Henry Van De Velde

As the son of a chemist in the city of Antwerp, Belgium, Henry Clemens Van de Velde was one of eight children.  After passing the entrance exams, and against his parents wishes whom wanted him to follow in their footsteps with a middle-class career, he enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts.  It was here he originally studied painting along with a variety of other drawing techniques from 1881-1884.  To continue his studies in the arts, and with his father’s permission, he moved to Paris to study at the E.A. Carolus-Duran, but only stayed for a year.
After returning to Antwerp for a short time, he was turned to a rural village, Wechelderzande, which had become a place for many Belgian landscape painters.  He honed his skills as a painter producing several works of art such as the Woman at the Window, in 1889, and Haymaking, in 1892.  In 1888, he became a member of the Brussels avant-garde, “Les XX” or “Les Vingt”, where he became familiar with many brilliant artists of the time such as Monet, Jules Cheret, and Vincent Van Gogh, which would influenced his future work.  Alas, Van de Velde never felt complete with painting, as he felt trapped by the flatness of a canvas, leading to his abandonment of painting altogether.  His focus would become architecture and other applied styles of art, mainly interior design and furniture.  After his return to Antwerp, he began teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts as well as The University of Nouvelle in Brussels.  Although teaching at the academy, he was later quoted as saying the time he spent at the school was “miserable and wasted years. Academic education is inevitably oppressive and sterile.  It is too far removed from the adventure and independence which are the very essence of art” (CTI).

In 1894, Henry Van de Velde met and married his first wife, Maria Sethe, who was an apprentice of the painter Theo Van Rysselberhe at the time, and 3 years later would have their first f five children, Nele Cornelie Van de Velde.  Living with Marias mother at the time, he had made some renovations to the house as well as designing some pieces of furniture for his sister-in-law.  This led to receiving the means to build his first home, on the same land, the Bloemenwerf in 1894-95.  Van de Velde had a strong influence by the British Arts and Crafts Movement with the motto of “art for the people, by the people,” which can be seen in much of his furniture design. He held on to the belief of designing usefulness and comfort before visual appeal.

Following the design of his home, he began designing interiors and furniture for the art gallery of Samuel Bing in Paris, the “L’Art Nouveau,” with a framework from an example in Brussels, “La Maison d’Art.”  These among other designs eventually led to the coined “Style Art Nouveau”, in which Van de Velde along with Victor Horta, is often referred to as the originator of the movement, particularly in Paris.  After his work in the gallery, he began his own firm in Brussels.  Although ending quickly, due to financial reasons, he was able to work on his line of furniture and plate ware in the whiplash style.  In 1900, the family moved to Germany, however many believe he was chased out of Belgium, possibly due to jealousy of Horta and eliminating competition in the design world.

In 1902, he became the art advisor for the Grand Duke of Weimar, Germany, and began his own craft seminar, for designers to gather and improve own their own ideas.  This would eventually become the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts, which he headed until 1914, shortly before the school closed. During his time, he was commissioned for several projects, a theater in Weimar for the actress Louise Durmont, which was rejected, and the “Hohenhof” house in 1906 for K.E. Osthaus (Figure 1).  After the school closed, in 1919 it was merged with the Weimar Academy of Fine Arts, under Walter Gropius, and became the Bauhaus.  Van de Velde, in his time there, designed many of the campus buildings.  While still in Germany, he designed his second family home, which now stands as a historical landmark, with access to teaching art students in several rooms.  Before leaving Germany due to World War One, as a member of the Board of Directors of the German Werkbund, he was charged with designing a theatre for them on the Rhine River in 1914.  The Werkbund Theatre was opened as part of the Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne, however tragically closed for good only three months later and would be demolished due to World War One (Figures 2-3).

Van de Velde’s next journey led him to Switzerland, where he was in contact with Hélène Kröller-Müller and her husband, Anton Kröller, Dutch patrons of the arts and owners of a shipping company.  This connection and job allowed him to continue his work in design, as he was tasked with designing their museum, to hold the number of collections of paintings and other pieces of art.  This was designed in the early 1920’s, however, was not produced until 1937, and later extended in 1953.  He would return to Brussels, for the first time in over twenty years, in 1925 upon request, to set up the Institute of Decorative Arts, or the La Cambre School, where he remained director until 1935.  He would later describe the school as the “third citadel of modernism” following the Weimar School of Arts and Bauhaus.

In his later life, he worked on many committees for Belgian pavilions to be represented at the World Exhibitions in Paris and New York. Although serving on these committees, his last major work in design was the University Library at Ghent.  Following the beginning of World War Two, he once again moved to Switzerland, where he remained the last years of his life.  During this time, he wrote his personal memoirs and autobiography, which would be produced later in 1962.  Henry Van de Velde died shortly after his writing on October 15, 1957, in Zurich at the age of ninety-four.

The life and works of Henry Van de Velde were important to many artists and architects, such as Le Corbusier and Erich Mendelsohn, as he was viewed as an important visionary of modernism.  He was an innovator in architecture, interior design, and critical in the Style Art Nouveau.


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