A photographic glimpse into the effervescent palette of the Netherlands as seen in architecture, landscape, and design.
Northern Europeans are no strangers to shades of grey, with leaden skies and brooding clouds the main backdrop to their winters and sometimes other seasons, as well. Amid a muted landscape, the uplifting effects of color can be dramatic, and the use of bright shades and hues in art, architecture, and design transformative, boosting mind and spirit, as well as the visual appeal of an object or building.
The Dutch have a long history of expressing their vibrant culture with colorful flair. When the Netherlands mark Koningsdag (King’s Day) on April 27th, the country is overcome by oranje gekte (orange craze), celebrating the color of the Dutch royal family and its founding father, William of Orange. Inheriting his title at birth as ruler of the French principality of Orange in the 17th century, William fought to create an independent Dutch nation, and his namesake hue has become synonymous not only with the country’s royal family, but with Holland’s national identity.
The color suffuses Dutch design culture. Dressed in one of the most instantly recognizable of international uniforms, Holland’s football team carries the nickname the Oranje (Orange). Their fans are likewise dubbed the Oranjekoorts (Orange Legion).
Other appearances of the shade are diverse. National industries—like the postal service—incorporate the color in their branding, while the collectable hand-painted vintage Dutch klompen (wooden clogs) often feature attractive orange-accented patterns and motifs. Even the humble carrot was given the bright orange hue we know today by Dutch farmers cross-breeding varieties of the vegetable in the 16th century.
During the Dutch Golden Age, the Netherlands was a pioneer in cultivating another colorful nature product—the tulip. Introduced to Europe from the Ottoman Empire in the mid-16th century, the seeds of the plant were brought to the Netherlands where they were cultivated by botanists and prized for the intense, and sometimes variegated, colors of their petals. The flowers rapidly became a luxury commodity and “tulip mania” was born, with single bulbs commanding prices of thousands of Dutch guilders.
Today, Keukenhof, outside Amsterdam—originally the “kitchen garden” of the estate of Dutch countess Jacoba van Beieren—draws local and international visitors to view its stunning planting masterpiece. Developed in 1950 to exhibit spring-flowering tulips, the gardens bloom into technicolor each year, showcasing for the vast variety of tulip flowers that exist. Here and across the Netherlands, the bulbs are planted in layers so that as one growth dies another rises from underneath, producing waves of creatively orchestrated colors from March until May.
When Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh began painting as a young man in the late 19th century, his palette was muted, like the landscape he had grown up in—all browns, grays, and blues. But, he became fascinated by the artistic potential of color and began to study it avidly, especially after his move to Paris in 1888, where his brother Theo was working for an art dealer. Vincent was introduced to Japanese woodcuts and the bright-hued works of modern artists, such as Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec. Traveling to Arles in Provence the same year, he became immersed in a vivid, sun-soaked environment that inspired him to create some of his most renowned work—paintings that resonate with masterfully-chosen contrasting and complementary shades.
In the early decades of the 20th century, Dutch artists and architects formed a movement whose aesthetic would prove influential in the development of abstract art and modernism worldwide. Favoring minimal forms (squares and rectangles, straight, vertical, and horizontal lines) and primary colors, the group known as De Stijl (The Style) included (among others) its founder Theo van Doesburg, Piet Mondrian, and the architect and furniture designer Gerrit Rietveld.
In his birthplace Utrecht, Rietveld created two revolutionary designs—his 1917 Red and Blue Chair and the 1924 Rieltveld Schröder House. Pioneering ideas—such as breaking down the traditional boundaries between rooms, and the inside and outside of the structure—Rietveld selected bold primary colors to accent the interiors of the Schröder house, creating an entirely new architecture. Among his furniture innovations, the chair was first produced as an unpainted version in 1917. But from 1923, Rietveld added his distinctive combination of red, blue, yellow, and black. The impact of both the chair and the house on global design culture was huge.
Fast forward to the late 20th century, the avant-garde Dutch architects of the day took a similarly radical route in their work, particularly in the city of Rotterdam. Here, architect Piet Blom was commissioned to create a series of his Kubuswoningen (Cube Houses)—fifty-one dwellings in total completed in 1984 and featuring bright yellow façades. The underlying structural concept was that of a forest, with the individual housing units representing trees. For aspects of the interiors, Blom used a distinctive patterning of green, blue, red, and pink.
In the 1990s, what became known as the “Superdutch” movement, a group of young Dutch architects, including Rem Koolhaas of OMA and MVRDV, continued in a spirit of experimentation with designs emphasizing materials, angular lines, and the exterior skin of a building. Colorful descendants of this style include Marlies Rohmer’s 2008 Casa Confetti, a building housing student accommodation on Utrecht’s university campus. The mosaic-style façade punctuates the cityscape, while the bright green interiors create almost illusory effects.