May 16, 2023
In her research log, written on the occasion of the exhibition MODERN — Van Gogh, Rietveld, Léger and others, project assistant Ginger van den Akker highlights the enduring influence of geometry in modern design, tracing its roots to the 19th and early 20th centuries. The success and longevity of geometric designs suggest their pivotal role in defining modernity, even in the present day, and their ability to transcend time and remain relevant.
In this day and age, the concept of modernity in design is still primarily associated with geometric forms, clean, sharp lines, transparency, and a lack of decoration. These associations are not atypical, having become accessible to the public not that long ago. That said, some 19th– and early 20th-century designers had already aspired to reach these aesthetic ideals of modernity due to the social and political environment of their time, such as the upcoming industrialization and movements like socialism. Although many designers desired to provide good and modern design for all—regardless of social class, nationality, or culture—these revolutionary designs were often limited to a select few, due to the high production costs and selling prices.
It was only after the Second World War that a modernist aesthetic became more widely realized through the production of relatively affordable products. Today, even after over a century has passed, minimalist tubular metal furniture and geometric-shaped tableware are still regarded as modern. The exhibition MODERN – Van Gogh, Rietveld, Léger and others seeks to explore the meaning of “modern”, taking into account the Van Dale Dutch dictionary definition of “belonging to the present time.” Are we still addressing the question on what we currently consider to be “modern”, or has it turned into a matter of timelessness?
The advent of industrialization and advances in engineering around the mid-18th century in England brought with them new materials and techniques, fostering an optimistic belief in material progress in Europe. Engineers’ use of certain forms served as a source of inspiration in design: for instance, the spherical shape of the cauldron required for vacuum evaporation of sugar, included in the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in London (fig. 1.). Such industrial objects contributed to the emergence of a machine aesthetic that rejected ornamentation and which was encouraged by Austrian architect-designer Adolf Loos (1870-1933) and the renowned art and design school the Bauhaus.
After the horrors of the First World War, modernist designers were driven by a steadfast focus to create an “ideal” society for the “New Man” through employing universal forms. As early as the mid-19th century, geometry became an ordering principle for design. The Bauhaus relied on these formal shapes, which were often found in non-European examples like those from the Japanese Edo period (1603-1868) (fig. 2.). By abstracting shapes and structures, designers aimed to ensure that their creations would stand the test of time and be universally comprehensible.
These principles were embraced by numerous designers, including Christiaan Johannes van der Hoef (1875-1933), a Dutch artist who worked on a freelance basis for the silverware factory Gerofabrieken NV. His tableware set number 1095 from around 1933, characterized by spherical shapes, incorporated industrial forms reminiscent of the cauldron. The success of this sober design is evident from Gero’s ‘self-plagiarism’. After 1933, their permanent employee Theodorus Hooft (1900-1990) created model number 1169—an exact copy of the previous design, using the same high-set spouts and rectangular handles (fig. 3.). Yet Hooft’s was a pewter version of Gero’s silver original by Van der Hoef, which had consisted of an alloy of copper, nickel, and zinc. Given the modernists’ quest for accessibility for all, pewter was a suitable material for artistic, utilitarian objects that could be enjoyed by a broad audience due to its affordability and ease of use. During a visit to the Stedelijk’s depot for the exhibition MODERN, an analysis of Hooft’s tableware revealed an irregularity in the markings on the bottoms of the objects. While the teapot, milk jug, and sugar bowl bear Hooft’s signature (TH), the coffee pot displays Van der Hoef’s signature (CJH) (fig. 4. & 5.). This interesting fact could indicate that Gero still used Van der Hoef’s signature on some of the pewter versions. Regardless, the success of both versions can be deduced from the fact that the production lasted until circa 1950, possibly due to an affordable price or easier mass production.
