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Design Trend Report: De Stijl Design

Marc Schenker September 21, 2021 · 13 min read

Hailing from Holland, De Stijl design is a style movement that goes back more than 100 years. Founded in the city of Leiden, De Stijl is a minimalist technique that was uncompromising in its return to the very essentials of form and color. Visual components, too, were reduced to the basics of the vertical and horizontal axes.

Referred to as Neoplasticism and translated as “The Style” in English, De Stijl design was among the flurry of new design movements, such as Art Deco and Swiss Design, that bravely emerged during the early years of the 20th century. Ideologically, it was rooted in the belief that design should represent information by using only primary colors and elementary shapes and lines, which explains its adherence to stripping art down to the bare essentials.

From these constraints on what designers could work with, a whole new and memorable school of art was born, one which influences creatives up to this very day.

Here’s an in-depth look into everything De Stijl design.

The History of De Stijl Design

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a prolific era for design, art, and new ideas. While the world was in semi-constant turmoil—courtesy of World Wars I and II—creativity in design was a hotbed of activity. This stark and interesting contrast gave rise to short-lived-though-influential movements like Art Nouveau and flash-in-the-pan movements like Futurism.

Tucked in amid all this activity was De Stijl. Emerging in Leiden in 1917, De Stijl was the direct result of the Euro-centric interest in many new art styles prevalent at the time. As Impressionism began to take a foothold in France in the late 19th century, followed by Cubism in greater Europe, something happened in the Netherlands as a response to all this creative activity.

This was De Stijl design.

What made this school of design so unique, however, was its distinctly Dutch sensibility when it came to art. You see, unlike other European countries at the start of World War I, Holland was neutral in the conflict. This had very real consequences for the painters, artists, and designers in the country: they weren’t allowed to leave Holland after 1914 because of their government’s neutral stance. As a result, they were, for all intents and purposes, cut off from the rest of Europe—and Paris, in particular—when it came to the freewheeling exchange of creative techniques and ideas.

So what were Dutch artists left to do? Why, start their own design movement, of course.

Image Source: Alied Ottevanger

This isolationism from the international design scene, with Paris as its center, in the early 20th century actually did wonders for Dutch artists looking to contribute their own distinct take on design. In fact, Theo van Doesburg, credited as the founder of De Stijl, purposefully strove to create a new art movement during this era.
Van Doesburg was also the publisher of a journal dedicated to De Stijl, appropriately named De Stijl. With its first issue in 1917, he and other De Stijl pioneers—such as Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, Hungarian designer Vilmos Huszar, and Dutch architect and furniture designer Gerrit Rietveld, to name a few—introduced the world to their design theories. At the height of its popularity, the movement had 100 official members while the journal had a circulation of 300.

After 1921, the belief system of this school of design began to change somewhat, as its members began to exchange ideas with other schools of design. For example, Von Doesburg moved to Weimar in 1922 to associate himself with Bauhaus Design founder Walter Gropius. In time, he succeeded in De Stijl influencing some of the tenets of Bauhaus. Other new beliefs that were brought in included Russian Constructivism, as well as the proposal that a diagonal line was more important than either a vertical or horizontal one. This last idea caused a schism between Mondrian and the group and his exit from De Stijl.

When Van Doesburg died in 1931, De Stijl design took a large hit since its central figure expired. While the surviving members like Mondrian and Rietveld did continue to design based on De Stijl’s principles, the movement itself failed to gain traction beyond the small group of Dutch creatives.

In the present day, you can still find an exhibition or two dedicated to this unique style. Many museums around Holland boast significant De Stijl displays, such as The Hague’s Gemeentemuseum, Utrecht’s Central Museum, and Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum.

