Photograph copyright Paul Tucker, courtesy of Rocket Gallery
The rise in popularity of vintage Dutch design: insights from Dutch mid century furniture expert Jonathan Stephenson of Rocket Gallery
What defines Dutch mid century furniture?
Dutch mid century furniture is defined by characteristics of simplicity and functionality in the context of industrial production, and a preoccupation with geometry and colour. These Dutch modernist designers had a strong desire to influence the post-war generation and to affect lives with good functional design. Dutch mid century furniture designers were not concerned with organic forms and the natural world in the way that mid century Scandinavian designers were. This was true Modernism, ultimately traceable back to the legacy of the Bauhaus.
What first drew you to Dutch mid century furniture?
My passion for furniture design that is minimal and rigorously functional, and a long-term interest in Dutch art and graphic design, led me to look more closely at Dutch mid century furniture. There is no division in The Netherlands between the various disciplines – art, photography, graphic design and product design all overlap without self-imposed impediments. The work of the Total Group, with graphic designers like Wim Crouwel collaborating with product designers like Friso Kramer, represents this approach to design.
Which Dutch mid century furniture designers and manufacturers do you feel were most important?
The seriously minimal and highly functional work of Martin Visser deserves one of the highest accolades for his Dutch mid century furniture – the products manufactured by his Spectrum Design furniture company in Eindhoven are some of the most beautiful and technically brilliant of all Dutch mid century furniture. Other Dutch mid century furniture designers of paramount importance include Friso Kramer, who worked mainly for Ahrend De Cirkel in Amsterdam; Cees Braakman and his company, Pastoe, who was based in Utrecht, and Wim Rietveld, who worked for manufacturers like Gispen in Culemborg and Ahrend De Cirkel in Amsterdam, and whose designs were often guided by the principles of his famous architect father Gerrit Rietveld. Other designers whose work is worth looking out for include Rudolf Wolf, Andre Cordermeijer and Tjerk Reijenga. And, while not attributed to any one designer, the manufacturer Tomado produced highly successful coloured shelving systems.
What materials did Dutch mid century furniture designers like Martin Visser and Cees Braakman favour?
Dutch mid century furniture manufacturers were experienced with industrial materials, so the designers naturally favoured bent and tubular metal, painted steel, compressed plywood and modern plastics. These materials are typical of the Dutch modernist aesthetic.
What were the influences of Dutch mid century furniture designers?
Dutch mid century furniture was undoubtedly influenced and inspired by artists and designers of the De Stijl movement (1917 up to the early 1930s) – in particular the work of the architect Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964) and the artist Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). These influences can be seen in the embracing of geometry and the confident use of colour. Equally, other earlier international designers were influential: Friso Kramer acknowledges inspiration from Jean Prouve and Le Corbusier; Martin Visser’s work shows echoes of Marcel Breuer, and all of the Dutch designers were undoubtedly inspired by Charles and Ray Eames in America and their approach to mass-production.
Buying Dutch mid century furniture: tips from expert Jonathan Stephenson of Rocket Gallery
Have you observed any buying trends in relation to Dutch mid century furniture?
Dutch mid century furniture was first reassessed in New York in 2000, when the work of Cees Braakman and Pastoe was exhibited at the R20th Century Gallery exhibition ‘Made to Measure’ – Cees Braakman’s Japanese series of made-to-measure cabinets became highly desirable after this, even in the UK. More recently, since his death in 2009, Martin Visser’s very rigorous body of work has started to gain a serious following, with exhibitions in 2012 at Rocket Gallery, London and at the Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht. And with Friso Kramer reaching his 90th birthday in 2012, his work has become increasingly sought after, fuelled by exhibitions in Antwerp and Paris and the publication of the monograph ‘Friso Kramer’s Chair’, which tells the story of the ‘Revolt’ chair, a classic piece of Dutch mid century furniture.
How easy is it to find Dutch mid century furniture in the UK today?
Dutch mid century furniture has been overlooked in the UK, while it has been heralded over the last decade in the USA, France and in the Benelux countries. For the relatively conservative and nostalgic UK market, the Dutch modernist aesthetic is perhaps too pared down and minimal, with little use of exotic woods. Though it crops up in the inventories of Mid century Modern dealers and occasionally in the auction houses, there are few specialist sources in the UK.
What would you say are the three most collectible pieces of Dutch mid century furniture available at an accessible price point?
1.The ‘Revolt’ chair, designed in 1953 by Friso Kramer and manufactured ever since by Ahrend De Cirkel. Examples made in the 1960s and 1970s are still available from £200-£300 each, although rarer finishes and colours are now reaching £700-£800.
2.Tomado bookshelves, made from the late 1950s onwards, are highly appealing, with their primary colours, and Tomado shelving can be sourced from £200 upwards.
3. Examples of the SZ01 (cane) and SZ02 (leather) easy chairs, designed by Martin Visser for ‘t Spectrum and made prior to 1974, are very collectible and available from £1200 upwards.
What considerations and potential pitfalls should a buyer look out for when buying Dutch mid century furniture?
Buyers should be aware that generic copies of classic pieces of Dutch mid century furniture were made by lesser companies and mass-produced in great volumes. The chief Dutch mnid century furniture manufacturers changed manufacturing techniques and adapted designs over the decades, so often the earliest examples are the truest to the designer’s intentions. In the case of the manufacturer Ahrend De Cirkel, almost invariably any piece of mid century furniture bearing their label is attributed to Friso Kramer, which is often incorrect as he only designed 25 or so pieces for them.
How concerned should a buyer be about condition when buying Dutch mid century furniture?
Dutch mid century furniture should fulfill the function for which it was designed; it should above all be used – so condition is important as far as this is concerned. Over the years much vintage furniture has been repainted – to cover rust or to jazz an item up – but an example with original paintwork is eminently preferable.
What is the price structure of Dutch mid century furniture and when is it worth paying a lot?
Dutch mid century furniture ranges from £200 to £5000, making it still relatively affordable. Even the rarest piece in the best original condition can be acquired within this price range. It is worth paying the maximum, if you can, to acquire the earliest production models and those pieces in absolute original condition.
Does Dutch mid century furniture make a good long-term investment?
It is debatable whether furniture should be viewed as an investment commodity and personally I would never sell a piece on this criteria. However if the prices are compared to French, Danish or American mid century design, then Dutch mid century furniture has a lot of potential for future increases. It was only a few years ago that ‘Result’ and ‘Revolt’ chairs by Friso Kramer could be found thrown out on the streets in Dutch cities. But as with so much mid century furniture, its increasing rarity (in part due to its destruction) combined with an increasing interest in this dateline, means that values can only rise.
Useful links and information
See our Directory for a more comprehensive list of mid century dealers.