Today it is hard to imagine that furniture incorporating tubular steel was once at the forefront of modern design. By the 1920s a few designers had begun to explore the possibilities of tubular steel in domestic furniture but its use was still rare and pre World War II examples are hard to find today. One of these, a tube-framed armchair designed by the Dutch architect and designer Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964), was recently acquired by the Powerhouse. The armchair was designed in 1927 and has been acquired with its original 1932 receipt, making it an important addition to the Museum’s early Modernist collection.
Gerrit Rietveld was a founding member of the De Stijl design movement, an inter-disciplinary group influential in the development of modern design principles. In his career Rietveld designed over 350 pieces of furniture and around 100 buildings, including the Schröder House which was to become an icon of the Modernist movement. The house was added to the World Heritage list in 2000.
Rietveld designed the tubular framed armchair (beugelfauteuil) at a time when his work was increasingly influenced by the functionalist philosophy of the Bauhaus school. What sets it apart, however, is Rietveld’s use of tubular steel in combination with plywood. This is the first time these materials were used together, a recipe not seen again after the range was discontinued until the furniture of Ray and Charles Eames in the 1950s.
The armchair also shares the proportions of his celebrated De Stijl wooden chairs, including the 1917’18 Red Blue chair, a copy of which is on display in the Museum’s Inspired! Design across time exhibition. As the noted Rietveld historian Peter Vöge writes: ‘even ‘normative’ pieces such as [this armchair] . . . retain some residue of Rietveld’s characteristic ‘peculiarity’ . . . there always seems something of the ‘aura’ of the hand-made in these pieces.’
Rietveld’s range of tubular framed plywood chairs received much international attention when exhibited in the late 1920s. It was likely this range that Le Corbusier’s collaborator, Charlotte Perriand, had in mind when in 1929 she sanctioned the use of plywood as an ideal material to use in combination with metal.
Recognition for the chair’s qualities continued after the war. In the 1950s the armchair was acknowledged as the direct inspiration for the ‘Bachelor Chair’ by acclaimed Danish designer Verner Panton. This was to be the first of Panton’s many commercial successes and is still in production today.
While Rietveld is most celebrated for his early iconic De Stijl pieces, his later furniture such as this armchair has recently begun to receive the recognition it deserves. In 1927, the same year the armchair was designed, Le Corbusier proclaimed, ‘A great epoch has begun. There exists a new spirit. There exists a mass of work conceived in this new spirit, it is to be met with particularly in industrial production ” Rietveld’s armchair, now in the Powerhouse collection, is a perfect example of the technological and aesthetic tenets of its time.
This article was first published in the Spring 08 issue of Powerline, the magazine of the Powerhouse Museum.
The chair is on display on Level 3 of the museum until 22 September 2009.