In Utrecht, Chasing an Art Movement That Hoped to Heal the World

In the early 20th century, De Stijl changed history with its bold colors and lines. Writer Chris Colin hunts for its legacy in the Dutch city where it all began.

Left: A De Stijl chair. Right: A canal in Utrecht with one kayaker in water and trees along banks

Utrecht has a reputation as the religious center of the Netherlands. But the city has a rebellious artistic streak as well.

Photos by Jussi Puikkonen

They say Utrecht is where you go for Amsterdam’s charms minus the Amsterdam part. The tree-lined canals, cheerful old streets, and orderly mellowness exist here, too, but without the throngs of tourists. An ancient Dutch trading port–turned–university town 33 miles from the capital by car, Utrecht pulls off that European trick of being both historic and edgy in the same breath. Old vaulted wharf cellars, converted into tiny cafés and restaurants and apartments, open onto those canals. Stylish students laugh
about stylish things under willow trees. Within an hour of arriving in the city, I watched two scarf-wearing women mount bikes at the Saturday flower market, tuck tulips into their baskets, and pedal off holding hands. You can live your whole life in the United States and never see tulip-bearing cyclists hold hands.

It seemed a terrible miscalculation, not being born Utrechtian, but I had bigger things on my mind—bigger and older and way more arcane. I’d come for a revolution that happened here a century ago, perpetrated by a restless assortment of painters, designers, architects, poets, and musicians. They called themselves De Stijl—the style—and, between 1917 and 1931, they believed they’d found a path to global harmony. The path was geometry and color.

A decade into the 20th century, these artists felt the Netherlands was stuck in the 19th: draped in history, deferent to tradition. As I biked around that first day, I pictured the dark, chandelier-stuffed homes, the old looming churches, the old looming bourgeois values. Around 45 C.E. the emperor Claudius made Utrecht the northern edge of the Roman Empire, and medieval remnants remain, jumbled with the baroque and the Gothic and the Renaissance and the romantic. I imagined the De Stijl artists—Theo van Doesburg, Bart van der Leck, Robert van’t Hoff, Jan Wils, Jakob van Domselaer, Piet Mondrian, others—loving this place but anxious to turn the page, and never wanting to see another damned bell tower. And then I imagined everything exploding.

I can’t pretend to understand the chaos and terror that World War I ripped across Europe. Twenty million deaths. A crumbling of all things solid. In every direction lay evidence that civilization had failed. To be marooned in the Netherlands for those four years (the country remained neutral throughout the war) was to watch one’s restlessness take on an entirely new dimension. As those artists began to find each other, a common sentiment emerged: A fundamentally broken world needs a fundamental overhaul.

As short-lived avant-garde art movements go, it’s hard to overstate De Stijl’s influence. Scattered around Utrecht and the rest of Holland, there weren’t many adherents, but De Stijl’s artists would become a powerful current in the river of 20th-century modernism. Mondrian, the group’s most famous member, is now one of the planet’s most recognizable painters. Without De Stijl there could be no Bauhaus school, no Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, or no legendary Eames House in Los Angeles. To this day, you can see the group’s fingerprints in industrial design, graphic art, and typography.

I’m no art historian. What brought me to Utrecht was the story of a pivot—one of those rare moments when history abruptly heaves us from our old lives into something new. This group watched the world collapse and went at what remained with sledgehammers. Out of intellectual curiosity or something more visceral, I wanted to inhale some of that spirit. Inhale it and get my arms around it. What these people had attempted was both lovely and incomprehensible to me, and so I booked a room and went looking.

Left: Kaasbar Utrecht, a bar located on a canal. Right: A person on a bench reading in an Utrecht park.

The city—home to a major university—has a sizable student population.

Photos by Jussi Puikkonen

The next morning was bright and clear. I pedaled my bike past airy cafés spilling out onto jabbering streets. Street art was everywhere, murals were everywhere, including a De Stijl–inflected geometric cityscape painted on a building north of town. In Utrecht’s historic center, an artist had installed a neon halo over St. Willibrord’s Church, an otherwise dour Gothic-revival number. Turned out it was part of Utrecht Lumen, a series of light installations that switch on at sunset. One of the artists seemed to have shared my interest in tracing history’s invisible currents. Near the Domtoren bell tower, every 15 minutes, a line of colored bulbs lit up and steam rose from the street, illuminating what had been the edge of an old Roman fortress.

I can’t claim that these installations all felt directly De Stijl–y. But maybe they were the distant offshoot of whatever De Stijl uncorked. Within months of declaring its existence, the group had launched a magazine and published a full-on utopian manifesto. “The war,” it declared, “is destroying the old world with its contents: individual domination in every state.” Representative art, with its centering of subjective perspectives, had to go. Through abstraction and a set of strict codes—primary colors only, horizontal and vertical lines but no diagonals or circles—these De Stijl artists would reduce art to its universally understandable, spiritually true essence.

