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Design in the new Rijks

Design has found its spot among the 17th century masterpieces in the newly renovated Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. 

By Gabrielle Kennedy /asdf 25-04-2013

Every now and then one meets a timeless masterpiece that makes the present look small. The covers of the Dutch magazine Wendingen (1918-1931) are such a find. They may be dated, but they are not out-dated.

Every cover of the magazine was an individual piece of art created by a different artist. The only detail that unites them is the occurrence somewhere in the image of the name of the magazine – but never in the same font. This Dutch website shows almost all the covers. 

The covers of Wendingen on exhibition in the newly renovated Rijksmuseum are easy to miss.  They hang on the wall of a narrow corridor in the attic. Because of the narrowness of the corridor one might pass without noticing the framed covers.  They’re too close.

The international press have been raving these last weeks about the renovation of the museum by Spanish architects Cruz y Ortiz. Locally the issues have been somewhat more prosaic.

For a museum literally built around Rembrandt’s Nightwatch and other masterpieces by his contemporaries like Johannes Vermeer and Frans Hals, the twentieth century is clearly not a priority. But the museum has chosen a completely new set-up, organizing its collection around the passage of time. It used to be organised more according to discipline, which worked as a disservice to some crucial twentieth century developments.  

The twentieth century collection has ended up in the attic, not originally meant as an exhibition space. It houses a combination of works of art, (industrial) design and – as an institute trying to be the country’s national memory – historic artefacts.  There is, for example, a concentration camp uniform that once belonged to one of the many Jews deported from this city during WWII, and the oldest still existing aeroplane designed by a Dutchman, the 1918 F.K.23 by Frits Koolhoven.

The magazine Wendingen was established by architect and typographer H.Th. Wijdeveld, and considered part of the architectural movement known as the Amsterdam School.  In the first decades of the twentieth century this style was dominant in Amsterdam where large new residential districts were being built. The apartment blocks show a heavy focus on brickwork with often complicated masonry. One of the founders of the Amsterdam School, Michel de Klerk is represented with a set of dense, wooden sofas.

Architects dominate in the pre-war design section of the Rijks. The father of modern architecture in the Netherlands, H.P. Berlage (1856–1934) is represented by hexagon-shaped yellow glass breakfast cups and plates with a very modern feel.

The modern, strict mathematical work of Berlage offers a wonderful contrast to the renovated Catholic glory of the museum itself, built by Pierre Cuypers (1827–1921). Cuypers build a cathedral for art in 1885, reminiscent of French gothic churches. The building has a distinct catholic feel created by high arches, high stained glass windows and extensively decorated walls with paintings of scenes from Dutch history. These walls were mostly plastered white over the years by modernists with little feeling for decorative art. The beautiful terrazzo floor in the so-called front hall was destroyed and replaced by carpet.

The fact that a Catholic was chosen to build the national treasure house in this once predominantly Calvinist country is still a topic of discussion. As is the fact that the modernist destruction of decorative art has now been reversed thus reinstating the past.  “Forward with Cuypers”, was the motto of the renovation. “Forward with the past”, so to speak.

Accordingly all the decorations on the walls that were once destroyed have been painstakingly redone over the last decade, giving the building a majestic feel. Every critic has had to acknowledge the renovation is a big success.

In the meantime modernism as well as chairs dominate in the 20th Century exhibition. The heavy sofas by De Klerk – tiring just to look at – are contrasted by Gerrit Rietveld’s early modernist adventure: the famous Red Blue Chair in a white prototype version circa 1920.

Rietveld also brings us into the modern age with his experimental Aluminium Chair made in the 1940s from one slab of aluminium.  His minimalistic Mondial Chair from the 1950’s is also there, and is as simple as a chair can be. The Mondial is still in production and can be enjoyed in the museum café in the magnificent courtyards, together with another modernist classic from the fifties: the Revolt Chair by Friso Kramer.

The chairs are complemented by the extreme typography of Wim Crouwel, famous for his posters for the neighbouring modern art museum, the Stedelijk. Highlighted is the “new alphabet” he designed in the sixties with the limitations of modern technology in mind, and thus used only horizontal and vertical lines.

But in the end it is thanks to technology that we move away from modernism: the Bone Chair (2006) by Joris Laarman, is designed with computer technology that imitates the way a skeleton builds up strength where it needs it most.

The Rijksmuseum was closed for a decade, far longer than planned and far longer than should have been necessary. Costs of the renovation were 375 million euro, also a bit more than budgeted 14 years ago. But the return to Cuypers with the magnificent courtyards, majestically restored halls, and treasures old and new reinstall the museum as one of the world’s very best.

Main image: 'Wendingen', issue no 11, 1928. Cover by Anton Kurvers

Small images:
1 - FK23 by Frits Koolhoven
2 - Sofas by Michel de Klerk, 1916

3 - Breakfast service by H.P. Berlage and Piet Zwart, 1924
4 - The Front Hall in 1988
5 - Restoring decorations
6 - The Front Hall at present, restored to its former glory
7 -
Prototype of the Red Blue Chair, Gerrit Rietveld, ca 1920
8 - Mondial Chair, Gerrit Rietveld, 1957
9 - Revolt Chair, Friso Kramer, 1953
10 - Poster for Stedelijk Museum by Wim Crouwel, 1968
11 - New Alphabet by Wim Crouwel, 1967
12 - Bone Chair, Joris Laarman, 2006 

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