This article is part of issue N° 5 – The Cabinet

2.

A Life in Cubes

After a lifetime spent exploring the application of the cube in architecture, art and design, William Graatsma acknowledges that his devotion to this universal form borders on the comical.
Text by Kirsten Algera and Ernst van der Hoeven
Photography by Petra Noordkamp

The life and work of William Graatsma revolves around the cube. Trained as an architect and designer, since 1958 he, together with colleague Jan Slothouber, has focused on the application of the cube in all its possible forms: from a coat 
rack to modular furniture kits, and from postage stamps to 
street furniture.

Long before prominent DIY design projects, such as Victor Papanek’s Nomadic Furniture and Enzo Mari’s Autoprogettazione, in the early sixties Slothouber  &  Graatsma designed a revolutionary, modular do-it-yourself system: a ‘simple and economically viable solution with universal applications’. The duo then became successful not only in the design world, but also in that of visual art. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam honoured them in 1965 with the exhibition Vier kanten: maat, vorm, kleur, letter (Four sides: size, form, colour, letter). Five years later, they were selected to represent the Netherlands at the Venice Biennale. After that, the interest in their construction system waned. Although the cube was lauded as a democratic art form that is both understandable and manageable to all, commercial success remained elusive. The modular sofas and other furniture by Slothouber  &  Graatsma, described by experts as ‘social sculptures’, never went into production and the museums were also less than eager to acquire their work. Graatsma saw it as a temporary dip. ‘Following the undulating motion of history, the interest in minimalistic and geometric forms will return,’ he said in 2007 when the Stedelijk Museum added a cubic construction to its collection. In his 1930s home in Maastricht, where Graatsma moved in the eighties upon becoming director of the renowned Jan van Eyck Academy, the seating, lamp and cupboard cubes are still in use. At the table that, with its 70 cm height, formed the basis for the size of the cubic constructions (a multiple of 17.5 / 35 / 70 cm), the 92-year-old Graatsma pours white wine and tells about his love for the square. ‘To the cube, cheers!’Graatsma and Slothouber at the exhibition Four Sides, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1965Graatsma and Slothouber at the exhibition Four Sides, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1965

Your home contains a huge collection of cubes.

William Graatsma:
Everything I do is in the context of the cube, or at least the laws that can produce a cube, and there are countless of those.

How did you actually arrive at the cube?

Good question, I’ve never actually thought about that. In any case, it all started at DSM [Dutch State Mines, ed.]. I worked there as an exhibition architect and was asked to create something for the Salon Internationale de la Chimie in Paris in 1962. DSM had recently switched from coal to chemicals and presented various chemical products there. The cube came in handy for that. It’s a fine symbol and you can put anything in it. Furthermore, they are easily stackable and transportable. That was the banal reason. But I was also interested in the regularity and symmetry of the cube. Cubic things are simply universal.

Could you say something about your very first cubic design?

In Paris we made transparent cubes measuring 70 × 70 × 70 cm, the height of this table, and filled them with a huge wad of plastic, made from granules. That was the basic product that DSM manufactured at that time. They were illuminated with all the colours of the rainbow. So the cubes were not only a display, but also a design. Entirely in the spirit of the expression that Marshall McLuhan coined two years later: The Medium is the Message.

Was DSM pleased with this ‘message’?

Well, that’s hard to say. My colleague Jan Slothouber and I actually did everything on our own, without a commission. Our work began to lead a life of its own and that was greatly appreciated by the outside world, but not by DSM. The frustrating thing for DSM was that our cubes garnered a lot of attention, but the work that was made by the corporate identity department did not. That, of course, was not the intention.

Is the globe behind you one of the DSM models from Paris?

Yes, but it’s not a globe, it’s a world cube. The world is on it because I omitted a lot of water. Of course, the world could easily have the shape of a cube. There was a time when people thought that if you went far enough, you would fall off the edge of the world.

Was it a logical step from the architectural cube to the cubic furniture?

Those are naturally very close to each other, architecture and interior. We began in 1962 with a presentation at Kasteel Hoensbroek, one of DSM’s cultural centres. There we realized 
a total cubic interior. It was not intended for habitation, it was a completely theoretical exercise, but still: we showed that it was possible. All the elements had the same proportions and were used as a sofa, a wall or a table.

William Graatsma in front of World Cube, model for Dutch State Mines, Hoensbroek 1967William Graatsma in front of World Cube, model for Dutch State Mines, Hoensbroek 1967

It seems a simple construction.

Yes, it’s only five different types of natural plywood boards. They do demonstrate a certain regularity, a screw had to be placed every 17.5 cm. But that could easily be done by one person with a screwdriver.

The precursor of Ikea furniture.