As I biked around, I imagined a once-stuffy town crackling with strange new ideas. The De Stijl artist van Doesburg designed an all-new alphabet, each character mathematically determined. Mondrian experimented with simple, off-white grids. Van der Leck had begun sketching human figures and then covering them with white paint, so that only basic geometric shapes could shine through. Around 1919, Gerrit Rietveld would produce his iconic Red Blue Chair—the first major expression of De Stijl in three dimensions, and a piece so influential that the U.S. architect Philip Johnson eventually donated one to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Left: Red cathedral doors beneath vaulted ceiling. Right: A person riding bike near canal, with historic, white, five-story building in background

In 2022, Utrecht was named the most bicycle-friendly city in the world.

Photos by Jussi Puikkonen

I wanted to see De Stijl up close. And so on my second morning I rode to an industrial part of town filled with anonymous warehouses. Arriving at the address scrawled on my hand, I hit a buzzer and an unmarked door opened.

A bit of renovation at Utrecht’s Centraal Museum meant its De Stijl collection wasn’t on view during my trip. But I finagled a private viewing of the depot where the museum keeps whatever’s not on display. The woman who admitted me was named Chantal, and after exacting a promise that I’d divulge no details about the location, she led me down a long hallway to a gray metal door. We stepped into a vast and quiet space where thousands of paintings hung cheek by jowl on massive sliding panels, in long rows. Next to this room was another, equally vast, and another, and another.

For the next two hours I enjoyed a personal De Stijl tour. Here were private sketchbooks chronicling van Doesburg’s creative evolution, there a grid of moody squares and partial circles painted by César Domela-Nieuwenhuis. Tucked away on a shelf like someone’s old ski gear was Rietveld’s Red Blue Chair.

For years I’d stared at these pieces on a screen—partly, if I’m honest, in a state of befuddlement. I found the ideology of De Stijl inscrutable, almost mystically cryptic. (At one point, van Doesburg summarized Mondrian’s thinking thus: “vertical = male = space = statics = harmony; horizontal = female = time = dynamics = melody, etc.”) But now, nose six inches from canvas, I saw in these pieces something recognizably human. Belied by this tidy red line was the horror of war. In that arrangement of rectangles wasn’t arbitrary geometry but desperate hope.

Chantal pulled out another panel and I stared at a Tangram-like scattering of shapes, a piece by the Hungarian artist and graphic designer Vilmos Huszár, who lived in the Netherlands. The familiar slam of abstract art is that it’s antiseptic, bloodless. But in the spareness of this painting I saw something else: a mind yearning to strip a failed world down to the studs and rebuild.

At last I said goodbye and biked back to my hotel. This mission of mine—tracing the faded steps of this long-departed art group—had been, at times, hard to explain to myself. But it felt clear now: I was in a beautiful city where some people had taken a big, weird swing. Was it so absurd, I wondered, to think you could remake society with shapes and lines and colors? Well, OK, yes. But I also think irrational conviction is one of humanity’s most wonderful features, and demanding logic of it one of our least.

I found the ideology of De Stijl inscrutable, almost mystically cryptic. But now, nose six inches from canvas, I saw in these pieces something recognizably human.

Over the next few days in Utrecht, I saw and did everything through the lens of De Stijl. On a rowboat in the Oudegracht (old canal), a family laid out a mobile picnic—how would van der Leck have depicted the scene? Those moorhens bobbing mindlessly in the Nieuwegracht—is there a less subjective, more universal way of capturing their essence? One afternoon I stretched out in the grass at Máximapark, west of the city center. All day I’d been listening to the one piano suite I could find from the composer van Domselaer, stark and ominous, and there on the ground I felt it separate the sun and the trees and the footpaths into Mondrian-like units of existence.

Left: White interior of historic Van Schijndel House, with black sofa and red chair. Right: A wooden De Stijl chair.

Nearly everything in the Van Schijndel House (still lived in by his widow Natascha Drabbe) was designed by architect Mart van Schijndel.

Photos by Jussi Puikkonen

Photos by Jussi Puikkonen

I also noticed all the Utrecht that couldn’t have happened without De Stijl. On a Sunday morning, I knocked on the door of a home on a quiet cul-de-sac behind St. Peter’s Church. A tall, elegant woman unlatched it, as she has for strangers every month for several years. The architect Mart van Schijndel purchased this former glazier’s warehouse in the 1980s and spent the next six years designing a new kind of home and a new way of living. But four years after winning the prestigious Rietveld Award in 1995, van Schijndel died. Natascha Drabbe, his wife, wanted the creation to live on in the public imagination. And so, one Sunday a month, though she still lives there, Drabbe opens the home—called the Van Schijndel House—to visitors.

Stepping inside, I found obvious De Stijl DNA: the colors, the use of vertical and horizontal planes. I found total departures, too. Everything centered on a triangular floor plan, with light pouring in from all angles. As we walked around, Drabbe, an architectural historian, explained how the gentlest choices—windows like so, angles like so—unlock a new way of seeing. I was no longer in a historic building, or in a historic city, but in a cathedral of light and angles. At one point we stood watching shadows move along a staircase. Once again I was amid invisible currents set in motion decades ago.