The Design Principles of De Stijl

Every school of design has its own rules to follow, and De Stijl was no exception. The design principles come from Mondrian’s essay called Neoplasticism in Pictorial Art. This work immediately made clear De Stijl’s focus on going back to the basics, at the expense of the conventional design wisdom of the day.
In particular, De Stijl espouses:

  • Extreme minimalism and simplicity in application
  • Straight vertical and horizontal lines
  • Right-angled (rectangular) shapes
  • Primary colors like blue, red, and yellow
  • Neutral colors like black, gray, and white
  • Asymmetry
  • The use of opposition to gain a sense of balance in composition (positive and negative elements in the same design)
  • Movement elements, such as a joint, post or other support structure

You can see these interesting design principles at work in this vivid piece from our marketplace:

De Stijl design also takes its influences from the following:

  • Cubist approaches to painting
  • Ideas surrounding geometric forms that are contained within the Neoplatonic (related to philosopher Plato) thoughts of Mathieu Hubertus Josephus Schoenmaekers, a mathematician
  • Neopositivism (a Western-philosophy movement that combined logical empiricism and positivism)

Nonetheless, what was peculiar about De Stijl was that, in spite of these design principles, it didn’t strictly follow an uncompromising set of rules like other design movements. Because of how it came into existence—from the collaborations of Dutch designers—it was more of a joint enterprise or large-scale project rather than a true school of design.

De Stijl in Different Applications

The beauty of De Stijl, for a fairly small movement, is that it resonated far and wide with designers working in different mediums. As a result, we have examples of this wondrous design technique in many industries. Here’s a look at the most significant ones.

De Stijl in Graphic Design

The first major work of De Stijl was also a great contribution to graphic design: the journal De Stijl by Von Doesburg represented the movement’s first foray into this medium.

When you glance at the first issue’s cover, you notice the movement’s design principles at work immediately. From the right-angled squares and rectangles that make up the cover’s title and visual imagery to the sans-serif and slab fonts right underneath, it’s clear that the intent of the designers was to visually introduce the world to De Stijl with the very first issue of Von Doesburg’s journal. Even the choice of color for the cover—a neutral—shows off the movement’s favoritism for basic colors.

From the first work of De Stijl graphic design 100 years ago to the present, De Stijl has left a lasting impression on graphics.

Image Source: MoMA

Another early work from Von Doesburg was his gouache on a lithograph that explored architectural ideas. His Contra-Construction from 1923 shows what happens when you use abstraction to play around with spatial relationships. Essentially, his work is an imagining of a free-floating structure that’s loosely based on an architectural plan.

Image Source: MoMA

Another important De Stijl principal, Mondrian, produced works that highlighted the style’s technique and influenced design in future decades. An example was his 1942 oil painting titled Broadway Boogie Woogie. Here, Mondrian shows off the telltale signs of the style, namely the square- and rectangle-based edges, the primary colors, the copious use of white (and white space), and the overall, stark simplicity of the piece.

Image Source: Thornbury Records

Fast-forward to the 21st century and the garage-rock band, The White Stripes. In 2000, they actually released an album that was a multi-layered tribute to this design style and appropriately enough called it De Stijl. Looking at the album cover, we see the same similarities right off the bat:

  • Right angles
  • Squares and rectangles
  • Primary and neutral colors
  • White space
  • Minimalism
Image Source: TheLittleLabs

A quick search of designer portfolios also reveals De Stijl design works, as today’s creatives try to make a grand impression. TheLittleLabs design and animation team showcases an ode to Mondrian, one of De Stijl’s premier painters, in their Neo-Plasticism graphic. Their work uses the style’s classical primary colors, its right-angled “blockiness,” and its incorporation of white space.

De Stijl in Web Design

It will take you by complete surprise to learn that this 100-year-old style is part of today’s hottest web-design trends. How can that be? De Stijl arrived at the start of World War I, and today’s technology is light years removed from that.

The answer lies in this style’s timeless design principles. By promoting the basics of essential lines, shapes and colors, your design style never goes out of fashion.
Take a look at your favorite websites and apps. You may discover more than a few De Stijl influences in your user interfaces.

Microsoft’s long-standing operating system, Windows, has gone through many changes over the years. One thing that remains a constant, though, is the company’s dedication to spotlighting various design trends in its products and services. You’ll remember that, several years ago for Windows Phone 7, Microsoft unveiled its Metro design language, which was essentially the start of flat design on the web.

If you look at its Windows 10 UI, you’ll see unmistakable touches of this design style.

Image Source: Lifewire

For starters, the telltale squares and hard edges abound, which you can see in the card-based layout that the UI uses to display various apps and programs. Then, there’s the overall simplicity of Windows 10’s layout: it’s not a cluttered screen that you’re looking at because everything is neatly organized in easy-to-follow rows and columns.
Not to be outdone, there’s also Google’s Material Design language.

