Going Dutch

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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Art Deco – or art moderne as it was originally described – appealed to those drawn to the trappings of opulence, if only vicariously. It began as an alternative to Art Nouveau design and an alternative to austere modernism.

As a style of compromise Deco was actually more expandable and inclusive than other venerable styles. It derived from far-flung antiquity, including Egyptian or Mayan sources. Deco also liberally borrowed from Modern art movements and schools – Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, Purism, and the Bauhaus – which provided various archetypes. Yet rather than Modernism’s reductive ethos, this so-called modernistic style did not totally eradicate all superfluities. Modernism was too ascetic, so Deco introduced ornamental veneers that soothed bourgeois eyes.Classicism was locked in its prison of time, while Modernism existed behind a wall of dogma. Art Deco further proved adaptable in different cultural contexts easily incorporating distinctive national traits. Deco had no ideological loyalties though represented a jaundiced view of the future, and therefore appealed to the forward-leaning youth culture of its time.

The Dutch mixed rigidly geometric De Stijl with raucous Cubism for an eclectic modernistic appearance. Exemplified by this circa 1930 book, Het Eigen Huis (The Private House) designed by A. Kurvers and devoted to architects of Amsterdam School who designed private villas. The design is a prime example of the balance of austere modern and decorative moderne developed by Henrik Theodor Wijdeveld, a Dutch architect and graphic designer who trained under Walter Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright.

More about the style: Somewhere in the middle of the stylistic spectrum between Nieue Kunst (Dutch Art Nouveau) and De Stijl was a matchless Wendingen (Upheaval) manner founded by Wijdeveld, who showcased his method in the magazine Wendingen (published between 1918 and 1931). The magazine was so eclectic in design and content that it gave equal coverage to Expressionist, Modernist, and even bizarre mystical sensibilities. Wijdeveld produced a magazine (and style) that was unrepentantly decorative and devoutly geometric. Printed in an unprecedented square format (13 1/2 inches) on high-grade paper, each page of Wendingen was one side of a sheet that was folded into two pages in a Japanese block-bookbinding process. Though it did not advance the New Typography, Wendingen published covers of some the movement’s principal designers—among them El Lissitzky for a special issue on Frank Lloyd Wright, and De Stijl’s Vilmos Huszar for a special on Diego Rivera. For Wijdeveld’s own typographic concoctions he shared certain methods with Constructivists and Dadaists using printer’s materials to build quirky letterforms. His idiosyncratic aesthetic, also referred to as the Linear School, barely influenced anything or anyone beyond The Netherlands, but its importance to the design of that period is major.

Wijdeveld’s distinctive architectonic layout was noted for its rectilinear type design influenced by a wide range of conceits from Art Deco to Javanese ornament. Architects and graphic artists alike were invited to design, illustrate, and compose covers that did not conform to Wijdeveld’s Wendingen style but rather expressed different schools and national or folk origins. Wijdeveld’s own covers, whether for a series devoted to architects Wright or Erich Mendelsohn, were rendered in his blocky emblematic typographic style that often came under harsh critique for illegibility. Despite (or perhaps because of) its excesses, Wendingen was “one of the most progressive magazines of its time, a work of art. . . . It differed from other avant-garde publications such as de Stijl . . . in that it was a vehicle for the message rather than the message itself,” wrote historian Alston Purvis in Wendingen: A Journal for the Arts, 1918–1931 (Princeton Architectural Press, 2001). The magazine was a bridge between the disorder of the previous century and the new century’s design. It advanced the grand notion of Gesamtwerk—that all art fed a common functional purpose yet was an alternative to the strict rationalism of orthodox Modernism.