In this article, the gradual transition from a spherical shape to a sleeker cylindrical form in design is explored. The tendency toward abstracting objects into geometric shapes was also evident in earlier Dutch designs, such as in the Dada chess game by Vilmos Huszár (1884-1960) (fig. 6.). This former member of the De Stijl-group created cylinder-shaped chessmen using the industrial material of aluminum in 1921. Following the machine aesthetic of these cylinders, the more compressed shape of a cube was made use of by Josef Hartwig (1880-1955), a German artist from the Bauhaus, in 1922 (fig. 7.). His design for the chess game Das Bauhaus Schachspiel became one of the Bauhaus’s most successful products due to its radical break with traditional chess pieces. Both game sets reimagined the usually conventional, naturalistic representation of the chess figures like the queen, king, bishop, and knight: Huszár conveyed their functions by stacking different cylinders, while Hartwig differentiated the chess pieces by using geometric forms such as a cube, cross, and sphere. As the game evolved from an imitation of a battle between hostile armies to a purely abstract game of the mind, the form of the pieces needed to reflect their current function, as advocated by Hartwig. This design approach, which involved abstracting the pieces into formal structures based on their essential roles, aligned with the designers’ pursuit of creating a new, ideal society through the utilization of geometric forms. These forms were considered as able to articulate this era’s technique in the best possible way.
The geometric design language that emerged in Europe around the mid-19th century became closely associated with the concept of modernity. Being modern was often expressed through the adoption of minimalist and abstract designs. The success of the abovementioned designs surely played a significant role in establishing geometry as a defining symbol of modernity. Remarkably, this still holds true in the 21st century. One could argue that the universal designs of the 19th– and 20th-century have stood the test of time, indicating the successful accomplishment of their mission.
Fig. 1. C.M. Ferrier and F. von Martens (attributed to), cauldron for the vacuum evaporation of sugar at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations at the Crystal Palace in London, 1851. Salt print, photographic paper, printers Nicolaas Henneman and Robert Jefferson Bingham. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Fig. 2. Tea mil (hand mil for grinding tea, hikiusu), undocumented maker (Japan), 1800-1823, Edo Period (1603-1868). Stone, wood, h 20 x Ø 38 cm. Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen.
Fig 3. Theodorus Hooft, coffee and tea set, design after 1933 or later. Pewter, Bakelite, prod. Gerofabrieken NV, Zeist. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
Fig. 4. & 5. Theodorus Hooft, signatures of Theodorus Hooft (TH) and Christiaan Johannes van der Hoef (CJH) on the coffee pot and tea pot, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Photos by Ginger van den Akker.
Fig. 6. Vilmos Huszár, chess board with chess men, design 1921, production of this example 1974, aluminium. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Photo by Ginger van den Akker.
Fig. 7. Josef Hartwig, Das Bauhaus Schachspiel, design 1923, production of this example 1923-1925, wood. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Photo by Ingeborg de Roode.
About the Author
Ginger van den Akker studied Media, Art, Design and Architecture at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam with a specialization in design. She currently follows the master’s program Curating Art and Cultures at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the University of Amsterdam. She was the curator-in-training at the design department of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and now works here as a project assistant. She worked on, among other things, the exhibition MODERN – Van Gogh, Rietveld, Léger and others. Van den Akker has gained different work experience across multiple museums in Amsterdam, such as the Royal Palace Amsterdam and Museum Het Schip. She recently worked on the publication and exhibition dedicated to the 20th-century female graphic designer Fré Cohen at Museum Het Schip.
Bobzin, Anne, Klaus Weber, Das Bauhaus Schachspiel von Josef Hartwig, Berlin (2006).
Jintes, L.F., J.T. Pol-Tieszkiewicz, ‘Chris van der Hoef, 1875-1933’, Monografieënserie van het Drents Museum over Nederlandse kunstenaars uit het tijdperk rond 1900, Assen 12 (1994).
 For information on the concepts of “modern”, “modernism”, and “modernity”, see Introduction in the exhibition catalogue: Ingeborg de Roode, Maurice Rummens, Modern: Van Gogh, Rietveld, Léger and others, exh.cat Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (2023), pp. 9-20.
 Jintes 1994, p. 115.
 Bobzin 2006, pp. 7-8.