This design language, released by Google a few years back, is based on the concept of the tactile as a way of informing designers about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to the user experience.

As this UI layout from retail app Shrine demonstrates, the content is arranged in a grid layout, which is essentially horizontal and vertical lines that form rows and columns of right angles. Besides these square- and rectangle-based influences, note the use of primary and neutral colors, the overall minimalism in the UI’s design, and the copious amounts of white or negative space.

Image Source: Google

It’s almost like De Stijl was teleported from early 20th century Holland straight to the UIs of the design languages that dominate your apps and websites.

De Stijl in Interior Design

It may seem like any interiors with the color scheme of this style would seem a bit too loud to provide comfortable living quarters, but there are instances where De Stijl and interior design have teamed up to produce some exceptionally interesting results.

As early as 1917, Rietveld designed the still-iconic-today Red and Blue Chair. It’s literally like this style was completely embodied in the form of a chair. The chair is groundbreaking since it represents one of the first attempts to take the abstraction behind De Stijl and actually apply it to a three-dimensional object.

Image Source: Lothaire Hucki

The chair was made from thin wood and painted black on its frame, with the rest of it painted in De Stijl’s primary colors. The end result is a chair that almost “disappears” into the background (if the background is a darker color).

Image Source: Lothaire Hucki

At the Dutch Pavilion of 2017’s Cannes Film Festival, designer Sabine Marcelis took Mondrian’s 1935 work, Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow, and turned it into a three-dimensional space that visitors could inhabit. The result was an almost surreal painting brought to life, as the spatial reconstruction of the painting featured:

  • Right angles in square and rectangular shapes
  • Basic and primary colors (reds, blues, and yellows)
  • Neutral colors (blacks and whites)
  • White space
  • Straight lines, both vertical and horizontal
  • Attention to form first instead of aesthetics (although you could argue that the design is eye-catching)
Image Source: Natalia Skrobotova

You could definitely reason that going De Stijl for interiors is an acquired taste, to be sure, but that’s not stopping other designers from experimenting with this style in other indoor spaces. Designers like Natalia Skrobotova have put together plans to set up a café in this unique style. Perhaps fitting for a modern and trendy café, this design features the unmistakable De Stijl colors, lines, angles and shapes, too.

De Stijl in Architecture

Since one of this style’s premier members was an architect (Gerrit Rietveld), it’s no surprise that this style also left its mark on buildings. Throughout history, there was only one structure that was completed entirely according to The Style’s design principles, so it’s necessary to mention it here.

Image Source: Husky

The Rietveld Schroder House was designed by the aforementioned Rietveld for Truus Schroder-Schrader, a prominent Dutch socialite of the day. The house is today a UNESCO World Heritage site. The house is truly unique because:

  • The interior is an open zone instead of a true, series of rooms
  • Its exteriors are essentially a collection of lines and planes that seem not to relate to each other and instead float past each other
  • The building doesn’t fit into the design of its neighborhood’s surrounding buildings
  • There’s nary a distinction between interior and exterior space (same surfaces and color palettes)
  • Its windows are only allowed to open up 90 degrees to the wall

The reason we only have one, true example of De Stijl architecture has likely to do with the fact that its design makes living inside such a structure somewhat impractical.

The Style Leaves its Mark

Last year, De Stijl design turned 100. In the past century, many designs have come and gone, but this little-known movement from The Netherlands, born out of isolation and the ingenuity that tends to come from people who are cut off from outside influences, has stood the test of time. More than a century later, we’re still talking about it and seeing how it’s influencing and inspiring a new generation of creatives.

Due to its minimalist approach, The Style is actually quite accessible. One thing’s for certain: you’ll have an instantly recognizable and memorable product as soon as you apply some of The Style’s telltale principles into your own designs.

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About the Author
Marc Schenker

Marc is a copywriter and marketer who runs The Glorious Company, a marketing agency. An expert in business and marketing, he helps businesses and companies of all sizes get the most bang for their ad bucks.

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  • Wonderful article tracing the influence of De Stiji Design through architecture, interiors and furniture. Good job, thanks for enlightening us. 4 years ago
  • Amazing article. I have always treasured principles from Bauhaus, De Stijl and Swiss International Style 4 years ago