7 Iconic Works of the De Stijl Movement

De Stijl was a movement led by Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg. It offered abstraction as the solution to the spiritual needs of humankind.

May 2, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

de stijl movement iconic works


If you ever visited a museum of modern art, you’ve probably noticed squares of primary colors, strict angles, and seemingly boring white backgrounds. The art of De Stijl is visually simple, yet it’s not so easy to understand from a conceptual point of view. The small group of Dutch artists, designers, and architects aimed to revive the world and bring humanity to spiritual evolution through the simplest forms and tones.


What is De Stijl?

Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue, by Piet Mondrian, 1921. Source: Wikipedia


The art movement of De Stijl—meaning The Style in Dutch—originated in 1917 in the Dutch city of Leiden. Leiden was primarily known as the birthplace of Rembrandt van Rijn. However, the invention of a small group of ambitious artists went far away from traditional Dutch painting. These modern artists abstained from using any colors but red, blue, and yellow, contrasting with black and white. Their lines were straight and bold, almost always crossing at a 90-degree angle.


De Stijl was never a coherent movement with a vast following. It consisted of a small circle of artists, a couple of architects, a few designers, and printmakers. The permanent leaders of the group were painters: the legendary abstract pioneer Piet Mondrian was the ideological center, while his colleague Theo van Doesburg took care of physical matters, publishing the De Stijl magazine. But what exactly made this small art movement so influential and long-lasting?


1. Decentralized Composition

doesburg composition painting
Decentralized Composition, by Theo van Doesburg, 1924. Source: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

Some historians connected the precise geometry of De Stijl to the rigid precision of the Dutch landscape with dominating straight lines and perfectly square fields. Although the direct link between the two concepts would be absurd, the idea of the human mind dominating nature through strict geometry and calculation is nonetheless present. However, Piet Mondrian never saw it as the final point of artistic development. He stated that art would gradually disappear as the quality and beauty of human life progressed. Thus, the function of art as a substitute for reality would lose its purpose.


Dutch art historians make another important connection that could explain the conceptual framework of De Stijl. Some experts believe that the 16th-century Dutch Reformation and the Protestant Revolution purged all religious art from the region. This transformation subsequently gave birth to secular paintings of artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer. It is argued that this shift in art had a lasting impact on the avant-garde movement that emerged three centuries later. Similarly, Mondrian and his followers aimed to remove all figurative art from the scene.


2. Composition in Color A

mondrian composition color a painting
Composition in Color A, by Piet Mondrian, 1917. Source: Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo.


Despite its strict rules and precise forms, De Stijl’s philosophy was deeply rooted in metaphysics. Both Mondrian and van Doesburg had a profound interest in occult matters – particularly, Theosophy, a quasi-religious belief system based on Eastern occult philosophy and the search for universal symbols throughout cultures and eras.  For Mondrian, the principle of harmony was the governing ideal of all things, including art. To achieve a state of harmony in painting, he needed to get rid of everything superficial and excessive to reduce his work to the simplest geometric forms and primary colors.


The concept of spiritual evolution was crucial for Mondrian’s art and theories. In his work, he intended to revive art and facilitate the mental and spiritual evolution of humankind. Despite the occult roots of many of Mondrian’s ideas, he intended to rationalize his theories to the highest possible extent. In his art theory of Neoplasticism, the artist explained that neither painters nor sculptors depicted reality, they instead manipulated it to create an illusion of harmony. Therefore, according to him, progressive artists were meant to throw away the anchors of realistic depiction and create something truly new and purposeful.


3. Rhythm of a Russian Dance

Rhythm of a Russian Dance, by Theo van Doesburg, 1918. Source: MoMA, New York



Music and rhythm were important preoccupations for the De Stijl artists, who aimed to translate principles of musical composition into the visual language of painting. In 1918, young Theo van Doesburg observed a group of traditional Russian dancers and captured their movement in the most precise and objective manner possible—through abstract lines and geometry. Doesburg intended to prove that geometric precision could capture reality in a manner much more direct and understandable than any kind of realistic painting. Mondrian’s obsession with music was one of the crucial elements of his artistic biography. He was mainly inspired by jazz.


