The Elling cabinet belongs to a brief yet explosively creative chapter in Rietveld’s development as an architect and designer. Together with the now-iconic ‘Red-Blue’ chair created some two years prior in 1917, these works capture the intellectual and artistic tumult of a world now in change. Both these works present as if inversions of their expected type – just as the substance of a chair is merely traced by the delineations of the frame, so too the cabinet reveals the interior as exterior, the components identified, exploded and now held static in time, space and volume.
The concept of furniture as art, and vice-versa, had for centuries challenged the creative spirit. However, furniture had forever remained bound to the weight of its substance, the intractability of the material rendering only the surface, not the massing, as the sole, superficial, medium for artistic expression. This was to change with Rietveld.
It was the Cubist painters, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris who pioneered a conceptual de-materialisation of objects, creating images that suggested multiple vantage points, referencing tribal and primitive art in the process. Encouraged by Russian painter Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist compositions, the Dutch De Stijl collective, founded in 1917 and which Rietveld joined the following year, saw the embracing of a conceptual abstraction that adopted a more streamlined, reductive personality that was now guided by bold use of line, plane, and colour. The ambient, deconstructed imagery of the painters Theo van Doesberg, Bart van der Leck, and Piet Mondrian, amongst others, found material synergy with Rietveld’s own experimental abstractions of furniture, and together a unique and pioneering environment demonstrating consistency of expression, and across all medium, was now established.
Designed in 1919, the first example of this cabinet was exhibited the following year, 1920, and was soon acquired by the architect Piet Elling. That example is now lost, and no other pre-war examples are known. From the late 1950s onwards, a small number of cabinets, including the present example, were produced to-order by Rietveld’s dedicated cabinetmaker, Gerard van de Groenekan.