Michel de Clerk's Het Ship building now houses a museum dedicated to the Amsterdamse School

Museum Het Schip: Restored glory 

16 years ago, on a rare sunny day, Alice Roegholt, Director of Museum Het Schip, was cycling in the Spaarndammer district when she suddenly came across a massive ship-shaped building, its unusually wavy red bricks perfectly framed by clear blue skies. One side of the building harbored a post office sign and Roegholt immediately went in.

‘It was the most unexpected room, my jaw dropped’, she recalls. She had been exploring the city to find a location for a bottom-up initiative, a small museum dedicated to illuminating the bond between the architectural style called Amsterdamse School and beautiful social housing for the city’s working class residents. Luckily, the Dutch post had already decided to abandon this location masterminded byMichel de Klerk, the Amsterdamse School’s most prominent architect and creator of ‘working class palaces’, as Roegholt likes to put it. The room could thus be restored to its full 1920s glory, and in 2001, marking the centenary of the 1901 Dutch Housing Act (that had enabled better housing conditions and affordable prices for poorer citizens), the old post office reopened as Museum Het Schip.

Solving social problems through design

Aesthetically, Roegholt describes the style as ‘an expressionist style full of humor and small details just waiting to be discovered’. And socially aware to boot. ‘Back then, the socialist city authorities were looking to craft a better living world for workers, who should also see art on a daily basis, not just factories. These architects were going all in to help solve a pressing societal problem’, she explains. It wasn’t just buildings that de Klerk and his contemporaries were responsible for, but a complete artistic experience also comprising furniture and decorative objects. ‘You can think of Amsterdam School furniture as miniature buildings and the buildings as scaled-up furniture, as both these types of structures contain similar elements’, Roegholt adds. Unlike Art Deco, a style recognisable the world over, Amsterdamse School objects are deeply rooted in the culture of their time and have a stronger sense of place, reflecting Amsterdam’s multicultural society by featuring motifs ranging from Indonesian through Japanese to Swedish.

"Amsterdamse School objects are deeply rooted in the culture of their time and have a strong sense of place, reflecting Amsterdam’s multicultural society by featuring motifs ranging from Indonesian through Japanese to Swedish."

You can admire such furniture at the Living in the Amsterdamse School exhibit, which will be on display from April to August at the Stedelijk Museum. The show features more than 300 dressers, cabinets, lampshades, ceramics, clocks and anything in between from many architects and designers such as de Klerk and Piet Kramer, Amsterdamse School’s figurehead after de Klerk’s death.

To Roegholt, these objects best embody the principle of ‘colour by form, with clever light and shadow effects that reveal new shades without the need to use paint’. And thanks to the research efforts of the Stedelijk Museum, who scoured both its own collection and those of enthusiastic amateurs for the most exciting pieces, the innovative Amsterdamse School design may finally get the international exposure it deserves. Living in the Amsterdam School is at the Stedelijk Museum from 9 April - 28 August 2016.

Article originally published in A-Mag in March 2016.