In the Musée du Cinquantenaire, a grand gallery on the green edge of Brussels, those bureaucratic Belgians are welcoming home a prodigal son. Henry van de Velde — Passion, Function, Beauty is a celebration of the 150th birthday of Belgium’s most prolific polymath, yet a lot of people here in Brussels scarcely seem to know his name. While Victor Horta is fêted as the father of Art Nouveau, his great rival, van de Velde, is frequently forgotten. It’s ironic that this prophet of modern design wasn’t honoured in his own country until he’d made his name in Germany, the nation that invaded his homeland twice in the course of his long career.
Wandering around this stylish show, you’re overwhelmed by van de Velde’s extraordinary range: architecture and furniture; glasswork and metalwork; illustration and typography…His energy and diversity make you giddy. Even in his early career as a painter he showed remarkable versatility. A couple of paintings in this exhibition could easily be mistaken for van Goghs. Several others could quite comfortably pass as Seurats. Had he not forsaken fine art, he would have made a brilliant forger. He was a man who could turn his hand to almost anything he chose.
Van de Velde’s decision to swap painting for applied arts was inspired by the utopian ideals of well-heeled socialists such as William Morris. Like Morris, he wanted to make everyday objects that would be both beautiful and functional. Like Morris, many of the things he made were affordable only for the moneyed upper class. However, the best exhibits in this show are marked by their simple ingenuity — like the dining table he made for his first marital home (which he built himself, in Brussels) complete with its own hotplate.
That van de Velde’s sparse designs seem so familiar to the modern eye is a testament to his immense influence. In the ornate 1890s, his no-frills approach was positively revolutionary. He became well known in France, but his avant-garde work was best received in Germany. He moved there in 1900, and created a whole new aesthetic, branching out into ceramics and textiles, even leatherwork and wickerwork. A leading member of the Deutsche Werkbund (a pioneering organisation founded to forge closer links between art and industry), he laid the stylistic foundations for the Bauhaus.
Van de Velde remained in Germany after the outbreak of the first world war, attracting harassment in the Reich and opprobrium back in Belgium. He moved to Switzerland, and then to Holland, but returned to Belgium in the 1920s, as a professor at Ghent University (despite the best efforts of Horta, who disapproved of his war record). In the 1930s, in his seventies, he re-emerged as Belgium’s preeminent designer-cum-architect. From skyscrapers to ocean liners, his vast creative energy remained undimmed.
Van de Velde remained in Belgium during the second world war, but when the Nazis occupied Brussels, life became complicated. He was compelled (like many of his countrymen) to help the Germans, and jealous colleagues called him a collaborator. It was an unfounded but wounding accusation. After the war, he retired to Switzerland to write his memoirs. He died in 1957.
Against that backdrop, this retrospective feels like more than just a birthday party. There’s a sense of reconciliation, a realisation that, as we approach the centenary of the Great War, the political controversies of the past century have faded from van de Velde’s life story, and only the oeuvre remains. Henry van de Velde – Passion, Function, Beauty is a treasure trove of objets d’art you’d dream of having in your own home. The centrepiece is a long table, prepared for a posh dinner party. Van de Velde designed the chairs, crockery and cutlery. ‘I was totally self-taught,’ he reflected, looking back on his career. ‘I am convinced that the pencil, guided by the brain, is quite sufficient.’
‘What he did at the end of the 19th century was what we still do today,’ says Werner Adriaenssens, the curator of this first comprehensive van de Velde retrospective held in Belgium. ‘Van de Velde was more than an architect. In fact, architecture was only a small part of his work.’ He was a man with a vision, says Adriaenssens, a vision that changed society. He was the first designer to embrace the notion that form should follow function. ‘We have one of the most important designers of the 20th century and in Belgium nobody knows him. The whole world knows van de Velde but in Belgium he’s not well known.’
So, beyond the Musée du Cinquantenaire, what of van de Velde’s work remains? Well, walking through Brussels, there’s barely a modern building that doesn’t resonate with an unconscious echo of his style. Yet while Horta perfected a stylistic signature that’s instantly recognisable, van de Velde is so influential that, in a sense, he’s become invisible. His functional aesthetic is so ubiquitous that it’s become part of the urban landscape (the logo of the Belgian state railways is his design). Van de Velde bridged the gap between Art Nouveau and Art Deco. He more or less invented modernism. He fulfilled his quest to make everyday objects both practical and pleasing. And in doing so he disappeared, into the fabric of our daily lives.