Gerrit Thomas Rietveld Gerard van de Groenekan
Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, designer
Gerard van de Groenekan, cabinetmaker
Dutch, fl. 1917-1971
Zig-Zag Chair, 1941
Elm with steel screws
76.2 x 45.7 x 61 cm (30 x 18 x 24 inches)
Helen M. Danforth Acquisition Fund 2001.2
The remarkably simple appearance of this chair belies its complex dovetailed construction, leading Gerrit Rietveld to describe it as his “designer’s joke.” The four rectangular planes meet at angles, requiring dovetailed joints and reinforcement by screws and wooden wedges. Visually, however, the chair is cohesive and anticipates the single-piece molded construction of 1960s plastic chairs. Rietveld aimed to design a functional chair reduced to its most basic parts and with minimal space displacement. As a prominent member of the Dutch De Stijl (The Style) design movement, architect/designer Rietveld adhered to the group’s advocacy of pure abstraction and universality through a reduction to the essentials of form and color.With just base, support, seat, and back, Rietveld’s totally deconstructed chair bears no resemblance to previous furniture forms.(February 7 –April 27, 2003)
About the work
The Zig-Zag chair is based on the cantilever design most frequently found in the construction of bridges, where a single element, beam, or piece of wood is stabilized at only one end. To design a cantilever chair out of wood, Gerrit Rietveld used his knowledge of the principles of joinery, a type of carpentry that cuts and fits joints in wood without nails or screws. The chair was made by skilled carpenter Gerard van de Groenekan, Rietveld’s longtime colleague, following Rietveld’s design.
The design and manufacture of the chair shows an understanding of the techniques of woodworking and furniture making. The deceptively simple construction involves dovetailed or fitted joints that appear to be a single piece of folded wood. In fact, it is made of four pieces of wood connected with dovetail joints and fastened securely with steel screws through triangular corner blocks. Without arms, extra cushioning, or other decorative details, the Zig-Zag chair is minimal in its use of materials and compact shape.
This chair exhibits many of the principles of 20th-century modernist art, design, and architecture: an emphasis on simplified geometric form, a lack of ornamentation, an attention to materials, and an appreciation of making construction visible. These characteristics are in line with the principles and values of the Dutch art movement De Stijl, of which Rietveld was a prominent member. By using abstraction and geometric design, De Stijl artists and architects aspired to make work that reflected utopian ideals of harmony and order. De Stijl makers intended to infuse idealism and honesty into everyday settings and transform daily life by producing functional objects according to these ideals. With its innovative cantilever design and minimal construction, the Zig-Zag chair set the stage for a new type of furniture design in line with modern life.
How do you think it would feel to sit in this chair? Rietveld’s chair might initially appear to be unable to support a person’s weight. Look closely at the construction to determine and discuss how it provides stability without relying on legs to support the back of the seat.
Why is wood a particularly difficult material to use for this shape? How does the difficulty of achieving a cantilever shape in wood contribute to the chair’s impact?
Designs often reflect the environment and society envisioned for them by their makers. What kind of use do you think this chair was originally made for? This chair is still being manufactured. Imagine an ideal location and use for it today.
To explore this chair’s design, give students pieces of card stock about 2 x 6 inches. Ask them to fold the paper carefully into this shape, then adjust it to stabilize it on their desks.
Practiced by carpenters and builders since ancient times, the mortise and tenon joint is a way to join wood without using nails, screws, or glue. To understand the joiner’s challenge to create stable links without nails or glue, have students create a small version of a chair—they can model it on the Zig-Zag chair—using lightweight cardboard or card stock. They can use tools such as a ruler and a hole punch, but no tape or glue. The students’ challenge will be to create simple links, tabs, flaps, or other configurations that connect the chair’s parts and allow it to stand.
Artists and architects associated with De Stijl sought honesty and beauty in their work through a simple logical style in hopes that doing so would bring harmony and order to both art and life. To encourage students to think about their own definition of beauty in terms of functional design objects, ask them to think of an object they consider well-designed and aesthetically pleasing. Have them sketch the object and write about what makes it both beautiful and well-designed.
Rietveld was both a furniture designer and an architect; often he designed furniture specifically for the homes he built. In fact, the Zig-Zag chair was designed for the Schröder House in Utrecht in the Netherlands, itself designed and built by Rietveld. To explore the relationship between furniture and interior space, ask your students to make a floor plan or sketch of a room they imagine would fit the style of this chair. What kind of room is it (kitchen, dining room, bedroom)? What colors are on the walls? What other furniture occupies the room? Are there windows, and what do those windows look like?
Paul Overy. “Carpentering the Classic: A Very Peculiar Practice. The Furniture of Gerrit Rietveld.” Journal of Design History. Vol. 4, No. 3 (1991): 135–66.