We wanted to encourage people to make their own furniture, but in a modern way. The DIY furniture kit was emerging in the sixties. Those kits harked back to old forms. For instance — don’t be alarmed — a sideboard with ball feet. Quite understandable perhaps, people always cling to what they know, they are afraid of new things. Our cubic DIY kits were therefore never a hit.

Cubic Furniture Kits, Living, 1968Cubic Furniture Kits, Living, 1968

Did the furniture kits go into production?

No, they remained prototypes. The HEMA [Dutch department store, ed.] stole it from us, well, stole it, they adopted it. They had also discovered that you can make a cube with four planks, and these were put on the market there, with roughly the same size. We tried to produce it ourselves, after all it was only one plank. But it did have cubic corners — the closed cubes were missing eight corners, needed to assemble it firmly. We went as far as Norway, to woodworking industries, but it proved too difficult to produce the cube parts due to the warping and shrinking of wood. Wood is so unstable that the precision we sought could not be guaranteed.

What were the dimensions of the cube based upon?

We were actually looking for a suitable size for a table. For that we arrived at 70 cm in height. Then we derived all the other dimensions for the cubic constructions from that. 70 / 4 = 17.5. That number plays a vital role in my work. The 70 cm was a measurement from Le Corbusier’s Modulor [a human scale ratio in architecture proposed by the architect Le Corbusier in 1948, ed.]. We used that for a while. But it proved impractical because the Modulor had an aesthetic goal, whereas we were interested in the practical combinations.

Did the furniture kits have a social purpose?

The social significance was at the forefront of everything we did. 
We were in the service of society. The term ‘social’ is actually something quite recent. For us at that time, it was self-evident. Every design had to be useful and fulfil a social function.

Your designs had no copyright?

Of course not. That was the ultimate consequence of their practicality.

Could you say something about the goal of the ‘Centrum voor Cubische Constructies’ (Centre for Cubic Constructions), which you founded in 1967?

The CCC’s objective went far beyond our own projects. We had discovered, and it wasn’t difficult by the way, that we are surrounded by cubic constructions. We wanted to collect, document and investigate all those constructions. But it never reached that stage, we actually came no further than a four-
language book on the principles of cubic constructions. At the back, there is a section with cubic forms by others, such as a steel block with screw holes by Max Mengeringhausen. In 1940, he formulated eight basic principles for spatial constructions. Those formed the basis for these steel blocks. Did you know that the station in Tilburg is constructed using these?

What did the centre look like?

Well look, this is the PO box number, 207. That was as far as we got. We did have a logo and a business card. And we received many letters. Even after we had been doing other things for years, we still had to empty the mailbox. We were sent a lot of material that related to cubic forms.

Did you have contact with other designers who were working with modular constructions and geometric forms, such as Ken Isaacs and Superstudio?

I never met Ken Isaacs. Of course, we knew all about Superstudio. But that was more a group that sought to empower the imagination. We were more practical. I felt an affinity with Enzo Mari, with whom I made an exhibition, and Donald Judd. I could have made that cubic chair of his. The last time we saw each other was when he exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. He was going to give a speech, but fell ill and got on a plane back to America. He died immediately upon arrival. That was in 1994. The plan was to exhibit our work on his estate in Marfa, Texas. But that never happened due to his death.

The Venice Biennale in 1970, where you represented the Netherlands, was also nearly cancelled.

Yes, that was close. In 1968, a large protest movement emerged that found the form of the Biennale elitist. Ultimately an attempt was made to save it by giving the 1970 Biennale the theme of ‘the democratization of art’. Our work was in keeping with that, in the view of the selection committee. They called me to ask whether I wanted to design an installation for the Dutch Pavilion. Initially I thought that involved exhibiting the work of someone else, after all, I was an exhibition designer. But it concerned our own work, which was quite a surprise.

In addition to cubic constructions and graphic art, you presented a cubic pavement there; was that made specifically for the theme of ‘the democratization of art’?

That pavement was designed two years earlier, for the redevelopment of the Stadsschouwburgplein in Rotterdam. We proposed to cover the entire square with a cubic humped pavement. Of course, that never transpired, but it was exhibited in many places and eventually realized in Eindhoven, in front of our former house. It’s still there today, although rather mossy now. But that theme, well, we thought: such a pavement is for everyone; it’s on the street, you can play or sit on it. For everything we made, the function was the goal. It was not autonomous visual art.

Production site Firma Oostwegel, Cubic Vaulted Pavement, Heerlen, 1969Production site Firma Oostwegel, Cubic Vaulted Pavement, Heerlen, 1969

It looks like an ergonomic field, the cubic vaulted pavement.

