Theo Van Doesburg The Netherlands, Utrecht, 1883 – 1931
“There is an old and a new consciousness of time.
The old is connected with the individual.
The new is connected with the universal.
The struggle of the individual against the universal is revealing itself in the world-war as well as in the art of the present day.”
– Theo Van Doesburg
Manifest I of De Stijl, 1918,
De Stijl, vol. 2, nr. 1
The manifest can be read here.
In 1917 he founded the group De Stijl and the periodical of the same name together with architects J. J. P. Oud and Jan Wils, Vilmos Huszár, Piet Mondrian, Bart van der Leck, and Georges Vantongerloo. The periodical propagated the group’s theories.
De Stijl has come to represent their common aims and utopian vision. The essential idea underlying De Stijl’s radical utopian program was the creation of a universal aesthetic language based in part on a rejection of the decorative excesses of Art Nouveau in favor of a simple, logical style that emphasized construction and function, one that would be appropriate for every aspect of modern life.* They simplified visual compositions to the vertical and horizontal directions, and used only primary colors along with black and white.
The first edition of the De Stijl artmagazine appeared in oktober 1917. The cover contained an abstract woodcut composed of black rectangles, over which the words De Stijl were drawn in fragmented square capitals. In his foreword, Van Doesburg mentions Vilmos Huszar as the designer of the vignette. It is generally assumed that Huszar also drew the lettering.*
The only remarkable piece of design in the magazine was the cover, the inside had not been touched by designers, as texts were delivered to the printer and set in standard typefaces.
In 1921 the De Stijl magazine appeared in a new design. The new logo consisted of standard sans-serif type and was designed by Van Doesburg and Mondriaan. The letters N.B. in red stand for “Nieuwe Beelding” (new imaging).
Of the artists linked to De Stijl, many drew an alphabet, but it is probably Van Doesburg’s which has been most influential. He drew a sans-serif modular alphabet that is constructed entirely of evenly weighted strokes. Each character is based upon a square divided into a raster of 5×5. This makes some characters, especially the K, R and X, so unconventional that they must have been unreadable to many readers. The earliest version of the alphabet was made up of letterpress ruling pieces. The finished typeface was used in 1919.
Van Doesburg used the alphabet for several design jobs, like the logo for the League of Revolutionary-Socialist Intellectuals. In this logo he plays with the widths of the letters, so the name could form a justified rectangle.
A digital revival has been created by Freda Sack and David Quay of The Foundry.
Although De Stijl was made up of many members, Van Doesburg was the ‘ambassador’ of the movement, travelling across Europe for promotion. In 1922 Van Doesburg became briefly involved with Dadaism and traveled on a lecture tour with Kurt Schwitters. At the same time he worked with the constructivists and became interested in the Bauhaus, which had recently been founded in Germany. His geometric style was well received by Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, but still they believed their ideas would not match. Reacting to this disappointment Van Doesburg then installed himself near to the Bauhaus buildings and started to attract Bauhaus students interested in the new ideas of De Stijl.
Around 1924 the original De Stijl group started to fall apart as Van Doesburg introduced these Bauhaus and Dadaist influences.
At the end of his life, he moved to Davos in Switzerland because of his declining health. Theo Van Doesburg died on March 7, 1931, due to heart failure.