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Rietveld Space Artist

Film by Bertus and Marco Mulder. Electronic music Roland Kuit

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Gerrit Thomas Rietveld was born in 1888 in Utrecht, where he would live and work until the end of his life in 1964. After primary school he was trained as a furniture maker in his father’s workshop, which produced and repaired traditional furniture mostly, but adapted itself to modern times by making furniture for designer architects such as Klaarhamer, whose evening classes Rietveld attended to study design, architecture, the arts, and literature. The young apprentice clearly appreciated Klaarhamer’s designs and, having produced them himself once he had acquired the skills, he went on to start his own workshop at the Adriaan van Ostadelaan in Utrecht. Here he produced the furniture that would make him the designer icon of De Stijl movement: the highchair for the Schelling family, the – still symmetrical - Red Blue Chair, and the – asymmetrical – Berlin Chair. None of these chairs ‘occupied’ space, but, rather, they were spatial objects that mediated between form and space. They integrated individual elements that had mutually distinct shapes and colours.

Rietveld received a strict Protestant upbringing and even his marriage at the age of twenty-three to Vrouwgien Hadders – also a Protestant and five years his senior – was traditionally solemnized by minister Klaarhamer, the father of his master. However, like Klaarhamer, Rietveld would later renounce his faith in search of a new worldview. His wife couldn’t manage the change and remained a faithful Christian throughout.

In a posthumous note Rietveld defined his views as follows:

‘Feeling connects me to the universe – I feel connected to the All; unborn, timeless, infinite All – this is the base of my existence, my faith, my total confidence, being one with the All. No matter what temporary, concrete, or limited challenges I may face, none of it compares to this eternity.’

While still employed by his father, Rietveld had delivered a desk at the mansion of Frits Schröder, a lawyer, and his wife Truus, whom he also met, in the Biltstraat in Utrecht. The house, with it’s towering rooms and dark furniture, made Truus Schröder feel increasingly uncomfortable. As the situation threatened to turn into a marital problem, Mr Schröder suggested they redecorate one room to suit her every need. He had been in touch with the 21-year old Rietveld, who had recently designed and decorated a jeweller’s shop in Amsterdam, and proposed to commission him. Rietveld perfectly intuited Truus Schröder’s wishes and produced a space that pleased her very much.

In 1923, after Frits Schröder’s death, Truus had to look for affordable housing for herself and her three school-going children. She turned to Rietveld for help and together they decided to build a new house on a leftover patch of land on the edge of Utrecht’s development overlooking the Johannapolder.

Truus knew how she wanted her home. As the ground floor would impose limitations to her sense of living space, she chose to live on the first floor instead. The actual layout was further decided on in close, harmonious collaboration with Rietveld. Truus Schröder once told me that they ‘read each other ’s minds’. Rietveld proceeded to work out the exterior and soon he produced a model that made no particular impression on Schröder, however. It reminded of Berlage and as such it was rather mainstream, like the designs of the architect van Lochum in Haarlem at the time. Truus felt underestimated and had expected more from the man whose furniture designs had been revolutionary. On his way out, according to Schröder, Rietveld promised her he might have ‘something else in store’. Shortly after, he presented ‘the first sketch’ of what would eventually become the Rietveld Schröder House as we know it – a house conceived out of love and mutual respect. Truus Schröder would stay there for sixty years until she was ninety-five years of age. Rietveld came to live with her for a number of years after his wife had died. Because of its construction the house was easily adaptable to changing circumstances.

Like Rietveld’s chairs, the House presents a spatial object composed of individual parts with distinct shapes, colours, and surface textures. Its asymmetry is akin to the Berlin Chair. As with the chairs, the leading principle is to actualize space by mediating inner and outer dimensions. Truus Schröder actively supported Rietveld in trading furniture making for architecture based on space as its medium. The finest examples of this approach were realized when the shapes of the boundaries, the columns, the walls, and the floors were minimally determined by the function or the construction of the building. The Rietveld Pavilion in the sculpture garden of Kröller Müller Museum in Otterlo is one further example of what Rietveld liked to call ‘space art’.

Rietveld described his approach as an architect like this:

‘When we limit, isolate or demarcate a segment of what we tend to call ‘general, infinite space’ for a given purpose, protect is from certain influences, and size it down to a human scale, we (possibly) create a chunk of space that becomes experienced reality – for it has become part of our human dimension.’

It is fair to say that by rejecting Rietveld’s first ‘Berlagian’ attempt at the House, Truus Schröder challenged him to return to his revolutionary furniture and eventually build the architectural icon of De Stijl movement. She was his muse. He once said that he showed her every design before it left the office.

On her seventieth birthday, Rietveld gave Truus Schröder The Small Miracle by Paul Gallico with a dedication:

‘I went to find a book for you, Truus dear. The first that caught my eye in the window struck me because of its title – I know nothing about the author or the subject, but (now that I’ve known you for more than half of your life) the title expresses precisely how much I appreciate you as a person and your honest, intense attitude to life, and in particular how you bring it to whatever you meet with such an insatiable sense of adventure. For, you discover a small miracle in everyone without exception. In reference to you, the word ‘small’ only establishes the absence of any self-importance.’

I worked with Gerrit Rietveld for a number of years and was in close contact with Truus Schröder for a long time, when he supervised the restoration of the interior and the reconstruction of the exterior of the House. In 2010 I have rebuilt the Rietveld Pavilion at the Kröller Müller Museum, which had badly deteriorated, and made it durable.