4. Red Blue Chair

de stijl rietveld red blue chair
Red Blue Chair, by Gerrit Rietveld. Colored version designed in 1923 after a 1917 original. Source: Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art


De Stijl is often linked, if not confused, with Bauhaus. The famous German art school may have shared some ideas with the Dutch artistic group yet they aimed at a different target. Bauhaus’ design philosophy was to let the object’s function dictate its form and focus on ergonomics and functionality. The De Stijl designs, although sometimes similar in appearance, had little interest in the physical needs of people using the objects. Their main goal was to comfort the mind even if it meant compromising functionality.


One of the iconic design objects created within De Stijl was the Red Blue Chair which was designed by Gerrit Rietveld in 1917. Contrary to its popularized name, Rietveld’s invention was originally unpainted and gained its signature colors only half a decade later. Rietveld’s friend, another De Stijl designer, Bart van der Leck, offered to make the construction lighter. He also added the signature De Stijl colors. The most significant feature of the chair was, however, its indifference to the needs of the human body. Rietveld designed his chair not as a comfortable piece of furniture but as the idea of it. The aesthetics of the Red Blue Chair prioritized the comfort of the mind over the comfort of the body. To further emphasize this concept, Rietveld printed a poem about resting the mind under the chair seat.


5. Rietveld Schröder House

Rietveld Schröder House, designed by Gerrit Rietveld for Troos Schröder-Schräder, Utrecht, 1924. Source: UNESCO World Heritage


The story of the Red Blue Chair would be incomplete without the building the chair was made for. Truus Schröder-Schräder, the owner of the house, was a pharmacist, an art patron, and a longtime lover of Gerrit Rietveld. She commissioned the building after the death of her conservative husband, who never understood her interest in modern art. The house, built in strict accordance with De Stijl principles, was the manifesto of the new world and new lifestyle led by an independent woman. It had no walls inside—the rooms were separated by revolving and sliding panels, leaving the residents free to change the floor plan whenever they wanted to. Placed inside the house, the unusual color scheme of the famous chair fit right in. Positioned next to a black wall, the chair almost vanished, creating an optical illusion of a red and blue seat floating over the floor.


6. Aubette Dance Hall and Cafe

doesburg arp aubette model
A model of the redesigned Aubette building, by Theo van Doesburg, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and Hans Arp, 1927. Source: MoMA, New York


As mentioned before, De Stijl consisted of a couple of artists and only two permanent members. Yet its ideas and concepts attracted the attention of artists and creators from other stylistic camps. This led to a series of remarkable collaborations between the Dutch group and various European avant-gardists.


One of the most remarkable collaborations happened during the renovations of the Aubette building in Strasbourg, France. The place was built in the 1770s as a military garrison and by the 1920s it had become a ruin. Theo van Doesburg and Dada artists Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Hans Arp received a commission to modernize the building and transform it into a community space. The artists designed a cinema, a cafe, and a dance hall, all decorated in De Stijl’s signature style for the rebranded space. Today, the Aubette building is open to the public as a cultural landmark. It also houses a functioning theater and a cafe.


7. The Legacy of De Stijl: Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian Collection

ysl mondrian dress
Yves Saint Laurent cocktail dress, homage to Piet Mondrian, 1965. Source: Musee Yves Saint Laurent, Paris


The legacy of De Stijl extends far beyond visual art and uncomfortable furniture. In 1965, Yves Saint Laurent designed a collection to honor the work of Piet Mondrian. The inspiration came from a Christmas gift he received from his mother—a book about Mondrian’s life and work. Not only did Yves Saint Laurent transform the flat images into garments, but he made sure the dresses would retain the qualities of Mondrian’s paintings. The patterns were altered so that the wearer’s body would not distort them. The forms remained strict and the lines straight. The design team carefully hid all the seams so nothing would interrupt the patterns. The cuts were as simple as Mondrian’s works, with no extra details like sleeves, pockets, or collars. Piet Mondrian never came up with any fashion designs, but he did mention it in his writings. He believed that fashion was one of the most direct forms of artistic expression available to humankind, reflecting its contemporary era in the most precise and immediate way.

Author Image

By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.