Why buy mid-century furniture

How the Dutch became fashionable in the mid-20th century

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If you ask design enthusiasts around the world about Dutch design of the 20th century, most of them will have familiar objects from the early decades, like the Red blue Chair (1917) by De Stijl architect Gerrit Rietveld or the tubular steel cantilever chair (1926) by Bauhaus designer Mart Stam. Many will also think of Droog's conceptual work, such as the Rag Armchair (1991) by Tejo Remy or theKnotted Armchair (1996) by Marcel Wanders, which changed the global design in the 1990s. However, between these cornerstones stretches a rich selection of modern designs that are often overlooked in history.Dutch design at the beginning and end of the 20th centuryRietveldss Red Blue Chair (1917) Approved by Cassina; Remys Rag Chair (1991) permission from Droog (Photographer: Gerard van Hees)
Amazingly, these little-noticed works share the same popular and modern characteristics that underlie mid-century American, Scandinavian and Italian works - simple, functional, affordable.

Dutch designers and manufacturers of the 1940s, 50s and 60s took pride in developing new mass production methods that allowed them to produce highly rationalized products while following the strict rules of modernity: uncomplicated shapes, minimal material consumption, practical and easily applicable designs and prices that were tailored to the middle class. As a result of these efforts, furniture, lights and accessories were created that were consistently innovative, reduced but aesthetic and at the same time created a uniquely cozy ambience.

At the end of the Second World War, the Netherlands was liberated from its five-year German occupation, under which modernism was forbidden and artists who wanted to continue their art were forced to comply with the oppressive standards. In the post-war period, civil rights were reintroduced. However, the country had to struggle with numerous challenges, such as building the infrastructure and rebuilding the deteriorated economy, as well as the prevailing housing shortage - exacerbated by the hundreds of thousands of slave laborers and prisoners who returned from Germany and Poland, as well as those who came back from their hiding places appeared. It was not until the 1950s that the Dutch economy recovered thanks to the US Marshal Plan. Modern designers eagerly contributed to this boom by driving manufacturing and retail consumption forward with new products that met the needs and lifestyles of the post-war era.

Consumers, business people and designers joined forces in 1964 to set up the Stichting Goed Wonen (Gut Leben Foundation) and work together to solve the problem of material shortages. The quality and comfort of everyday life should be improved through good designs and the high quality production of functional domestic design products. The organization, to which designers such as Friso Kramer, Kho Liang Ie and Wim Rietveld belonged, was the new epitome of “moral modernity” - simple, honest and functional design. This emerged from the disappointment of many Dutch designers with the demanding ideals of De Stijl and other movements. After the war, designers stuck to the same ideals, but now focused on the urgently necessary rebuilding of a war-torn country - economically through increased production and psychologically through beautiful and high-quality goods.

In the magazine of the same name, which appeared alongside a series of exhibitions and readings from 1948 to 1968, Stichting Goed Wonen pleaded for “good design.” Thanks to its great popularity, tens of thousands of people stormed the showrooms in search of inspiration. Goed Wonen advocated those practical designs without superfluous decorations, which illustrate material savings. This included the modular, flat-packed one Made to Measure Shelving system by Cees Braakman for UMS-Pastoe (1955), the aesthetic, puristCounter balance Ceiling lamp by J. J. M. Hoogervorsts for Anvia (1950s), the minimalistBR02 Sofa bed by Martin Visser for ‘t Spectrum (1958/60) and the multifunctional onesPyramid Tables and chairs by Wim Rietveld for Ahrend De Cirkel (1960). Even the reserved, but cordial Wilma A tea service with an outstanding feel by Edmond Bellfroid for Mosa was important for the foundation. Decoration was out, clean lines, monochrome fabric and undemanding utility were in. Even if De Stijl's philosophies no longer applied in the post-war period, geometric shapes and a reduced formal language were retained.

Wilma Porcelain Tableware by Edmond Bellefroid for Mosa (1953)
The Dutch also sought inspiration outside of their own country - such as with Marcel Breuer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the Bauhaus movement, but also with various Scandinavian designers and especially Herman Miller and the oeuvre of Charles and Ray Eames in the USA. Many designers - some even funded by the Dutch government - visited the United States in the late 1940s and 50s, and many others did foreign magazines and exhibitions. Dutch designers were impressed with the Eames' experimental work on curved plywood and their humble, clean shapes LCW and DCW Chairs. How strong the influence was is reflected in a variety of Dutch designs from the 1950s, such as the Danish chair by Gerrit Rietveld for Tomado (1946–1950), the Revolt Chair by Friso Kramer for Ahrend De Cirkel (1953), the SB02 Chair by Cees Braakman for UMS-Pastoe (1952–1954) as well as in the many works made of bent plywood by Cor Alons for Lutjens / de Boer (1950s). These Dutch designers did not simply copy the work of the Eames, but were inspired by their use of shapes, materials and their focus on mass production and innovative new manufacturing processes.

