Founded in Leiden, the Netherlands, in 1916, the group known as De Stijl was Europe’s most important theoretical movement in art and architecture until the mid-1920s, when leadership passed to Germany.
In 1916 the architect J. J. P. Oud met the critic and painter Theo van Doesburg and soon introduced him to another young architect, Jan Wils. First forming De Sphinx artist’s club in Leiden, the three founded, with the railwayman-philosopher Anthony Kok and the painters Piet Mondrian, Bart van der Leck, and expatriate Hungarian Vilmos Huszár, the group known as De Stijl. Others joined them: the fiery Communist Robert van ’t Hoff and the Belgian sculptor Georges Vantongerloo (both in 1917); the furniture
designer Gerrit Rietveld (1918); the architect Cor van Eesteren (1922); and the painter César Domela (1924). Later arrivals were balanced by departures.
The first manifesto was issued in November 1918, though not all the members signed it. Therefore, De Stijl should never be thought of as a group in the sense that, say, the Pre-Raphaelites or the Impressionists were groups. The members never reached unity of purpose; there were no meetings; and membership seems to have lain in contributing to De Stijl, a polemical journal jealously conducted by van Doesburg. He stretched and frayed their fragile ties by personality issues, and the whole fabric unraveled as members withdrew one by one, unable to work with him. Van der Leck lasted only until 1918; Wils and van ’t Hoff left in 1919; Oud and Vantongerloo two years later; and Mondrian in 1925. Others briefly established links with van Doesburg, but after 1925 only he was left to continue the magazine, by then published only spasmodically. He died in 1931.
Many De Stijl members were influenced by Theosophical doctrine and, subscribing to a holistic worldview “in which the geometric [was] the essence of the real,” they sought unity within the arts and between art and society. Perhaps because its mysticism, religion, and philosophy offered a palliative for the problems of burgeoning capitalism, Theosophy appealed to many in the industrializing world at the fin de siècle. Socialism was an important factor at the time of De Stijl’s birth and for some members social issues were all. They so concerned van ’t Hoff that, unwilling to work for middle-class clients, he soon forsook architecture altogether. Seeking an appropriate architecture, the others explored Constructivism, temporarily preached Neoplasticism, and generated what Oud called Cubism, but theory seldom extended to architectural realities. The few realized projects were spectacular: van Doesburg’s Café Aubette, Strasbourg (1926–1927, with Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp), carried “painting into architecture, theory into practice.”
Rietveld’s Schröder house demonstrated De Stijl ideas and became an icon of European Modernism. In 1921, Rietveld began to collaborate with the interior designer Truus Schröder-Schrader. The tiny house in Utrecht (1924) that he designed for her expresses, more than anything else undertaken by the group, the principles valued by De Stijl. Earlier, Rietveld had collaborated with his De Stijl colleagues on fragments of schemes and unrealized projects. What they had been able to only dream of or explore in scale models, Rietveld built as his first complete architectural work.
The division among Dutch architects on religious and political grounds prevented wider acceptance of De Stijl’s ideas within the Netherlands. De Stijl became an international journal (or rather, by van Doesburg’s duplicity, an illusion of one), and through its pages and his personal preaching he shared with Europe the message of an architectural climax. De Stijl was moribund when van Doesburg died in 1931, but for a moment or two, through it, the Dutch had supplied a lot of theoretical and rather less practical input to modern architecture. Not least, by commenting upon his work to a wide audience, they provided a gateway for Frank Lloyd Wright’s “peaceful penetration of Europe.” In 1936 Alfred Barr of the New York Museum of Modern Art perceptively remarked that De Stijl had overshadowed German architecture and art in the mid-1920s. Moreover, had van Doesburg’s attempted insinuation into the Dessau Bauhaus succeeded, that critically important school of architecture and design would have been turned toward Russian Constructivism.