Authors
03/09/18

Rietveld, Groenekan and the antecessor chair

Gerard van den Groenekan was barely fourteen or fifteen years old in the winter of 1917-1918 when he arrived as an apprentice to the workshop that Gerrit Rietveld - a cabinetmaker and draftsman, according to the records of the city - had opened in May in the Adriaen van Ostadelaan, Utrecht. According to him, it was in the summer of 1918 when in that workshop the first version of modern furniture’s founding chair was created. To celebrate such a feat, Rietveld was photographed in front of the shop window of his workshop, proudly lounging in it and escorted by his employees as a Praetorian guard, in a famous photo reproduced a thousand times. Although there are those who go back to 1916 for the origins of the chair, there are good reasons to believe Gerard because he was there, to the left of the teacher, smiling and leaning on the window jamb. The chair, which is actually an armchair, is often seen as an emblem, a sort of prototypical manifesto of De Stijl's neoplastic ideology applied to the furniture: seven rectangular crossbars, six square posts and two panels that intersect freely in the space without interrupting it, they maintain their own form and their elemental condition once assembled and almost disappear from sight when the user sits down. In the first versions, as seen in the photo, two wooden plates were added under the arms, immediately suppressed to reinforce the sense of spatial continuity.

 

 

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Rietveld did not know much about art at the time and gave little to theoretical reflections. His inspiration, more than in Theo van Doesburg or Mondrian, was in the processes of abstraction from naturalistic figures developed in those years by Bart van der Leck, another less prominent member of the group. The idea of this chair as a sort of laboratory piece contrasts abruptly with the air of art in the photo, with all its characters in overalls and aprons as honest carpenters they were. Scholars seek lineage in Wright and Berlage, but neglect the other genealogy, the merely empirical one that has to be traced in Rietveld's past as a cabinetmaker, son of Johannes Cornelis Rietveld, cabinetmaker, in whose Poorstraat workshop he started working when he was just a child in 1900. Those who have followed it go back to a vertical chair from 1908, where Rietveld had already tried to reduce the chair to its minimum material long before De Stijl appeared on the scene. But it is still necessary to go back a couple of years, when Baron Van Tuyll van Serooskerken undertook the renovation of the entrance of his Zuylen castle and Rietveld’s father left in the hands of his son the creation of a humble set of a table and four straight, monastic chairs, reinforced with crossbars on the legs and with the back almost empty, indicated only by grooves on the sides and a central table that occupies a third of its width, topped by a triangular ribbon protruding shyly by the sides , timidly insinuating that virtual prolongation in the space that extends to all its elements in the 1918 chair. A naked chair, unpainted, like the one in the Adriaen van Ostadelaan photograph, which would only receive the characteristic red and blue colors, with yellow tops, around 1925. Zuylen's chair is the Austrolopithecus of the avant-garde, the antecessor chair. Like the baby Jesus, he was born in a doorway. And it was the work of a carpenter, who became the designer and architect. The good of Groenekan, however, was nothing else in his life. He spent many years with Rietveld, patiently assembling his chairs. He continued doing it after the death of the master until his in 1989. Even after the transfer of the rights of the Red and Blue chair to Cassina, which was authorized to continue producing it for museums and private clients. In the photos of his last years he looks like a happy old man, dressed in his overalls.

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