Visual Arts

More character than you think

Poster, ‘Koloniale Tentoonstelling Semarang 1914.’ Designer Albert Hahn; printer Amsterdamsche Boek & Steendrukkerij v/h Ellerman, Harms & Co.
Poster, ‘Koloniale Tentoonstelling Semarang 1914.’ Designer Albert Hahn; printer Amsterdamsche Boek & Steendrukkerij v/h Ellerman, Harms & Co.

The Netherlands has had an outsized influence on the world for such a small nation. The port of Rotterdam, for instance, is the biggest outside East Asia, and its former maritime might allowed it to colonize huge swaths of territory from Indonesia to South Africa to the Caribbean. Dutch artists revolutionized painting —Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Mondrian and de Kooning. And Amsterdam has long been one of the most sophisticated and progressive of metropolises.

So the fact that Modern Dutch design was also on the cutting edge of that genre, from the 1880s through World War II, should not be a surprise. But the show at the Wolfsonian-FIU is a surprise, as it highlights gorgeous pieces — clocks, chairs, posters, glassware — mostly from the museum’s collection, that offer an intimate view of this time and place.

Anyone familiar with the De Stijl movement will know that the Netherlands was on the forefront of minimalist art and architecture in the 20th century, but Modern Dutch Design opens up a whole new window, showing the influence of what was then called the East Indies on a unique Dutch style. Although the over-arching prominence of the fin-de-siècle Art Nouveau movement permeates many of these works, an emphasis on geometric design and an Indonesian batik-textile motif give them a Dutch touch.

But you don’t even have to enter the museum to be captivated by Dutch design. The 1927 Mediterranean Revival building is covered in bright, colorful, batik-patterned murals, looking like it is cloaked in a giant tapestry, from The Hague-based Christine van der Haak. Still, you will want to go in, and van der Haak guides you with more intricate designs saturating the walls and floor of the interior. Titled “More is More,” the installation is a perfect fit for the iconic structure that houses a treasure trove of decorative arts.

Go up the elevator, and you are greeted to the main exhibit by a wooden door and frame, from a home in Amsterdam circa 1900. The carvings are symmetrical patterns, a Dutch stamp, but still resemble European design of the time. However, wood is also the main material in Indonesian architecture. An Asian influence in the construct is clear and is even more so in several stunning beauties further in, both of them portfolio stands. One is made of mahogany, ebonized wood, batik on vellum and metal. While intricately detailed, it isn’t overly ornate, setting it apart from the Art Nouveau output from countries such as France. The other portfolio stand, from 1903, made of wood and brass, is such a slight and delicate design that it looks like it could be part of a set in a Javanese Wayang puppet show.

Asian art was all the rage at the turn of the 20th century in Europe, especially Japanese prints and porcelains, which can be detected in some works here. But for the Dutch, the real well-spring of inspiration and wealth was Indonesia, reflected in the arts and its prosperous business activities (which often overlapped). Trade in palm and peanut oil, tea, coffee, spices — all produced in the islands of the East Indies — are promoted in posters in the exhibit. (The Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602 with its base in the newly built city of Jakarta, is widely considered the first multinational corporation.)

So for example, there is an advert for Delft Salad Oil, which combines classic flourishing swirls of Art Nouveau with silhouettes of Javanese puppets. It became so popular that later iterations were dubbed “salad oil style.” The artist, Jan Toorop, who was born in Indonesia, also created book covers, many of which are displayed here, as well.

Other beautiful artist-made book covers and calendars are well represented, and batik rules the day. Some are made from actual cotton, some are wood cuts, but all have distinct roots in the Netherlands’ resource-rich colony.

While the Dutch artists reveal a clear admiration and respect of the arts and crafts emanating from the huge, diverse archipelago they controlled, the taint of paternalistic Colonialism can show through. For instance, there is an exquisite model of a mosque, which doubles as a tea and coffee firm’s headquarters, and which really is based on Northern Indian Mughal architecture — kind of mixing and matching of “exotic” styles and religions. The model is titled “J.W. Smitt’s Tea and Coffee Storefront Palace.” Supposedly, it was created as an advertising vehicle for the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair.

But for the most part, the Dutch designers soaked up various trends and influences and made it their own, in their own austere way. You can see smatterings of the glitter of Gustav Klimt, of coloring from the tropics, but the Dutch never veer into extravagance. If only designers today were making teapots, as Jan Eisenloeffel did in 1903. These brass and ebony pots are so clean in design, yet filled with character. You wonder why future crafts people didn’t just copy this model over and over. The same goes for some of the clocks, lamps and chandeliers on display — they are not elaborate and often painted in dark colors, yet so striking.

As you move forward through the exhibit, you literally enter a progressive age of the 1920s and ’30s, where the Bauhaus and Socialist Realism influences are dominant. There are posters and advertisements supporting workers, unions and even women’s rights, in tell-tale strong colors and bold strokes.

But in the era of form follows function, when art was trying to relate to the average person and the elite, you get the timeless glass and canter set, produced by the mass-glass manufacturer Leerdam. The variously sized goblets are all shaped like pears (“Peer,” 1926), an instinctively attractive form to all classes. Leerdam would go on to make the glass and tableware for one of the first cruise lines, Holland-America.

There are numerous examples here of Dutch design from an incredibly inventive and prolific period, which impacted the world. Thanks to the collecting vision of Mitchell Wolfson Jr., and the curation of Silvia Barisione, Wolfsonian has delivered a fascinating exhibit.

If you go

What: ‘More is More,’ murals by Christine van der Haak; ‘Modern Dutch Design,’ through June 11.

Where: Wolfsonian-FIU Museum, 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach

Cost: $10;