How Mondrian Became A Brand

Piet Mondrian's colorful geometric compositions have infiltrated American pop culture in unexpected ways.

How did the work of a conceptually difficult abstract painter from the early 20th century come to be plastered on contemporary hotel décor, Yves Saint Laurent dresses, furniture, and jigsaw puzzles? Perhaps more than any other modern artist, Piet Mondrian has turned into a brand of sorts, with his trademark yellow, red, and blue geometric compositions appropriated by American pop culture.

In The Afterlife of Piet Mondrian, Nancy J. Troy, a professor of modern European and American art at Stanford University, explores how Mondrian’s legacy was commercialized after his death in 1944. She scoured auction records, gallery and museum archives, financial documents, and even court cases related to the Dutch artist. "Amazingly, it seems that Mondrian is a name that can be attached to anything," Troy writes. And when this name is attached to things like fashion, graphic design, and hotels, it turns Mondrian into more than an individual artist—the man himself becomes a kind of mythical figure, as abstracted as his compositions, and his art gets hijacked as design cliché.

"There wasn't just one Mondrian. But many, differing according to who was telling his story," Troy writes.

"Mondriana" as we know it began with Yves St. Laurent’s wildly popular shift dresses in 1965, printed with Mondrian’s signature geometric patterns. But turning Mondrian into fashion wasn't an arbitrary decision by St. Laurent. Mondrian already had already dipped his feet in the fashion industry: As he began making his name in the art world, he let his work be used as decorative backdrops for fashion shoots in popular women’s magazines. So the aesthetic was already recognizable among the fashion set.

The pop-ification of the artist’s legacy continued with the Mondrian Hotel, built in a hip spot in North Hollywood in 1985. A colorful composition called L'Hommage a Mondrian covered its nine-story facade. As Vanessa Chang over at the Stanford Report writes, using Mondrian's name was just a tactic:

Eventually, Ian Schrager, the founder of Studio 54, bought the Mondrian Hotel. Though he painted the exterior white, erasing all trace of Mondrian's influence, he kept the artist's name. Troy decided to track him down, saying, "I was convinced that if I asked him why he kept the name I would be able to understand what Mondrian signified in the 1990s. Because surely it signified something, if he kept the name but he got rid of every other sign of Mondrian in this building." Troy learned that Mondrian's actual artistic output was irrelevant to Schrager, who was only interested in how he could resist the style but use the name to shape his own vision of the hotel. In effect, at the Mondrian Hotel, the artist's name had become a brand.

The art, architecture, fashion, and corporate worlds aren’t as distinct as we often think, Troy argues. Her argument hinges on the fact that art exists not in a vacuum—not in some protected niche of the lofty art world—but that it interplays with consumerism in surprising ways. In Mondrian's case, simple shapes, lines, and primary color blocks make for easy, inexpensive adaptation into graphics and prints—it's a flexible aesthetic that suggests sophistication while remaining unobtrusive in the context of, say, a living room or a cityscape. These graphics, as with the Mondrian Hotel, often get boiled down and commodified to the point that only traces of the original intention remain and the brand becomes, in some ways, the bigger legacy.

[H/T Stanford Report]

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