Canvas Control: Finding Concepts of New Design within the Old

by Aaron Schwartz

Dutch cities, and Amsterdam in particular, are renowned for many aspects of their designs, involving infrastructure and architecture. Dutch ingenuity, ability to compromise, and innovative designs are praised by Aaron Betsky and Adam Eeuwens in their book False Flat: Why Dutch Design is So Good. The Dutch have been known for their innovative designs for centuries. One can compare whether Dutch artists have been innovative with the same concepts by applying the reasoning of Betsky and Eeuwens and finding whether their ideas pertain to Dutch Golden Age paintings (the Dutch Golden Age refers to a period around the 17th century, when Dutch were at the forefront of an artisanal renaissance). While aspects of modern Dutch design can be found in Golden Age paintings, the comparison is not perfect, as some concepts fail to appear the old artwork.


One of the key concepts that Betsky and Eeuwen’s identify in Dutch design is that everything has its place. Betsky and Eeuwen write “there is complete order-where the relationship between water and land, house and country, road and city, and open and enclosed space is etched in to the precise lines…between them. It is a place in which every space has been negotiated and thus everything has its place” (Betsky and Eeuwen, 266). This symbiotic relationship between the different designs can be found often throughout the Netherlands, where space for design is limited, especially in urban environments. These concepts of order and organization can be examined through the unique and complex infrastructure system the Dutch have designed for cyclists. In other cities, bikers are not considered an important aspect of urban planning.  Bikers in the Netherlands are given more leeway and far more consideration than they would receive in other countries. For instance, in his blog Bicycle Dutch, Mark Wagenbuur details the struggles of accommodating the needs of bikers and other transportation within the same space in a safe way. For instance, Wagenbuur writes of a construction zone that cut off a popular bike route. In response, the contractors made sure “the cycleway was rerouted through that building’s own future parking garage at ground level.” It is these aspects of accommodation and the interconnected streamlining of Dutch planning and design that Betsky and Eeuwens praise. Another example from the blog is where Wagenbuur discusses pilot cities attempting new methods of alleviating cycleway traffic. He describes the attempt to blend cycling into the roadways instead of as a separate system. Mark describes the purpose of the design “is to come to a better balance between spatial functions, the quality of the urban space and the mobility in the city.” This attempt at finding the right balance within a small spatial function is consistent with the interconnectedness and order Betsky and Eeuwens praise in Dutch design.


Similarly, Dutch painters from the Golden Age were forced to come up with creative ways to make their complicated and interconnected stories all appear within one canvas. One famous work of art to emerge from the Dutch Golden Age was Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs. This 1559 painting depicts a small Dutch village where the painting’s subjects are engaged in what at first glance looks like absolute madness. However, the painting’s subjects collectively depict what art historians argue can be over 112 Dutch proverbs. These proverbs, usually small phrases of metaphors or rhymes are portrayed and acted out in a chaotic yet organized display. For instance, among the proverbs that art historians have found within the painting is “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” This proverb is depicted by a man counting chicken eggs. In the same way that Dutch designers and architects have everything they need integrated within the same space, Brugel’s work accomplishes a similar feat by fitting tableaus of many proverbs. As a result, the concept of balance and spacing as well as neutrality (which is discussed below) can be found in Netherlandish Proverbs.

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Betsky and Eeuwens cite neutrality within designs as part of their appreciation of Dutch design. They argue that Dutch designs do not draw attention to any specific part of their complex nature. This neutrality causes a viewer to look at the structure as a whole. Betsky and Eeuwens explain this aspect through complementing Dutch infrastructure’s design as “part of the everyday landscape without drawing attention to somebody at work. … There is a general sense of coherence. … If everything that can be see can be known and made, then everything everyone makes is worth contemplating” (Betsky and Eeuwen, 350). This sense of equality through neutrality is a concept that can be found often in modern Dutch design. For instance, occurs is Netherlandish Proverbs, no single proverb or subject dominates the canvas. When certain aspects of a design do not fit in or stand out from the crowd, they are ridiculed and degraded by critics. One instance in which the critics were not happy with an unbalanced design was the extension for the Stedelik Museum Re, which resembles a giant bathtub. This large extension is part of an 1895 art museum. While the buildings surrounding it (including the original museum) are a completely different and more classical style of architecture and design, the extension sticks out due to its ubiquity in the surrounding area. In a scalding critique of the design titled There Goes the Neighborhood, Justin Davidson warns his readers that they will feel “awfully gaseous when you’re confronted with the way the building asserts itself on the city.” While there are many reasons to dislike the design of the extension, Davidson points to the structure’s lack of complacency, or hogging the spotlight of the surrounding designs. By drawing attention to “the bathtub”, other buildings and designs will suffer from less appreciation. As a result, I believe that Betsky and Eeuwens would also find fault with the design of the museum extension.


The concept of subject neutrality is hard to find within Dutch Golden Age artwork. For instance, there is a lack of neutrality within Jacob van Ruisdael’s Windmill at Wijk bij Durrstede. This 1670 painting depicts a quiet riverside town on the horizon with a giant windmill that immediately draws the viewer’s eye. In comparison to everything else in the picture, the windmill is daunting in its size and shading, causing it to loom above everything else in the painting except for the clouds. Since the painting draws attention to one component of his work, the painting is not compatible with Betsky and Eeuwens criterion for great Dutch design. They might have appreciated the painting more if the windmill had the same draw to the eye as other aspects of the painting. Had Justin Davidson critiqued the painting, he might have come to the same conclusion that he did with the museum extension, finding fault with the way that the building fits in with its surroundings.

In conclusion, while some aspects of Dutch design have changed, some remain applicable in what we see today. This shows that while Dutch design has evolved, much of what makes Dutch design great today can in some instances be found in the art of the past. As a result, this helps to prove that as Dutch design changes, they continue to draw inspiration from their Golden Age.  [1203]



  1. Bruegel, Pieter. “Netherlandish Proverbs”. 1559,. 1 June 2017.
  2.  Proverb Research and Images: “Media Center for Art History – Columbia University”. N. p., 2017. Web. 1 June 2017.
  3. Wagenbuur, Mark. “Explaining the Dutch Roundabout Abroad”. BICYCLE DUTCH. N. p., 2015. Web. 1 June 2017.
  1. Davidson, Justin. “Critique: There Goes the Neighborhood,” review of Bentham Crouwel’s Stedelijk Museum extension, Architectural Record (Sept. 2012).
  2. Ruisdael, Jacob. “Windmill At Wijk Bij Durrstede”. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1670.



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