Amsterdam School Museum

the garden exhibition

Street Furniture of the Amsterdam School Spotlighted

Street furniture is everywhere around us. We are used to it so much that we rarely notice the presence of these objects in our daily surroundings. Yet, all the public lavatories, post boxes, street lamps and litterbins make up a part of an interesting history of styles. An important turning point in this history came when the architects and artists of the Amsterdam School contributed to street furniture design.

In the mid-1910s, designers of the Amsterdam school stepped into the limelight and strove to undertake important commissions. They also left their impress on street furniture, which was then in high demand.

In the early twentieth century, Amsterdam struggled with explosive population growth. There were 270.000 inhabitants in 1870; this number increased to 520.000 in 1900. Workers’ unsanitary living conditions drew politicians’ concern. This situation led eventually to the establishment of Housing Act in 1901, and the city was further extended according to the law. For the new neighborhoods, new street furniture had to be designed.

Public Works Department

Public Works Department was responsible for urban development, public space design, public building design, construction and maintenance. The department shaped the official municipal architects and engineers’ office.

Because of poor quality of public works in Amsterdam, the department had a bad reputation for a long period. In the early twentieth century, the situation changed gradually. An important turning point was 1907, when A. Bos was named general director. Bos advocated for improvement of design quality. He hired architects instead of drafters, in order to enhance the artistic level of the department. Also, he took initiative, so that all the designs made in Public Works should be submitted to an aesthetic advisor.

J. M. Van der Mey became the first aesthetic advisor in 1911. P. Kramer was then named Van der Mey’s assistant. In this way, Public Works Department accepted the Amsterdam School.

Kramer’s bridges

In 1917, P. Kramer was appointed as municipal bridge designer. In 1919 he also took over Van der Mey’s post as aesthetic advisor. Kramer remained active in Public Works Department until 1952. He designed ca. 220 bridges in Amsterdam, of which 70 were constructed in the Amsterdamse Bos.

An important characteristic of Kramer’s bridges: He built the construction in a very expressive way, using various materials like bricks, natural stones, wood and cast iron. Kramer excelled particularly in his cast iron design.

Besides cast iron, Kramer also liked to use wood, though the material was only allowed in provincial regions outside Amsterdam, where there was not much traffic. Because these regions were often poorly lighted, prominent wood light poles were placed at every corner.

Kramer introduced sitting elements in his bridges. These elements vary from bridge rails (that could be leaned against) to benches integrated into the bridge rails. Architecture also makes up a part of these bridges. In the twentieth century, small houses standing beside the bridge (traditionally used by bridge keepers) began to function as lavatories, kiosks and spaces for electric supply equipments.

Artists such as H. Krop, J. Polet and J. Rädecker decorated Kramer’s bridges with their sculptural works.


P.L Marnette worked for Public Works from 1908 to 1948. The Amsterdam School had a strong influence on his early works. From the mid-1920s onwards, his contemporaries (such as Cornelis van Eesteren, who was associated with De Stijl movement) inspired Marnette. Since then, Marnette’s design took on a more sober appearance, bridging between the Amsterdam School and the New Objectivity.

Marnette was responsible for a great number of street furniture designs. One famous example is a red fire alarm box called “Red Police Sergeant”. Many of his designs (litterbins, electrical switch boxes) were made of cast iron and easily mass-produced.

Public Lavatories

In the nineteenth century, people came to realize poor hygiene caused many epidemics like cholera. The philanthropist Samuel Sarphati got permission in 1847 to collect garvage and place lavatories in Amsterdam. This turned out to be a difficult task, since the lavatories were constantly vandalized.

In 1869, the municipality introduced five new lavatories called “curls”. They had types for one person and two persons. The lower part of the curls was left open, so that police officers could see instantly how many persons were using the lavatory. Van der Mey designed his variation of the curl in 1914. He gave it a rigid form, and put a roof on it.

Two small buildings at the Valeriusplein (designed by J. de Meyer) can be regarded as a typical Amsterdam School lavatory design. The buildings have a smooth, organic form; they are made of concrete and decorated with metalwork.

Electric Supply

In 1895, the telephone network was installed in Amsterdam; in 1900, the Municipal Electric Works was established to supply power for street lamps and electric trams. The Public Works Department was closely in touch with the Municipal Electric Works. Their cooperation resulted in production of new light poles. Because of the coal shortage during the First World War, Amsterdam decided in 1917 to shift from gas to electric lighting. In 1923, all the gas lamps disappeared from the streetscape of Amsterdam.

One of the designs for a new light pole was “Paal PW 24”, which P.L. Marnette designed specially for the new neighborhoods in Amsterdam. People in Amsterdam did not like the modern design, and the pole was mockingly called “the unknown front soldier”. Marnette was also largely responsible for designing junction boxes.

Individuals needed transformers for the electirc supply. The transformers were placed in small houses on the street; these houses must be safe, well locked, and at the same time aesthetically well designed. J. van der Mey designed the first version in 1911, a column-shaped transformer given the nickname “the peppermill”.

In 1918, the use of stream increased so much that the size of the peppermill was no longer large enough. For this reason, small houses emerged as an alternative. It was required that these houses should not stand out on the street, but nonetheless have modern characteristics.

Municipal Giro Payment Boxes and Postboxes

In 1917, the municipality of Amsterdam established the Municipal Giro. Amsterdam was a pioneer in this field, in that the Municipal Giro was the first giro payment system in the Netherlands. The Municipal Giro was initially intended only for payment and money reception of the municipality. However, in 1918, it became also possible for individuals to open accounts at the Municipal Giro. In the same year, P.L. Marnette designed the first mailbox for giro payment, which had the form of a blue column.

After 1918, the PTT came to take interests in postbox design and organized a number of competitions. A. Kurvers, who worked for Public Works, made many designs for the PTT.

In 1926, Kurvers was commissioned to design a hanging mailbox for the Municipal Giro. There was a need for a smaller model that would be more easily placed than the massive standing boxes by Marnette. Kurvers’s design is from 1922. His heavy mailbox is despite its elegant form not more beautiful than Marnette’s. With its characteristic form, the mailbox was called “the helmet type”.

Amsterdam School Museum

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Exhibition Design, Collages, Panels, BURGIODESIGN

Photography: Het Schip Museum Archives

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