This 100-Year-Old Dutch Movement Shaped Web Design Today

Primary colors, clean lines, asymmetrical simplicity: You might recognize them from Google, but they come from De Stijl.

 

2017marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of a Dutch art movement that has had a worldwide impact: De Stijl. Right up to the present day, De Stijl has influenced art, architecture, and product design. But the impact of De Stijl is particularly apparent in contemporary design—more specifically, in digital design.

Every product we touch or use is the outcome of a design—and we’re increasingly surrounding ourselves with digital design. We turn on the Nests in our living rooms, catch up on email on our MacBooks, and gaze for hours at the tablets and smartphones we hold in our hands. These “connected products” are making technology more intimate—so intimate that we wear them on our bodies, and soon, we may even carry them inside our bodies. Digital design is quickly becoming the leading medium of the products that influence our lives.

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When we, designers and producers of digital products, look at a painting by Theo van Doesburg—say, “Rhythm of a Russian Dance,” it almost feels like coming home: a simplified, minimalist approach to composition that matches so perfectly with contemporary digital design. Stripped to the absolute bare necessities, the artists of De Stijl promoted a design reminiscent of the contemporary web, with clean lines, solid colors, and simplicity. But how could a hundred-year-old movement influence contemporary digital design?

 

In 1917, Theo van Doesburg founded the magazine De Stijl. Even though the magazine never sold more than 300 copies, its impact on the art movement within the Netherlands was considerable. The members of De Stijl, people like Piet Mondriaan, Gerrit Rietveld and Bart van der Leck, intended to modernize society with their “new art.” Their approach was to achieve maximum simplicity and abstraction in painting, product design, and architecture.

At the time, the art movement did not seem very successful. At its height, De Stijl never had more than 100 members, and what’s more, there was considerable disagreement on what exactly De Stijl was. “You could argue that as an art movement, De Stijl failed,” says Natalie Dubois, a curator at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht. “After the death of Theo van Doesburg, the movement dispersed, the utopian society they envisaged never materialized, and De Stijl was often seen as being too dogmatic.”

  Driedelig glas-in-loodraam , by Theo van Doesburg.

Driedelig glas-in-loodraam, by Theo van Doesburg.

But many of the principles voiced by De Stijl later found their way into basic design principles: elementary shapes, asymmetric compositions, and use of primary colors. Tom Andries, a member of the Belgian design agency Branding Today, says the contemporary move toward abstraction is rooted in the movement. “[It] is still very relevant today,” he says. “The designs are timeless because of their simple look and geometric shapes. The basic principles applied by the movement really add to contemporary design.”

Harald Dunnink, founder and creative director at digital design agency Momkai and co-founder of the interactive online journalism platform De Correspondent, sees the pursuit of beauty and clarity as a universal principle that is timeless in its capacity to inspire. “The thing that has made De Stijl so appealing to me as a movement is the way it strives for clarity, how it aims to come to the essence of a good design,” he says. “They had very clear ideas both in terms of form and of the power of the mind.”

The key principles of De Stijl still resonate. In the 1990s and early aughts digital design was an explosion of designs, colors, and patterns. But in these times of digital overstimulation, design has shifted. Now we look for something to hold onto, and we often find it in functional, minimalist designs: abstract and elegant, stripped of any frills.

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Chris Alexakisart