Laminated wood, cane, rattan and metal were popular materials for both home and office furniture in the post-war period. Industrial steel in particular was an ideal match for the rational aesthetics of the Goed Wonen - Friso Kramer is considered a pioneer in this area. While being Revolt from 1953 - highly praised at the Milan Triennale 1954 - resembled the early Eames chairs, its production method was very peculiar. Instead of tubes, which are now considered the standard, he stamped, cut and bent sheet steel into a new, stable shape. This clearly stood out from the tubular steel furniture that was spreading across Europe at the time. Who in Revolt you will notice that certain resilience that allows you to lean back without moving the rest of the chair. Its curved line prevents clothes from becoming tangled - just one of Kramer's subtle decisions that relates to the needs of its users. Kramer designed some modifications of the Revolt Designs like that Result Chair from 1958 and a few others created together with Wim Rietveld. The RevoltThe chair is so legendary in the Netherlands that it is still produced today and used in many areas by almost every school child or office worker.

The youngest son of Gerrit Rietveld, Wim Rietveld, had modest plans for his designs: "Well-formed, stable, practical and inexpensive". Be 1407 Chair for Gispen, which he designed together with André Cordemeyer and which was awarded a gold medal at the Milan Triennale in 1954, is based on geometric shapes. The chair thus resembles his father's work, also thanks to the De Stijl's standard palette in red, black and blue - but he does not use them all at once. The SZ 63 The chair by Martin Visser for ‘t Spectrum (1960–1965) is similar in its simplicity and architectural lines to the older, legendary one Red blue Rietveld chair. Instead of artistic formalism or philosophical demands, however, he gives preference to utility and comfort. Upholstered for convenience, the chair invites the user to relax in it and not be afraid of rigid wooden boards.

Decoration was out, clean lines, monochrome fabric and simple use were in. In contrast to many chairs with covers from the USA or Scandinavia, the Dutch versions are very cozy. The 1953Penguin Armchair by Theo Ruth for Artifort - low, with elegantly crossed chair legs and generous, knobbed upholstery on the backrest and seat - is a prime example. The great success of Artifort goes back in part to Ruth, the first permanent designer, as well as to the Indonesian-born design consultant Kho Liang Ie. Liang Ie brought international designers like Pierre Paulin to Artifort, who created legendary designs of Dutch modernism there - even if the designer himself was not Dutch.

Paulins No. 577 Armchair from 1967, better known as the Tongue Armchair, demonstrates through its lively design the Pop Art influences as well as a postmodern premonition and an early departure from rationalism. His new process, in which elastic materials were stretched over foam and steel pipe - as in the models, for example Mushroom and Globe - was simple and cost-effective for both production and the consumer: the cover can be opened with a zipper on the side, which enables practical cleaning.

The desire for “good” design that is economical, practical and comfortable at the same time, and which also complied with Goed Wonen's ideal, resulted in the sober, simple and yet highly livable forms that are often found in Dutch modernism. Nevertheless, the magic died, as with the previous generation of designs and their predecessors. As early as the 1960s, the strict guidelines of Stitching Goed Wonen were questioned and encountered increasing resistance that would last for two decades. Functionalism was out and was replaced by happy, playful contradictions and questions. Although a new era had clearly begun, Dutch mid-century modern outlived all fads. Even if historians do not canonize the founding fathers of Dutch design such as Bovenkamp, ​​Galvanitas, Hala, Metz & Co., Raak and Wébé to this day, their names live on through lovers of industrial interior.


* Special thanks go to the brands and organizations who provided us with the archived images for this story: Ahrend, Artifort, Stichting Gispen Collectie, Nationaal Archief, Pastoe and Spectrum. To see a Goed Wonen showroom for yourself, visit the Van Eesterenmusuem in Amsterdam.

  • Text by

    • Rebecca McNamara

      Rebecca is a museum expert and historian of art, design and material culture of the 19th and 20th centuries. She is co-author of A Token of Elegance: Cigarette Holders in Vogue (Officina Libraria, 2015) and author of the e-book Widows Unveiled: Fashionable Mourning in Late Victorian New York(Cooper Hewitt Museum DesignFile series, 2016). You can find her on Twitter as @artdesignlust.

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