Gerrit Thomas Rietveld - Design Masters New York Tuesday, December 16, 2014 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Johannes Antonius Slewe, the Netherlands
    Agnes Bouman-Slewe, the Netherlands
    Thence by descent to the present owner

  • Literature

    Theodore M. Brown, The Work of G. Rietveld, Architect, Cambridge, 1958, p. 79 for the model
    Marijke Kuper and Ida van Zijl, Gerrit Th. Rietveld 1888-1964, The Complete Works, exh. cat., Centraal Museum, Utrecht, 1992, p. 75 for a similar example
    Rob Dettingmeijer, Maria Theresia Antoinette van Thoor and Ida van Zijl, Rietveld's Universe, exh. cat., Centraal Museum Utrecht Rotterdam, 2010, p. 238 for the model
    Marijke Kuper, De stoel van Rietveld/Rietveld’s Chair, Rotterdam, 2011, pp. 174-76, 178 for similar examples

  • Catalogue Essay

    “A slim spatial creature.” Theo van Doesburg on Gerrit Thomas Rietveld’s armchair in De Stijl, March 1920

    In 1920, Theo van Doesburg was lyrically lost for words trying to describe Gerrit Thomas Rietveld’s armchair. In his review in the March issue of De Stijl magazine, Van Doesburg fired a round of terms at the chair like a Dada-esque poem: “Unintentional, necessary, clear, real.” According to Van Doesburg, the chair evoked “a mute eloquence, like a machine” and breathed a simple message: “necessity / sitting / chair.” Rietveld’s chair first featured in De Stijl six months earlier, on which occasion Van Doesburg had commented on its “merciless processing of open spaces” which in his opinion embodied a new form of sculpture for the modern interior. At last, Van Doesburg had found a piece of furniture which corresponded with the ideal of a synthesis of the arts which he and his fellow De Stijl members pursued. Cheered as the herald of a new era, Rietveld was incorporated in the De Stijl group and his chair was soon to take its place in art history as the “Red-blue” chair. Even skeptics, of whom there were still many, had to give Rietveld some credit for his inventive use of the so-called Cartesian dowel joint which made the posts and rails look like three-dimensional intersecting planes rather than rigid constructive parts.

    The chair illustrated in De Stijl in the fall of 1919 is considered to be Rietveld’s first version of the armchair, with side panels underneath the armrests. In the same year, Rietveld was photographed in front of his workshop, posing proudly in the chair, surrounded by his young apprentices including Gerard van de Groenekan. From these first years, a handful of chairs have remained, all of which have narrow armrests, solid wood seats and backrests andhave a stained or wax finish. Around 1920-1921, Rietveld removed the side panels, replaced the thin rails and posts with slightly thicker ones and consequently broadened the armrests and (later) the seat panel which initially had the same width as the back rest. Most importantly, Rietveld introduced color; first monochromes (white, red, grey) and soon combinations of colors, sometimes with contrasting touches of color to the rail ends.

    Inspired by the work of his fellow De Stijl member Bart van der Leck, Rietveld started experimenting with the primary colors red, blue and yellow. The Witteveen child’s chair of 1921-1922 is believed to be the first chair in which this combination of colors was applied, soon followed by the easy chair. Although the red-blue color scheme would later lend the chair its world fame as an icon of De Stijl, it should in fact be regarded as a De Stijl version of the chair. Instead of the definitive design it would turn out to be one of the many color schemes which Rietveld would suggest throughout the years. Photographs from Rietveld’s private home in the late 1930s show a dark monochrome version of the chair and reputedly he even owned two easy chairs: one in black and one in red.

    What seems to have been the last decisive step in the development of the armchair was the use of plywood instead of solid wood for the seat and backrest, probably introduced around 1923. Rietveld must have preferred this material for practical reasons, since the solid panels tended to crack and warp. Apart from that, plywood was a modern material: cheap, machine-made, light and flexible- characteristics which Rietveld hoped would soon apply to his furniture as well. Despite its modern appearance, the chair was still mainly made by hand and Van de Groenekan continued to do so in the years to come. As Rietveld’s focus shifted towards architecture, he offered Van de Groenekan the ownership of the workshop. Van de Groenekan accepted and from circa 1925 onwards he was the principal maker of Rietveld’s furniture designs, supervised by the master himself. The present armchair is interesting in the fact that it combines the dark staining of the early chairs with the plywood seat and backrest mostly seen in the post-1923 versions. The dimensions of the posts and rails and the armrests and seat also indicate that the chair should originate from after 1923, which corresponds with its provenance.

    The first owner of the chair here offered was C.J.A. Slewe (Leiden 1897-Hilversum 1947), the late father-in-law of the present owner. After finishing high school in his town of birth Leiden in 1914, Slewe launched at a successful career in the media business. After six years at the Rotterdam Maasbode newspaper, Slewe moved to a large publishing firm in ‘s Hertogenbosch where he worked on several newspapers, including the recently founded Volkskrant. Around 1926, Slewe became chief of studio at De La Mar advertising agency in Amsterdam and was founder and editor of the firm’s periodical Meer Baet (more profit). In those years, De la Mar was one of the leading advertising companies in the Netherlands and Slewe was considered the nation’s best copywriter. Due to his position, Slewe moved in progressive and artistic circles which might have introduced him to the work of Rietveld. It is known that De la Mar did several advertising campaigns for Metz & Co. in Amsterdam, the luxury warehouse that sold furniture designed by Rietveld. In 1936, Slewe founded CeBuCo, the first Dutch media organization, which he dismantled during the German occupation. Directly after the Second World War, Slewe was appointed director of Volkskrant newspaper which under his guidance quickly developed into one of the leading newspapers in The Netherlands. After Slewe’s untimely death in 1947, the chair remained in the family.


  • Artist Biography

    Gerrit Thomas Rietveld

    Dutch • 1888 - 1964

    Gerrit Thomas Rietveld began as an apprentice in his father's cabinetmaking workshop, going on to train and work as a draftsman. In 1917 he started his own furniture-making workshop in Utrecht. Positive critical review by Theo van Doesburg in his journal De Stijl resulted in near-instantaneous influence on broader developments in European modernism. This connection to the De Stijl movement also inspired him to introduce color to the posts, rails and terminals of his furniture. His resulting "Red-blue" armchair is among the most iconic chair designs of the twentieth century.

    From the beginning, Rietveld embraced modernist principles of functionalism, simplicity of form and mass-production, and eventually moved away from De Stijl to become a member of the Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM). Rietveld worked through the post-war years, completing a number of private residences, housing developments and institutions. He continued to design furniture for these commissions as well as for retailers like Metz & Co.

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Important early armchair

circa 1926-1928
Stained beech and beech-veneered plywood.
34 x 27 7/8 x 33 7/8 in. (86.4 x 70.8 x 86 cm)
Produced by Gerard van de Groenekan, Utrecht, the Netherlands.

$150,000 - 200,000 

Sold for $266,500

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Meaghan Roddy
Head of Sale
New York
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Design Masters

New York Auction 16 December 2014 6pm