs.

Kramer’s friend and fellow ‘Goed Wonen’ (Good Living) foundation member Wim Rietveld was also central to Dutch modernism. Wim was the son of architect and designer Gerrit Thomas Rietveld (who designed the Red and Blue Chair – one of the most recognisable pieces of the De Stijl movement), and worked with Kramer at Ahrend, designing the Result Chair in 1958.

The Result honed the production process that was pioneered in the Revolt, but with sharper angles and more harmonious arcs.

Gerrit Thomas Rietveld's Red and Blue Chair was one of the most recognisable pieces of the De Stijl movement. Image via Rietveld Originals.

Rietveld also worked with notable manufacturer Auping in the 50s to produce the Arielle daybed. It’s a perennially stylish piece and epitomises Dutch modernism with its architectural black enamelled frame and beautiful metal hairpin legs.

Auping’s Cleopatra daybed – the first ‘industrial design bed’ – by Andre Cordemeyer is another all-time favourite. Auping commissioned Cordemeyer to design ‘something beautiful’, and there’s no question of the result.

In the 50s, Dutch manufacturer Auping commissioned Andre Cordemeyer to design ‘something beautiful’. The result was the timeless Cleopatra daybed.

Some pieces perfectly encapsulate Dutch modernism through their form, materiality and intent. The Scale Coat Rack – or Toonladder – by Coen de Vries for Pilastro was designed in 1953 for good-quality, functional and beautiful living, and it champions this era to perfection.

Sitting within this utilitarian yet luxurious space is the Lotus armchair by Rob Parry – arguably one of the most iconic mid-century Dutch pieces. Designed in 1952 for Gelderland, the Lotus is Dutch sophistication and functionalism defined. Parry’s wide range of work spanned industrial design, typography, interior design, and architecture – he was the quintessential Dutch designer and is still recognised today for his innovative use of new techniques and materials across all applications.

Designed in 1952 for Gelderland, the Lotus armchair by Rob Parry is Dutch sophistication and functionalism defined.
The energy and hope of a post-war period; the innovation and possibility brought about by new technologies; and the mentorship and know-how that characterises the Dutch design industry have resulted in a movement we’ll reflect on for decades.”
Koene Oberman only designed a few pieces for Gelderland - this womb-style chair is one of them, making it highly covetable today.

The exceptional womb-style chair by Koene Oberman for Gelderland is another piece worth noting. Oberman founded Gelderland in the 1950s; he built the company with a desire to create modern furniture however he only worked as a designer for Gelderland for a short period of time, before enlisting other iconic Dutch designers such as Parry to work for the company. As he only designed a few pieces, this womb-style chair is highly covetable.

There were also a whole host of manufacturers who helped to define this era such as Pastoe (see the inimitable Cubic Chair by Radboud van Beekum), Spectrum (Martin Visser’s work for Spectrum is particularly pertinent – he developed their first contemporary collection), and Artifort. All hold an important place within Dutch modernism for their collaborations and unwavering dedication to well-made, deeply considered design.

Pastoe was one of the most influential manufacturers of the time, producing many iconic pieces such as the Cubic chair by Radboud van Beekum (pictured with matching table).

It’s no doubt that the middle of the 20th Century was a salient time for design. The perfect storm of the energy and hope of a post-war period; the innovation and possibility brought about by new technologies; and the mentorship, knowledge and know-how that characterises the Dutch design industry have resulted in a movement we’ll reflect on and glorify (for good reason) for years to come.

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