The basic idea was that the Netherlands was full of square pavement tiles. No other country has as many pavement tiles as the Netherlands. We thought: we’re going to add something to that, we’re going to extend it upwards. Only the size of the pavement tile, 30 × 30 cm, was too small. We made it 35 × 35 cm to remain within our proportions.

Was the pavement produced in Venice?

No, in the Netherlands. We had steel moulds made by a small factory near Maastricht to pour the concrete. It took three months to produce. That was fairly simple, it’s only a few shapes. It is an eighth dome section, an eighth torus section and a section of a cylinder. With those three elements, you can construct all these forms. The weight was more problematic, the most solid element weighed 100 kg. The transport to the Biennale was therefore a hell of a job. Everything had to go to Venice by ship, and was brought ashore over a small walkway. My wife kept watch over the boxes with catalogues in the dark on the quay.

In the same year, you designed children’s postage stamps that went down in history in the Dutch design world…

That was coincidental. I only really made a furore with that stamp; I have never reached a larger audience. Slothouber and I had both made a design. He solved it in an obvious way with a stack of cubes, as a child stacks cubes. But I generally prefer extremes; I depicted a single tilted cube. The head of the Aesthetic Department of the PTT (Dutch Post  &  Telephone Company) found that the best solution. However, the director of the PTT saw no merit in such a simple stamp. Moreover, in those days all the children’s postage stamps were submitted to the women’s committees that had to sell the stamps door to door. And all the women’s committees gave my design a 0. But we pushed it through anyway and for years the stamp was presented as an example of the progressive Dutch design policy.

That was also the last joint project you did with Jan Slothouber?

Yes, that stamp was the end of our collaboration. Jan Slothouber became a professor at the TU Eindhoven, and I became professor at various art academies in the Netherlands and head of the Studium Generale department at the TU Eindhoven, organizing various major exhibitions. In 1983, I became director of the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht.

Did you never consider breathing new life into the CCC in the eighties?

No, I felt it was over. It had received enough recognition.

Is there an archive in which your work is kept?

No, there is no archive. My work is spread across many places, from the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. If anyone wants to study our work, they will have to go to a lot of places. Most of the work is here at home.

The youngest son Peter Graatsma enters the room with a black cube. William Graatsma demonstrates the modular seating element.

This is the black furniture cell with a zipper. The zipper is the hinge, with which you can connect it endlessly. The Dutch designer Benno Premsela swore by our furniture. ‘Even though you could not sit on it,’ he said. Ladies often got their panties stuck in the zipper.

We noticed that your children often appear in the photographs of your work.

Well, sometimes that was to indicate the scale. But our children always accompanied us everywhere. They are often in the photos. They were always very involved.

Peter Graatsma: We are imbued with it.

And was there ever a moment, for instance during puberty, when you rebelled against the cubes at home?

Peter Graatsma: Is the microphone still on?

Our children even sat on a cube-shaped potty that I made.

Peter Graatsma: In my childhood, I did put as many old pieces of furniture in my room as possible. But ultimately now, later 
in life, my whole house is again filled with cubic constructions. I really live with it. I also learned to appreciate it.

Peter Graatsma: Dad, have you ever doubted the cube?

Well, not doubted, but I did put it into perspective. As far as I’m concerned, the word ‘cubics’ could be replaced with ‘comics’. When you do the same thing for so long, doesn’t it acquire something comical? A bit like someone who does all his acts with one attribute.

You collect African art, an entirely different form of depiction than the cubic constructions.

Well, collect… I’m interested in cultures that have nothing to do with our own. Then you enter another world, a world of secrets. Their formal idiom is of course completely different than that of the CCC.

You’re fond of secrets? We think that a secret text is incorporated in the cubic vaulted pavement.

(Laughing) Well, yes, you may be right about that. I designed the pavement in Eindhoven so that if you look carefully you can read ‘Ut Hool’ in it — the name of the neighbourhood — and ‘Lily’ — my wife’s name.

Is the stone cross behind you a prototype for outdoor furniture?

No, that’s the monument for my grave. I already had a local sculptor make a model for it. He came up with a polished model, but that’s not what I want at all, it has to be sweetened for me, if you know what I mean… I find it important that all the details are correct. This grave cross consists of six bars and if you look closely you can see that there is an empty cubic space in the middle. That space will contain the book Cubics encased in lead. When someone empties the grave a hundred years from now, they will suddenly find that book. It has to remain fun, don’t you think?

fullWidth

fullWidth

fullWidth

fullWidthSideboard 01 (Gerrit Rietveld, 1919) in William Graatsma’s living room, 2017 fullWidth Interior of William Graatsma’s home in Maastricht, 2017

Join the Macguffins

Join our mailing list for exclusive content, podcasts, backstage stories and more.

Sign up