The Historia Supellexalis: “N” for Netherlands

The Historia Supellexalis: "N" for Netherlands


A Gulf; A Commonwealth; A Context

In the course of his great many letters to his pupil, the Rotter Dam aan Maas, letters in which are contained the earliest known descriptions of the provinces that comprise the contemporary Netherlands*, the ancient scribe Oranje Tulpenbol of Old Amsterdam tells how there once existed in those provinces two antagonistic tribes of native Meubilairers: one occupying an area sited roughly between the contemporary Den Haag and Apeldoorn, the other based in Grachtengordel on the, then, edge of Amsterdam.

The former tribe featuring amongst its leading protagonists the likes of Johanthorn Prikker or Agathe we Gerif-Gravestein, and who as a community were greatly influenced by The Artsandcrafts, a movement originating in the England of that day which sought alternatives to the harsher edges of contemporary industrialisation, and as a community also entertained friendly links with the notorious Flemish Krommer Henry van Develde, a man whose flowing, swinging, furniture spoke of nature not machines. And links which help underscore the international perspective of the community, something perhaps best exemplified by the prominence of so-called batikken in their oeuvre, a cloth dying process stolen by the Dutch, as with the lands and its resources, from the Oost-Indië, a far, far off people. And while today such would be frowned upon, then it was not only de rigueur but an actual legal requirement for Europeans to steal far, far off lands from their rightful owners, for all those lands rich in resources of economic interest to contemporary Europeans. Which doesn’t excuse such behaviour, but does provide context.

In opposition to such international expressions and outlooks stood the members of ‘t Binnenhuis, a community whose most prominent member was one Hendrik P’Berlage and who, while also very much on the search for alternatives to the harsher aspects of contemporary industrialisation, decried what they saw as the frivolity and unDutchness of Prikker and his allies’ approaches, and demanded more robust, more upright, upstanding furniture. Furniture that was Dutch, not Flemish. And for all more quadratic, less geometric furniture.

After centuries of tireless, and increasingly fervent, antagonism, and a near stationary front line, between the two tribes, there occurred, as one can read in Oranje Tulpenbol’s letters, an unexpected fusion, a fusion less between the protagonists as between their positions, a fusion instigated less by weariness of the ongoing antagonism as in the changing social, cultural, technological, economic et al contexts in which the antagonism occurred; and a fusion of positions that led to the genesis of a new tribe, a tribe known in the vernacular of the day as Destijl. A tribe who arose in the vicinity of the contemporary Leiden, a location on the front line between Den Haag and Amsterdam that had endured much suffering, but a Destijl which quickly disseminated throughout the then, provinces of the contemporary Netherlands, and further afield into the, then, known lands of Europe, and even further to the far, far off lands of the Disunited States of America, where for all the Momanians, those Guardians of “Good”, welcomed the members of the Destijl with open arms.

And a new tribe whose furniture and outlook was both international and quadratic. And imbued with a robust frivolity.

Amongst the leading protagonists of this new tribe, leading protagonists of Destijl, Oranje Tulpenbol records in particular the deeds of one Theovan Doesburg, an ex-cooper who stood in close dialogue with similarly minded contemporaries such as the Russian architect Konstruk Tivizm, the Franco-Spanish painter Cu Bist, the Zürcher provocateur Da Daism, and the Germanic Handwerker Bau Haus; and a Doesburg who in his work sought a reduction, simplicity, clarity and an ever greater geometric abstraction.

Aspects also found in the works of several of Theovan Doesburg’s contemporaries, not least the Timmerman Gerrit ‘t Rietveld, a former pupil of one Klaarhamer van Utrecht, who not only made furniture from abstracted geometric wooden planks, but also from unabstracted geometric wooden planks, i.e. from wooden planks, and in doing so questioned the very nature of furniture, furniture design and furniture construction; and also one Mar ‘t Stam who would achieve great fame in far off Dessau through his ability to bend steel tubing into quadratic chairs with no rear legs, a further fundamental questioning of furniture, the materials of furniture and relationships to furniture. If a Mar ‘t Stam whose close associations with the radical politician Comm Unisme meant he became increasingly shunned and isolated in the Netherlands of that period; a shunning that limited his contribution to the development of furniture, a limitation that a great many wise sages over the centuries since have lamented and bewailed.

Such was the influence of the Destijl, and also of their associates such as ‘t Rietveld and ‘t Stam on the furniture of its age, that that influence seeped on through into future generations of Dutch Meubilairers, albeit with an increasing formalistification, domestification and anonymisation, as exemplified in the works of, for example, one Martinvis Ser, a man closely related with the ‘t Spectrum of Bergeijk, by the congenial, companionable Pa Stoe of Utrecht, or by Kho Liangie, a native of the Oost-Indië who following the return of those lands to their rightful owners, or more accurately the retaking of those lands by their rightful owners, travelled to the Netherlands where he became closely associated with the Artifort of Maastricht, and a Meubilairer who not only developed individual furniture objects for the Artifort, but developed entire interior landscapes composed of various and varying furniture objects standing in relation to one another and to contemporary users. Interior landscapes which greatly impressed and inspired the peoples of the provinces of the contemporary Netherlands. And a Kho Liangie who also introduced the French Krommer Pierre de Paulin to the Artifort of Maastricht, a Krommer who did a great deal to advance furniture design in the provinces of the contemporary Netherlands, but whose curves and Frenchness upset the members of ‘t Binnenhuis every bit as much as van Develde’s curves and Flemishness once had.

