A contemporary before his time, Gerrit Rietveld’s work is a startling reminder of the importance of the avant garde. The phenomenon of the persistent popularity of many 20th-century design classics is, today, a well-established fact. Familiar from the glossy pages of design books and magazines, and the many authorised – and unauthorised – reproductions available on the market, these now re-contextualised icons of modernism have become part of 21st-century design culture. Gerrit Rietveld’s best-known designs, the Red Blue Chair and Zig Zag chair, reproduced by Cassina since 1971, are no exception. Enduringly modern, they fit effortlessly into today’s spare, angular interiors. Perhaps this is why the much-published photo of Rietveld seated in the unpainted prototype of the Red Blue Chair outside his Utrecht workshop in 1918 is so compelling. In grainy black-and-white, the image shows the designer flanked by his be-smocked young apprentices having a probably well-earned smoke. Momentarily disconcerting, it all looks very ‘old’ and reminds us of the very different era out of which the Red Blue Chair, and Rietveld’s many other innovative designs, grew.

When the photo was taken, Rietveld had only recently established his furniture workshop, having worked for many years in his father’s cabinetmaking business. With a talent for drawing, he had also attended art classes, designed for a jewellery company and studied architecture. The painted Red Blue Chair, created about 1923, is generally described as a three-dimensional expression of the De Stijl’s movement’s severe abstract aesthetic, but it is worth noting that the unpainted version of the chair was made before Rietveld had connected with Theo van Doesburg, Piet Mondrian and others artist and architects associated with De Stijl. “I made chairs intended to parallel the level reached by architecture,” he said. “The accent was on spatiality… the first chair made of laths was a definite attempt to break away from tradition.” It has even been suggested that the primary colours of the Red Blue Chair developed out of Rietveld’s experimentation with colour for the painted toys and furniture he designed for his own children in the early 1920s.

Thus, apart from its contextualising function, the 1918 photo also provides an important insight into the core preoccupations that were to propel Rietveld’s subsequent career; his rejection of tradition and his constant design innovation and experimentation with materials and production methods. Heir to the pioneering modernism of architects such as E.W. Godwin, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, H.P. Berlage and Frank Lloyd Wright, Rietveld was part of the next generation of designers who sought to give design a new social purpose, one that responded to changing patterns of living in the aftermath of WWI and that embraced mass-production techniques. Rietveld’s association with De Stijl in the 1920s – resulting in his incomparable Schröder House (1924) in collaboration with Truus Schröder, and some of his most radical furniture statements - served to strengthen and confirm the direction of these early years, but has tended to eclipse his considerable later achievements.

The evidence of Rietveld’s furniture, more than 350 designs over a career spanning 45 years, indicates a lifelong pursuit of the ‘Holy Grail’ of 20th-century furniture design – the creation of the fully industrially produced chair. It was a search that generated the ingenious ‘plane and rail’ structural elements and the characteristic ‘Rietveld joint’ of his first ‘De Stijl’ furniture: the bolted-together components of the Military series (1926) the experimental single-sheet fibreboard Birza chair (1927) and the tube steel and plywood Beugelstoel series of the late 1920s. But it was the innovative one-piece Zig Zag chair of 1932-'34 and its metal, wood and fibreboard prototypes that brought Rietveld closest to accomplishing his quest. A development of the simple geometry of his De Stijl chairs and perhaps inspired by recent tube metal cantilever designs by Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe, the zigzag reduced the chair components to just four angled planes. Despite its simplicity and machine-made look, the chair nevertheless had to be joined by traditional methods, a feature Rietveld later attempted to remedy in a laminated wood version with curved joins.

As late as 1963, a year before his death, Rietveld was still pondering the role of mass production when he perceptively remarked: “We are only on the threshold of the production and acceptance of the purely industrial product. In the future, for example, I see a piece of material being manufactured in a series of mechanical operations and leaving the machine as an assembled chair in 10 minutes, in a form so neutral that it will fit as a simple element into almost any interior.” Prescient words! Just four years later Verner Panton’s one-piece fibreglass stacking chair was the first in a new generation of completely machine-produced designs that were to revolutionise the chair industry, though perhaps not always in the positive way Rietveld anticipated.