Atelier Nelly + Theo van Doesburg

‘The surface is eventually the only determining factor in architecture. Man does not live in the construction but in the atmosphere evoked by the surface’.

Van Doesburg (published in the issue of De Stijl devoted entirely to the Aubette in 1928, fh)

Floorplan Atelier Nelly & Theo van Doesburg

Theo van Doesburg is inevitable; his possessed personality, his creative energy and the reputation he acquired as an artist/architect, especially after his death. Yet here we make an attempt to look beyond the person and his stature, and concentrate on two times twenty-two pieces of paper. Works
of which he is undeniably the author, but which have been picked up, stored, studied, catalogued, valued and moved by many since their creation, before finally ending up in this exhibition.
In particular, our attention has been drawn to two women who were essential to the preservation and meaning of these pieces of paper: Nelly van Doesburg and her heiress Wies van Moorsel. Moreover, we look at the important role of the studio house in Meudon-Val-Fleury, the house of Nelly and Theo van Doesburg, which for a long time was the depository of this paper heritage.
There are iconic works, such as the colour drawings of the Aubette in Strasbourg or the Maison Particulière, but also sketches and obscure technical views. We tried to review these works again in three different ways, in order to get a different understanding of them.

Many architectural drawings are difficult to understand without context. Usually they are not made for display, but to be used in construction. By placing related images from the collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut around an authentic drawing, the independent work becomes part of a situation. This may cause understanding, but at the same time we are just as interested in generating a subversion of the image.

Jean Leering who, as director of the Van Abbemuseum, began to carry out life-size architectural drawings by Van Doesburg in order to understand his ideas about space and colour. After that, life-size models were regularly made for exhibitions; a practice to which we comply here. In this way, the exhibition design is also a test of the ideas contained in collection texts and drawings. Grids, surface proportions, handling of materials and use of colour trace back to elements in the works in the exhibition.

The deconstruction unravels an image by placing it next to other images and the reconstruction tests ideas by executing them 1:1. The third approach is more speculative. Series of images are projected in a rotating slideshow on a glass
cylinder in the middle of the space.
By placing recurring images in a sequence, patterns become visible. They reveal alternative perspectives on the works from the collection and the lives that surround them. Sometimes banal, sometimes explanatory, but often intended to raise new questions. The selections are based on the subject of the image but sometimes also on image detail or material.

These three approaches apply excellent to the work of Van Doesburg, but they are not autonomous. They are used to support our idea of to consider the exhibition as a prototype for digital access to archives. What happens when pieces are also ordered by subjective relationships, not just by hierarchy?
What happens when pieces are shown in
ever-changing sequences? In our design practice, we are always occupied with ordering. What significance do they generate, and how can we then breach them?

Jannetje in ’t Veld & Toon Koehorst, 2020