Free Flowing Forms

Design + architecture + decorative arts 1900 – 1980


February 2017

Модерн in St. Petersburg

Saint Petersburg is the most beautiful city I ever saw. London, Chicago and Barcelona are fantastic, but I’ll never forget the capital of the tsars. The combination of light -I visited in 2008 during the legendary White Nights, Art Nouveau architecture, rivers, canals and history is just irresistible. And of course there’s the Hermitage, one of the largest art collections in the world. 

One of the buildings that struck me the most, is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Its name is as thrilling as the structure itself. The church was built in 1883, right at the spot where tsar Alexander II was assassinated two years earlier. It took 24 years to complete the memorial for the lost ruler. No wonder, since the church contains 7500 square meters of colorful mosaic tiles. Even more famous spilled blood, is the juice of Rasputin. The ‘crazy monk’ was murdered at Yusupov Palace, at the banks of the Moika river. That is to say, prince Yusupov and his partners in crime tried to murder Rasputin: they fed him cakes and wine with an amount of poison that could kill five men, shot him four times in the back when he kept fighting, clubbed and gagged him and threw the hipster mystic in the ice cold Neva river. Even then he managed to break free, but eventually died. Cause of death? Drowning, as autopsy established.

Okay, back to beauty. Russian Art Nouveau is called Modern (Модерн) and St. Petersburg is the city where this style flourished. Keep walking along Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main avenue, and you’ll find great examples of Modern. Sometimes they’re very subtle, hidden in iron gates, doors and shop counters. More in your face, hard to miss, are the testaments to tsar Peter the Great: his Summer Garden (partly designed by Dutch gardeners), Winter Palace (now part of the Hermitage) and the Peterhof (a boat will take you there). The tsar also owned a cabinet of curiosities, but where the common rich man had a couple of bizarre objects, the Kunstkamera of Peter the Great consists of two million anthropological, ethnographical and zoological specimen. The Zoological museum of the Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences deserves an honourable mention with its large collection of taxidermy and preserved animals. The entree fee is a couple of euro’s and you’ll find yourself strolling through displays with stuffed pinguins, desert foxes, insects and mammoth bones for hours and hours.

The Style! Rietveld-Schröder house

What a shock the Rietveld-Schröder house must have been in 1925. Built according to the ideas of De Stijl (The Style). the two storey house consists of strict horizontal and vertical lines and a sober palette of grey, white and primary colours. It leans againsr a block of traditional houses.

Would I want to live there? The question popped in my head as I entered the hall of Rietveld’s masterpiece at the Prins Hendriklaan in Utrecht, virtually the heart of The Netherlands. Surely the house designed for his client, mistress and business partner Truus Schröder-Schräder is a work of art, both inspiring and innovative. It secured its place on the UNESCO World Heritage list for a reason. But no, I do not want to live in this 3D Mondrian living machine. The rooms downstairs, where Rietveld held office, are cramped, dark and industrial. The second storey is an open plan living, but does not leave any room for privacy. You could slide walls between the spaces, but is that really what you want, a scarcely decorated room, only divided from family and guests by a panel?

Truus Schröder lived in her Stijl-house till her passing in 1985, but she made some adjustments over the years. Even the free spirited interior designer wanted more privacy and asked Rietveld in 1937 to create a third storey. They removed the attic in 1957. The lady of the house also wanted more cabinets, cupboards and beds. After 1985 the house was restored to its original condition. Rietveld’s iconic red and blue chair and Berlin chair are present, as well as his hanging tube lamp, made famous by Bauhaus director Walter Gropius, who used a slightly different model in his office.

Cosy great Danes

When it comes to furniture and lighting, Danish and Dutch designs are my favorites. The latter is by no means a matter of chauvinism, being a Dutchman and all, but I admire the functionality and sharp look of the creations by designers as Cees Braakman (Pastoe), Martin Visser (Spectrum) and Willem Hendrik Gispen (Gispen). Of course the ‘great Danes’ from the 50s, 60s and 70s have a wider appeal. Architects and designers like Arne Jacobsen, Verner Panton and Poul Henningsen are world-renowned.

The Danes and Dutch are the only ones who have a proper word for a feeling that is hard to describe. We say gezellig, the Danes use hyggeCosy does not quite grasp it. It’s a feeling you may find in company, sharing dinner, but you can also experience it on your own, sitting comfortably on the couch, hearing the sound of rain. A third possibility is a well-designed space. And by well I mean inviting. In The Netherlands we have the strange habit to use diminutive grammar for such places. ‘Een leuk hotelletje’ literally means a nice little hotel, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the hotel is small. It is just description of a warm feeling. Gezellig!

After dark my living and bedroom are not gezellig, they’re hygge. Most of the lamps in those rooms are Danish made. Long autumn and winter nights inspire the Danes to create lighting that is functional and beautiful at the same time. My Danish lamps all have one thing in common: the innovative design of indirect lighting. The widely acclaimed ‘flower pots’ by Verner Panton (the orange-red ones are original from the 70s, the chrome pieces by Innovation Randers in the early 00s) use a semicircle to shield the light bulb. Panton’s VP Globe consists of a smart cylinder and scales. Poul Henningsen is the absolute master of indirect lighting. His beautiful designs (PH5 and Henningsen inspired PH80) are directing light through the different components. Norm 69 lamp by Normann Copenhagen uses the same principle, but it’s a lot more affordable. The trick is, you have to put the 69 pieces of Norm 69 together by hand. Some patience is required, but it can be a hygge activity on a cold winter’s evening.


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