Henry van de Velde Designer of Modernity

The architect and designer Henry van de Velde, born in Antwerp in 1863, became in Weimar the pioneer of a new style. He brought beauty and reason into harmony. An interview with Thomas Föhl, Special Representative of the President of the Weimar Classics Foundation and van de Velde expert, on the “total artist”.

Henry van de Velde (here in 1908) saw himself as the prophet of a transition; Henry van de Velde (here in 1908) saw himself as the prophet of a transition; | Photo: Louis Held © Klassik Stiftung Weimar Mr Föhl, Henry van de Velde began as a painter. What was the stimulus that made him abandon painting in 1893 and turn to the applied arts, to the design of living spaces and finally to the design of houses?

Van de Velde wanted to have a broad effect as an innovator. The example of the English “arts and crafts movement” gave him the stimulus in the 1890s to turn to the applied arts. In the upheaval of early Modernism beginning in 1895, those interested in art in Europe looked enthusiastically to this Fleming who seemed capable like no one else of pushing open the door to a new age in word and deed. He saw himself as the apostle of this aesthetic future, as the prophet of the transition from an exhausted era of historicism to a new style that would correspond to Nietzsche’s “new man”.

Confidently surmounting all traditions, van de Velde also ignored the boundaries between art and crafts and created a canon that applied design to virtually every area of life: the building of a house, the decoration of a room, the form of clothing and jewellery, and also everyday objects from lighting fixtures and furniture to letter-openers. The “total artist” remained faithful to the conviction he expressed back then throughout his life: the design of an object is the more consummate the more exactly it corresponds to its function. He remained true to the idea that beautiful things which harmonised with their surrounding would exhilarate and elevate man.

The beauty of everyday things

Salon of the Nietzsche Archive in Weimar, designed by van de Velde; Salon of the Nietzsche Archive in Weimar, designed by van de Velde; | Photo: Jens Hauspurg © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2013 His first successes came in Brussels. He acquired his first German clients in 1897. Soon most of his clients were Germans. What did they value in his work in particular?

The first German clients came from a cosmopolitan and intellectual elite. Like Belgium, Germany then was a young, ambitious state. People were more open to new ideas than were the traditionalist French. Van de Velde’s German clients were affluent and above all curious about his message. Like a magician, he opened their eyes to the hitherto unknown beauty of everyday things. He gave his clients a sense of joy in their new living spaces, which stood in a contrast to the stale and jaded ambience of those of their fathers in a way that we can hardly comprehend today.

Van de Velde labelled his work the “New Style”. It is generally assigned to Art Nouveau or Jugendstil. He himself said: “The time of ornaments of vines, flowers and women is over”. What distinguishes his version of Jugendstil?

Van de Velde always vehemently protested against being lumped together with the other artists of the Jugendstil movement. He argued that his comprehensive design ideas broke new ground and were nourished by both reason and beauty. Two other key ideas were abstraction and joy in the increasing reduction of form.

Why did he settle in 1902 in the provincial capital of Weimar of all places?

His move to Weimar was a gambit arranged by Count Harry Graf Kessler and Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche as part of a plan to bring the ossified provincial cultural town back to life. For van de Velde himself it was important, after a series of disappointments, to venture another new beginning. The place was chosen carefully, and if it hadn’t been for the tradition of Goethe and Schiller, and above all the living presence of Nietzsche’s philosophy, he would hardly have moved to Weimar. Jugendstil beyond flowers and vines: van de Velde desk from 1899; Jugendstil beyond flowers and vines: van de Velde desk from 1899; | © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2013

Spiritual father of the Bauhaus

The successor institution of the Grand Ducal School of Art and van de Velde’s School for Applied Arts was the State Bauhaus in Weimar. At van de Velde’s suggestion, Walter Gropius became its founding director. Van de Velde saw himself as the spiritual father of the Bauhaus. He had already realised Gropius’s idea of a cooperation of artists, craftsmen and manufacturers in his Weimar Applied Arts Seminar. Gropius, according to van de Velde, took up and disseminated his efforts. Is his judgement accurate?

It’s certainly accurate, for without van de Velde’s far-sighted appreciation of Gropius as his successor the Bauhaus would never have been founded. There would simply be no Bauhaus! On the other hand, after the war, the responsibility fell on a new generation in Weimar, which again longed, like van de Velde in the 1890s, to overcome traditional principles. The new generation adopted some of their predecessor’s teaching methods, but they set themselves new goals.
Cufflink from 1903; Klassik Stiftung Weimar, on loan from a private collection; Cufflink from 1903; Klassik Stiftung Weimar, on loan from a private collection; | © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2013 Van de Velde left Germany in 1917. He lived for another forty years. How did his design work evolve?

This diminutive Fleming was equipped with an irrepressible energy and a passion for everything new and modern that kept on flaring up. He repeatedly re-invented himself and found new fields of activity – after 1920 in the Netherlands, and then in his native Belgium. With the founding in 1926/27 of his design school La Cambre in Brussels, which still exists today, he made a spectacular new beginning at an advanced age.

He was active until 1943/44, and it’s astonishing what he continued to do into old age. In the end, he left his native country again in 1947 to pass his last years in Switzerland. His last work was his memoirs, which he worked on until his death at over ninety years of age. His life and his work remain a miracle, attested to by thousands of artworks and a legacy that binds posterity to continue to recognise this great figure of contemporary history.

Van de Velde Year, 2013

The 150th anniversary of the designer’s birth is being celebrated in Thuringia and Saxony with numerous exhibitions and events. The central exhibition was developed by Dr Thomas Föhl: “Leidenschaft, Funktion und Schönheit. Henry van de Veldes Beitrag zur europäischen Moderne” (Passion, Function and Beauty. Henry van de Velde’s Contribution to European Modernism), 24.03.–23.06.2013 at the Neues Museum, Weimar. The exhibition will travel to Brussels and can be seen there from 13.09.2013–12.01.2014 at the Royal Museums of Art and History (Cinquantenaire Museum).