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JOEL Joel's Blog

Hands On With Gerrit Rietveld


Hands On With Gerrit Rietveld 1
Last month I wrote about visiting Christie’s auction house and being intrigued by some of the “teaser” items advertising an upcoming 20th Century Design auction. This past Sunday I went back to Christie’s to view the offerings for the auction, which is underway now.

The bull shaped bronze cabinet by Francois-Xavier Lalanne that had enchanted me was displayed without the booze, downplaying its function. Its estimate was $1 million - $1.5 million. (Evidently I was not alone in my admiration: I checked the Christie’s website and it sold for $1,935,000.)

The auction had many beautifully made lamps and sconces by Lalanne, Isamu Noguchi and others. I was particularly interested in the furniture collection. The French Art Deco master Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, whose work is in the Met, among other museums, turned out to have made some high volume metal furniture as well. I’ve been learning the distinction between an auction house and a museum, and one important difference is that an auction house will let you sit on the displayed furniture. The Ruhlmann metal chairs were pretty uncomfortable.

There was a wonderful Wendell Castle dining room set (very comfortable) that pre-dated his forays into more sculptural and less practical pieces. Christie’s also saw fit to paint a quote of his on the wall: “I thought of the work as sculpture, not furniture.” A chair by Frank Lloyd Wright was nice enough but nothing special. The giant gingo leafed garden chaize by Claude Lalanne (Francois-Xavier’s wife) was wonderful and not nearly as uncomfortable as it looked. If I had a big enough garden I would love to have it.

But the most intriguing pieces for me were made by the Dutch furniture designer and architect Gerrit Rietveld. We stock a very comprehensive book with plans for building Rietveld’s designs. We also occasionally offer a class in building our version of his Zig Zag Chair. I think almost all his furniture is eminently buildable even in a modest shop with modest skills. And most important to me is that Rietveld’s designs are nearly a century old they but still look very modern to my eye. Rietveld wanted his furniture to be easily made with minimal skill and with common materials.

But there is a flaw in his downmarket construction. Both of the auction’s pieces were made in the 1970’s of painted beech. Unlike the carefully restored furniture I have seen in museums, these pieces have at least some of the aspects of old stuff from Ikea. Well designed, but seriously aged and in need of TLC. The two pieces were a chair and a buffet.

The chair (according to the display card, Right Handed 'Stelman" Chair, designed 1963, executed circa 1970)is basically joined from a series of short two by four-ish sized painted beech sticks and looked fairly wobbly. The piece was raised off of the floor so I could not sit in it. If you look in the design book, you can see the chair is made of a mixture of mortise and tenons and dowel joints. Now given that the chair was made for a business, though I don’t know if this particular one was, I could easily see it getting hard wear. Some of the joints are starting to open. Since I wasn’t able to sit in the chair I could be dead wrong on its fragility, but if this were my chair, I would be warily wondering when it would collapse. One problem of building out of common materials is that, aside from the shape, the design has nothing to fall back on. No fancy wood grain, no fancy hardware. I think in a figured wood the chair could be awesome, but the plain painted beech just doesn’t do it for me.

The buffet (first photo and all uncaptioned pictures) is a later authorized copy (1974) of a piece originally designed in 1919. This particular buffet shows both the genius of the design and the limitations of the materials. Christie’s graciously allowed me to open the drawers and doors to get a closer look - very exciting because museums never allow you to do this.

This particular buffet is made mostly of painted beech. I think out of plywood it might be more solid. As with the chair. I find the lack of figure in the wood cheapening. Other versions of this buffet that I have seen have a much nicer painting scheme. From a construction standpoint, the drawer glides are primitive. The shiny hinges on the doors and other areas that looked pretty crisp suggest that the piece has had extensive restoration. The plans for this piece (as with the chair) are in our book of Rietveld plans so I do have a sense of how it all goes together. In concept, I love the idea of the drawers on the side. But in practice the execution seems primitive, and the use of lots of small pieces of wood would make the construction interesting but fussy.

You might conclude from my overall lack of enthusiasm for the execution of these two pieces that I am down on Rietveld. I’m not. When you are building pieces for yourself, you get to choose all the details. I think in concept both pieces are great, the buffet especially so. With the appropriate finish for its surroundings it could be a star of any dining room -- and something anyone who can cut square accurately could build. This is a light piece of furniture against a plain white wall. Imagine it in a paneled room or a room with fabrics. Unlike so many designs it screams modernism in a way that is totally current and NOW!

'STELTMAN' chair by Rietveld
'STELTMAN' chair by Rietveld

Hands On With Gerrit Rietveld 3
Hands On With Gerrit Rietveld 4
Hands On With Gerrit Rietveld 5
Hands On With Gerrit Rietveld 6
Hands On With Gerrit Rietveld 7
Chair by Frank Lloyd Wright
Chair by Frank Lloyd Wright

Chaise by Claude Lalanne
Chaise by Claude Lalanne

Chairs by Finn Juhl
Chairs by Finn Juhl

Lamp by Isamu Noguchi
Lamp by Isamu Noguchi

A very comfortable dining table by Wendell Castle
A very comfortable dining table by Wendell Castle

Set of metal chairs by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann
Set of metal chairs by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann

Join the conversation
06/05/2019 Al Eichorn
The cabinet looks like a terrible joke. It is hideous and looks like a collection of sticks and poor workmanship. But hey, if goes for a million nine what do I know?
06/06/2019 Bruce
Al stole my comment, but I don't have his grace. The buyer is stupid and deserves to *not* see it burn. I think even chickens would scorn that stack of scraps.

I'm surprised. Wright designed a nice chair. In spite of the panda feet.
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