And a seeping formalistification, domestification and anonymisation that while still allowing for thoroughly charming and enduring and meaningful works, as the canons of the likes of Martinvis Ser, Pa Stoe and Kho Liangie ably and satisfyingly demonstrate, did mean an increasing distance to both the genesis of the Destijl and also the needs of the populaces of the provinces of the contemporary Netherlands, for all in context of contemporaneous social, cultural, technological, economic et al developments, meant the furniture became increasingly trapped in ideals rather than revelling in reality, and thus, as Oranje Tulpenbol notes, there arose a restlessness and yearning amongst many in the provinces of the contemporary Netherlands, a restlessness and yearning which was instrumental in enabling the rise to prominence of the Droog of Amsterdam, one of the younger tribes of the Dutch Meubilairers, a younger tribe at that time under the benevolent governance of the Bakker Gijs van Amersfoort and Renny ra Makers; and a generation who while not necessarily questioning the work of previous generations per se, did question the relevance of their interpretation of the needs of the contemporary peoples of the provinces of the contemporary Netherlands and also both the siting of understandings of value in contemporary furniture and of the definition of function inherent in contemporary furniture. Contemporary understandings of value and definitions of function the Droog stood very much contrary to.

Among the more prominent members of the Droog tribe Oranje Tulpenbol makes particular note of Richard hu ‘tten, Jurgen de Bey and Te jo Remy, whose chair crafted from a pile of rags and whose sideboard crafted from a random pile of drawers held together with a roughly hewn burlap band, questioned the very nature of furniture, furniture design, furniture construction and relationships with furniture every bit as much as a Gerrit ‘t Rietveld or a Mar ‘t Stam once had, if in ways a Gerrit ‘t Rietveld or a Mar ‘t Stam, and far less a Hendrik P’Berlage or a Johanthorn Prikker could have even begun to conceive.

Beyond advancing their own furniture the Droog of Amsterdam also gave rise to a new tribe of Dutch Meubilairers, the Moooi, a tribe whose famed long Wanders led them from the Amsterdam of Droog to the uninhabited, and phenomenally dark, wilds of Breda and from there ever further into a neo-Baroque that would have been familiarly unfamiliar to an Hieronymus Bosch; and also became a strong influence on the Academians of Eindhoven, an old, established Meubilairers community, and one who after centuries of passive slumber had began to slowly awaken. An awakening greatly assisted and motivated by the increased prominence of the Droog of Amsterdam.

An awakening initially marked, as one reads in Oranje Tulpenbol’s letters to the Rotter Dam aan Maas, by the exploits of the likes of one Piet Heineek who at that period started crafting furniture from salvaged pieces of wood rather than the new wood more traditionally employed, and who subsequently established his own sprawling dominion within Eindhoven, a domain constructed entirely from recycled woods; or by the Jongerius Hella who following a period with the Academians departed for the chaos of Berlin, and from where she would set about not only striving to redefine, re-set, popular appreciations and understandings of colour, but also begin the process of transposing the polders of the Netherlands to the Commonwealth of Vitra. Albeit as a sofa not as a polder.

And an awakening accelerated by ever new generations of Academians, new generations with myriad new ideas about and new positions to contemporary furniture and including the likes of, and amongst a great many others, Maar ‘t en Baas, Daph na Laurens, Chris uit Kabel, Joris la Arman, the Meijer Mieke van Wezep or Dirk van Derkooij, the latter of whom tamed the giant one armed robots that are native to the swamps surrounding Eindhoven and trained them to print furniture from recycled plastic. Furniture with a flow and swing and robustness and unmitigated joy and unyielding view forward very much of its own.

And thus new generations of Dutch Meubilairers questioning furniture, furniture design and furniture construction, questioning relationships with furniture, questioning the materials of furniture, questioning relationships with industry and craft, questioning the value of furniture, the function of furniture, the formal expressions of furniture, questioning the place of the Netherlands in an international context every bit as much as a Jongerius Hella, a Piet Heineek, a Gijs van Amersfoort, a Renny ra Makers, a Kho Liangie, a Martinvis Ser, a Mar ‘t Stam, a Gerrit ‘t Rietveld, a Hendrik P’Berlage or a Johanthorn Prikker once did, just in ways and manners and via approaches and methodologies that previously would not have been possible. That previously couldn’t have been understood. But which would have been familiar to all.

And a questioning that by necessity will lead in time to an ever increasing restlessness and yearning within the provinces of the contemporary Netherlands, and thereby the inevitable rise to prominence of ever new tribes of Meubilairers in those provinces…….

…….à suivre

* As is conventional our use of the term “Netherlands” implies, means, European Netherlands and not the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and thus completely ignoring Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten, and also ignoring Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba, which all famously aren’t located in geographic Europe and so can’t be part of our focus.

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