De Stijl (literally, The Style) was a movement founded in the neutral Netherlands in 1917 by the painter, philosopher, poet, savant, and tireless proselytizer Theo van Doesburg (1883–1931), with the significant contribution of Piet Mondrian; it was also the name of a magazine, published in Leiden from 1917 to 1931. The movement encompassed a fluctuating and tenuously connected group of adherents who shared selective goals but interpreted them according to their own personal viewpoints and invariably fell out with the volatile Van Doesburg after a time. At first exclusively Dutch, after 1921 advocates were drawn from an international cadre of artists and activists.
De Stijl shared with the avant-garde configurations that proliferated in the first three decades of the twentieth century a radical and somewhat utopian agenda that sought to reunite art with life and, indeed, saw aesthetic transformation as the chief medium for social change. Its signature aesthetic elements included a preference for abstract geometric form, the orthogonal, and the flat plane; the incorporation of modular composition; the use of primary colors along with black, white, and gray; and the subordination of the natural to the mechanistic. All these motifs symbolized De Stijl's new worldview, which acknowledged the ethical as well as the physical impact of recent scientific, technological, and political revolutions on human existence, experience, and conduct. The group speculated about the notion of space-time; the conquest of nature and the triumph of the machine were among its aims. Through the reform of music, dance, literature, and arguably most of all, design in two and three dimensions (from typography to city planning, from furniture to film), a restorative harmony was to be born. Thus Manifesto 1 (1918) averred that "the war is destroying the old world with its contents. The new art has brought forward what the new consciousness of time contains: a balance between the universal and the individual" (quoted in Overy, p. 47).
De Stijl emphasized the dominance of the spiritual, which was embodied in an abstract formal language, and sought a global equilibrium characterized by eenheid in veelheid, unity in diversity. This would be manifest in the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, an ideal that inspired many architects and designers in the later nineteenth century and on into the twentieth. By placing the beholder within, rather than before, the work of art, artists, architects, and craftspersons would collaboratively create an environment that integrated opposites such as vertical and horizontal, male and female, the individual and the communal, and that would both result in and reflect concord.
Unlike some other contemporary constellations, De Stijl was not overtly political in the sense of favoring a particular party, though most of those associated with it were left-leaning when not actually communist. At various times Van Doesburg forged connections with futurism, Russian constructivism, the Bauhaus, and even Dada, whose embrace of the irrational and the anarchic would seem to be at odds with De Stijl's deliberate and disciplined procedures. Such links illustrate both the broadly representative position of De Stijl within the avant-garde and the fruitlessness of characterizing the movement in simple black-and-white terms. Published in the periodical were works and words from spokesmen as various as the Italian Filippo Marinetti and the Russian El Lissitzky. Van Doesburg himself assumed multiple personae and could, it seems, entertain antithetical beliefs simultaneously; born C. E. M. Küpper, he also wrote Dada poetry as I. K. Bonset and as a futurist called himself Aldo Camini. From 1921 to 1923 he spent time at the first Bauhaus, in Weimar, and when its founder, Walter Gropius, did not invite him to become a professor, he taught a rival independent course that would influence subsequent Bauhaus designs. De Stijl's production of fluid and flexible space and its integration of interior and exterior were subsumed into the rhetoric of International Style architecture.
Sources of De Stijl include the British Arts and Crafts movement, which similarly included moral considerations in its innovations in design and practice, and cubism. Perhaps the most influential single figure was Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), who recognized the consequences of the intervention of the machine in the building process. Wright's right-angled designs with hovering planes inspired a number of De Stijl projects, most notably those by Robert van't Hoff (1887–1979), Gerrit Rietveld (1888–1964), Jan Wils (1891–1972), J. J. P. Oud (1890–1963), and Cornelis van Eesteren (1897–1988). Wright's work had been introduced to the Netherlands by H. P. Berlage (1856–1934), the doyen of Dutch architecture, whose rejection of historicism and search for socioartistic "unity in diversity" provided a powerful theoretical background.
Emanating from a small country during and immediately after World War I, De Stijl nevertheless had a widespread international impact. It has had a seductive staying power, manifested particularly in architecture and design, that surpasses most of its progressive contemporaries.
De Stijl. Facsimile edition. 3 vols. Amsterdam, 1968. Volumes 1 and 2 reproduce all the numbers of the magazine, while volume 3 provides English translations of many of the texts.
Friedman, Mildred, ed. De Stijl: 1917–1931: Visions of Utopia. Oxford, U.K., 1982.
Jaffé, Hans Ludwig C. De Stijl 1917–1931: The Dutch Contribution to Modern Art. Amsterdam, 1956. Paperback edition: Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1986.
Overy, Paul. De Stijl. Revised and expanded edition. London, 1991.
Troy, Nancy J. The De Stijl Environment. Cambridge, Mass., 1983.
M. Friedman (ed.) (1982);
Overy et al. (1988);
Petersen (ed.) (1968);
Jane Turner (1996);