I was, no denying it, on a funny kind of trip. Instead of surfing or cruising wine bars, I was summoning distant artistic vibrations, imagining century-old intellectual ferment. Fanciful as that sounds, it also felt like just the thing for this moment we’re in. Travel can be a portal to the obscure, to unfamiliar wavelengths. Sometimes the thing you need most is a marinade of red and blue rectangles, and the hunt for a long-vanished world.

It wasn’t all so theoretical. That week, whenever De Stijl got too esoteric for my limited mainframe, I thought about Truus Schröder-Schräder, a Utrecht native whose collision with De Stijl was refreshingly concrete. In 1911, Truus had married Frits Schröder, a lawyer 11 years her senior. He was a traditional man in a traditional world. She was 22, creative and opinionated and modern and miserable. Frits had promised her a liberated existence—freedom, no children, space to be herself—but delivered instead the conventional burdens of bourgeois Dutch family life. “He promised me all sorts of things, but didn’t make good on them,” she later said. “He basically tricked me into this.”

Her life, her home, her city—she felt trapped in a world not of her design. Then, in 1923, Frits died. Around the time De Stijl was beginning its reset of culture, Truus Schröder-Schräder began her own. She would move out of that dreary, overstuffed home and start fresh with her three kids; not just a new life but a new kind of life. She commissioned Gerrit Rietveld, then a rising star in the world of De Stijl, to design a home for her.

“How do you want to live?” he asked at the start.

It seemed like an obvious question for an architect to ask his client. But how one wanted to live had been a decided matter for so long, particularly for a woman, that Schröder-Schräder found herself with something she’d never had before: options. Over the years to come, the Rietveld Schröder House became the first and only inhabitable interpretation of De Stijl ideals, a pioneering example of modernist architecture. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

On my second-to-last day I pedaled up to the house, a small white building on the outskirts of town. A handful of people had gathered on the sidewalk, snapping discreet photos as you would of a celebrity.

Inside, sun brightened a series of white and gray planes. Crisp lines contradicted a striking fluidity to the spaces: I felt like I’d crawled into a Mondrian canvas. The difference between inside and outside was to be hazy, Schröder-Schräder had decreed. Walls would be movable, rooms transformable. Her favorite place was the top floor, with its view of the surrounding landscape. Rietveld built her a speaking tube, so she could communicate with visitors at the door without going downstairs.

At one point, the docent at the house summoned the visitors to the area at the top of the staircase. We gathered around, and she reached over to a crisp white wall, pulled it gently along a track, and thus re-created one of the kids’ bedrooms, just as Schröder-Schräder had every night. During the day, she’d push it back the other way, and the upper floor would be open. It sounds like a small thing, a movable wall, but something clicked for me.

Gerrit Rietveld's "Red Blue Chair," created in 1919, viewed from side on red floor

Gerrit Rietveld produced Red Blue Chair around 1919. Fellow De Stijl artist Bart van der Leck suggested Rietveld paint the chair red, blue, yellow, and black.

Photo by Jussi Puikkonen

If De Stijl sometimes felt impenetrably obscure, I could see its strictures here as ideas that would shape a real person’s life, her meals, her mornings. And maybe in a time of turmoil, in an era when the world imposed so much of its fate on you, a little liberty nudged you closer to a little harmony. And harmony had undeniably blossomed here. Thirty-two years after Schröder-Schräder moved in, Rietveld—by then one of the most celebrated figures of De Stijl—joined her. Over the course of their collaboration, they’d fallen in love. They lived there together for the rest of their lives.

Radical and finicky art movements are mortal things. When van Doesburg dared to introduce diagonal lines into his work, Mondrian left the group in 1923 in protest. That was it: a yearslong friendship undone by the angle of a line. The movement began to take on a more international character, blending at times with dadaism, and when a heart attack killed van Doesburg in 1931 at age 47, De Stijl effectively died, too.

On my last day in Utrecht, a silver sky hung low over town. I bundled up and biked toward the Hogeweidebrug, an arch bridge connecting the city to the western suburbs. I was listening to van Domselaer again, his chords broken-sounding and tense.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say De Stijl’s aims didn’t come to pass, exactly. But in lieu of remaking society, maybe De Stijl effected change at a micro level—a person reflecting on the mere possibility that a grid can have mythic powers, a woman sliding open walls each morning to live as she wished.

As I was reaching the Hogeweidebrug, a ragged crescendo was building. I pedaled faster. The Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal below me was wide and slate-colored; a barge heaped with rusty river detritus plowed solemnly north. A man sat by a lamppost on the far side of the river, sketching. A woman pushed a stroller with one hand and texted with the other. Van Domselaer was going berserk, jamming strange notes together, no frills, just the spare essence of something unsettling. Maybe reconfiguring reality is a tall order, but with luck you find a crack in it, and with ink and paint and chords and blueprints you widen it a bit.

Chris Colin is a contributing writer for AFAR, the author of What Really Happened to the Class of ’93 and Blindsight, and bassist for Baby and the Luvies. He was once in a film shot by chimps and teaches writing at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR