Theo Van Doesburg and the international avant garde exhibition banner

Architecture and design 1917–20

Even before the launch of De Stijl, van Doesburg had begun to collaborate with architects. In May 1916 he met J.J.P. Oud with whom he established an art club in Leiden. Oud immediately commissioned van Doesburg to produce a stained-glass window for a house he was building. The following year saw the recruitment to De Stijl of Jan Wils and Robert van ‘t Hoff, who both signed its first manifesto. Oud did not sign, perhaps fearing that it might jeopardise his recent appointment as municipal architect in Rotterdam. However, he asked van Doesburg to design stained glass and colour schemes for his mass housing projects in the Spangen district of the city. In 1920 he opened a model apartment there with colour by van Doesburg and furniture by Gerrit Rietveld, who had also joined the group.

Both Oud and Wils were close to the most famous modern architect in the Netherlands at the time, H.P. Berlage, and the name De Stijl may have been influenced by his writings about the need to unite all the arts and forge a collective style appropriate to the modern age. This ideal of universal co-operation created tensions in De Stijl from the start. Bart van der Leck had recently resigned from a job collaborating with Berlage, infuriated by the architect’s controlling influence. Van Doesburg and Oud often clashed over the proper relationship between painting and architecture. Their final fall out came in 1921 over van Doesburg’s designs for further blocks in Spangen, which Oud considered disruptive of the architecture. The artists of De Stijl believed that architecture needed to go through the same process of development that painting had done for true collaboration to take place and would not accept a role as mere decorators.