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Dutch drift - a century of design

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After 100 years Dutch design has lost its moral vigour, according to a new history of the Netherlands’ struggle with modernism, writes Gillian Darley

The Netherlands’ windmills went on turning long after the rest of northern Europe was thoroughly industrialised, and the history of Dutch design during the 20th century reflects a nation continually caught between the drag of endemic conservatism and the push of socially progressive ideas.

In the late 19th century, Dutch decorative artists followed the lead of European theorists of ornament such as Gottfried Semper or Eug讥-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, and the motifs of organic naturalism and the Gothic revival fought it out on the ceramics, textiles and furniture that represented the Netherlands at successive international exhibitions. The English arts and crafts movement provided the ideals of the dignity of labour, while from the esoteric shores of the 19th-century metaphysical doctrine of theosophy came a new geometry.

As a neutral country during First World War, the Dutch had little incentive to modernise, and there were few large manufacturers within their borders. As late as 1929, the typographer (and sometime-Bauhaus teacher) Piet Zwart considered his compatriots held back by ‘machine romanticism’, exemplified by the comment by architect Jo van der Mey that an item of furniture should be ‘an object of feeling’.

In part, the author blames the hold of the expressionists of the Amsterdam school (including Michel de Klerk and Piet Kramer, van der Mey’s colleagues) and the ubiquitous Hendrik Petrus Berlage for obstructing the progress of ‘moral modernism’ in the Netherlands. Yet Berlage, Gerrit Rietveld and Mart Stam were at the first CIAM meeting of international modernist architects, while Rotterdam municipal housing architect Jacobus Oud was too busy to attend. Rietveld, whose work had first been published in De Stijl in 1919, embraced the new opportunities by designing furniture for Metz & Co, the innovative Amsterdam store, remaining a key Dutch design player until his death in 1964.

The tide turned from the artisan to the machine in the 1930s. The Dutch post office was an early convert to the application of design to business, being headed by an amateur typographer, while a new generation of housing was fitted out to the highest specification, the kitchens as labour-saving and efficient as anything in Ernst May’s Frankfurt houses.

Soon it became important that even a tea set was designed to be self-evidently machine-made. A nation of consummately successful traders since the 17th century, the Dutch now sold their 20th century goods, from cabling to coffee, with visual flair.

Yet the terror of German occupation (from 1940 until 1945) saw Dutch design retreat into a medieval world of guilds and nationalistic craft skills. Modernism was execrated. Economically, post-war recovery was slow, but all had not been lost. Philips, the great electric enterprise, was sufficiently international to survive and even profit from the damage done to its German competitors.

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