A brief visual history of the utopian De Stijl movement

Alex Bigman

The De Stijl (Dutch for “the style”) group was one of several art and design movements that responded to the chaotic trauma of World War I with a “return to order.”

Headed by Dutch artists Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, De Stijl rejected pre-war decorative tendencies (think Art Nouveau) and pushed Cubism to new extremes: total abstraction consisting of only the most basic design components — vertical and horizontal lines, primary colors.

A 1921 painting by Piet Mondrian

De Stijl stands out because its aspirations were as social as they were aesthetic. By ostensibly removing the individualism of the artist in favor of precision and universal harmonies, the De Stijl group believed they were laying the groundwork for a future utopia.

Their aspirations were total: in order to reform society, their aesthetic aimed to eliminate false distinctions between so-called “high art,” “applied art” (such as graphic or product design) and architecture.

De Stijl universally applied its principles — not only to art but to design and architecture

Not surprisingly, this attitude has resonated with modern day designers from the world of logo to website design (in a way, Mondrian really was the first “Windows” designer…).

Look to De Stijl and you’ll find all the tenets that modern designers deal in and celebrate: minimal simplicity, establishing tension and balance between solid and empty space, the grid, etc.

We see echoes of the De Stijl aesthetic in how Microsoft has dealt with “the grid”

In an essay for Eye magazine, design author Jessica Helfand even suggests that De Stijl might be the answer to a modern designer’s feeling of professional crisis. She states the problem thus:

… as interpersonal exchanges coexist and multiply in a landscape laden with sophisticated electronic options, one might argue that the function of design is marginalized — if not rendered entirely obsolete — or that the role of the designer itself is imperiled. We have perhaps unwittingly ceded control: to our computers, to our audience, to the demands of a new and increasingly global economy.

But there is a solution on the horizon:

… the opportunity to define — even celebrate — precision lies at the heart of what we can and should do. This elevates and objectifies our role, and redefines our mission as architects of a new visual order….

Like the de Stijl artists, we can identify with the imposed rectilinear parameters circumscribing our work, as we struggle to define the opportunities for creative expression on screen. We can share their pointed fascination with infinite space as we explore the limitless real estate options introduced by the phenomenon of cyberspace.

That’s a lot to digest. As with all design history lessons, perhaps a visual tour is the best way to begin. Here’s an inspiring selection of De Stijl and De Stijl-inspired designs:

Covers of De Stijl journal, issues 1 and 2

An homage poster for Inception, inspired by the De Stijl cover design

Theo van Doesburg and Richard Kegler’s De Stijl typeface, rooted in the geometric concept of the square

Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum’s new logo is boldly minimal. Not overtly De Stijl, but we see some common underlying principles

Two more De Stijl-inspired logos: an architecture firm and a reworking of the Apple logo

A reconstruction of Mondrian’s studio

Poster for a De Stijl exhibition

A De Stijl-inspired 3D model

Another exhibition poster … and its tongue-in-cheek companion

Alt rock band The White Stripes took De Stijl inspiration for their so-titled album

We were impressed by this submission, by Ruiz Nala wi Gareng, to our eBay re-design contest. Too many diagonals to be De Stijl, but the color palette and black bands are clearly a reference to the style.

What do you think? Are De Stijl principles the answer to a modern designer’s questions? Seen any De Stijl-inspired designs lately? Share in the comments!

Featured image: Theo van Doesburg Composition VII (the three graces) (via Wikipedia)

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