De Stijl: Mondrian, Oud and Van Doesburg

Composition No 10, 1939-1942, Piet Mondrian.

DE STIJL MEANS “the style” in Dutch, an appropriate moniker for the art movement that established the style of twentieth-century design.

Its origins in the Netherlands were providential and timely because during World War I the country was not only neutral, and spared of the upheaval and destruction, but also isolated as a result.

Thus De Stijl was able to set the stage for the post-war period. Its leaders were painter Piet Mondrian and architect JJP Oud. Its influence, however, can be credited to its theorist and prophet, Theo Van Doesburg, painter, poet, architect and pioneer of modern graphic design.

Like other of the first abstract artists, such as Wassily Kandinsky and František Kupka, Mondrian’s impetus was spiritual, Neoplatonic and mystical. In their day Rembrandt’s representational work was considered the standard of meaning, but Mondrian wrote, “Art and ornament / Art and Rembrandt / Are we going astray or are we not?” He sought Plato’s ideal forms, and boiled elements down to vertical and horizontal lines, and primary colours.

Cover of De Stijl magazine, 1923, Theo Van Doesburg.

Asymmetry associated with Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture strongly influenced De Stijl, and Van Doesburg extended it to typography and the printed page.

Circa mid-1920s, the world increasingly demanded visual experience in the form of movies, an appetite which included print media.

After the war, De Stijl entered its international phase, profoundly influencing The Bauhaus, the nexus of the ideas accumulated in the first two decades of the century.

The Rietveld-Schröder house in Utrecht, built in 1924 by Gerrit Rietveld, De Stijl architect.

The much-misunderstood Bauhaus has been the subject of much writing, more so than any other movement of modern design, but it cannot go without mention in a series on the roots of graphic design. It was not a movement, but a school founded by architects which influenced subsequent developments in architecture, interior design, industrial design, graphic design and photography (see “The Bauhaus and The International Style”).

∼ Robert Grey