Red Prototype Danish Chair by Gerrit Thomas Rietveld

This chair came up at an auction of Sotheby’s, New York, 18 December 2013 and was sold to the Dutch Centraal Museum in Utrecht which has an impressive Rietveld Collection.

Catalogue Note
For Rietveld, and most of his fellow architects, the German occupation of The Netherlands during the Second World War brought about a lapse in building commissions. With time on his hands, Rietveld returned to his furniture experiments that led to such innovative designs as the “Zig Zag” and the “Beugel” chairs in the prewar period. In 1942, Rietveld made several designs for chairs in wood and triplex for Metz & Co., some of which had been realized in small numbers, mainly for special commissions. Around the same year, Rietveld took the concept of the one-piece chair a step further with the development of the aluminum chair (see Sotheby’s New York, June 13, 2012, lot 80).
Immediately after the War, the demand for cheap and mass-produced furniture was enormous and Rietveld immediately recognized the potential of his one-piece chair. From the earliest days of his career, Rietveld’s ideal had been sturdy furniture of clear design made of modern materials, suitable for industrial production and thus affordable for a broad audience. Now the time seemed right to realize these ambitions. Already in 1946, Rietveld exhibited his aluminum chair at a show in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, as well as another model of triplex construction. A contemporary critic desicribed the chair as “a small light-weight easy chair composed of three parts.” This could very well be an early version of the chair which has later become known as the “Danish” chair.

Strangely, this triplex chair seemed to disappear from view right after the show, not to resurface until 1952. Possibly there was only a design drawing shown in 1946 and not an actual chair. The aluminum chair was featured in Domus in 1947 and exhibited in Paris a year later at the Dutch section of the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs. In these years, Rietveld made several trips to Curacao and the United States, during which he presumably tried to promote his ideas for architecture and furniture for the new era. Whilst his contemporaries Eames, Saarinen, among others in the United States made great progress with their designs for cheap mass-produced furniture, Rietveld’s attempts seem less successful. After being shown at the Milan Triennale of 1951, the aluminium chair returned to The Netherlands where it became part of the Stedelijk Museum collection.

The triplex chair is recorded to have been shown at an exhibition on Dutch design in Denmark in 1952, hence it’s nickname, “Danish” chair. According to a Danish critic, the design was “not bad of proportion” but lacked “the friendly charm of Holland and the Dutch.” Several examples of this model are known to exist with small differences in execution and color. The Centraal Museum even has a version in fiber. This is not unusual for Rietveld, who always kept all options open when it came to his designs intended for mass production. In fact, his remark on the aluminum chair being suitable for production in whatever material that would meet specific demands and circumstances also applies to the “Danish” chair.

The prototype (or metal version of the “Danish” chair) offered here was dated 1950 by Van de Groenekan, who asserted that this chair was used as a mold to shape the triplex segments for the “Danish” chair. This would mean that the triplex chair was not made before 1950. Looking at the chair, it seems highly unlikely that it could have served as a mold for the “Danish” chair. However, Van de Groenekan might have been partly right. The bent triplex segments for the “Danish” chair were produced by the firm of Hülsmann in Amsterdam. Interestingly, in a letter to his son Jan, Rietveld wrote that if a client preferred a more curved backrest above of the angular made by Hülsmann, he should refer to Van de Groenekan (see note in Sotheby’s, New York June 15, 2011, lot 108). As restorer Jurjen Creman pointed out, the backrest would be suited as a mold to form triplex, and a few triplex “Danish” chairs with this curved backrest are indeed known to exist. This would explain why the prototype was in possession of Van de Groenekan, who held on to it until he gave it to Van Beest in 1985 on the occasion of his 50th birthday.

For a long time the prototype had been assumed to have been lost, and only the design drawing in the Rietveld archive in Rotterdam had been recorded in the literature. This drawing mentions aluminum to be applied for the seat, but in the actual piece here offered sheet iron has been used. Another interesting fact is a small annotation in the lower right corner of the drawing, saying: “Tomado 1952.” This would confirm Han Schröder’s later claim that the “Danish” chair was designed by Rietveld for the showroom of this firm for household ironware. Rietveld did make designs for a Tomado showroom in the early 1950s, but the “Danish” (or any other chair) are nowhere to be seen. Another option would be that Rietveld initially made the prototype for Tomado, hoping the firm would take it into production. This however never happened and so the triplex “Danish” chair also dissapeared. It made a small come-back in 1956, when Rietveld placed it as a scale model inside a maquette for a presentation at the 1958 Brussels World Expo, entitled “The Ideal Flat.” However, in the final exhibition, the “Danish” chairs were replaced by upholstered easy chairs designed by Rietveld in 1957-1958 for Artifort. In the archive of this firm, the design drawing of the heavy and angular easy chair is accompanied by a drawing of the elegant Danish chair—another failed attempt of Rietveld to get an innovative design recognized by the furnitury industry.

—Rob Driessen, Amsterdam

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.