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Letter opener, (untitled), ca. 1905
Henry van de Velde
Letter opener, (untitled),
Henry van de Velde,

Letter opener, (untitled),
ca. 1905

Museum für Gestaltung Zürich
Ausstellungsstrasse 60
8031 Zurich
Museum map
Museum für Gestaltung Zürich
Toni-Areal, Pfingstweidstrasse 94
8031 Zurich
  • (untitled) Henry van de Velde Letter opener
  • (untitled) Henry van de Velde Letter opener
Listen to the text

Faithful to Henry van de Velde’s (1863–1957) motto “Beauty is a weapon,” the simple letter opener in carved ivory captivates through the ornamental power of the line, the luxury of the materials, and its unpretentious yet noble appearance. The small object thus succinctly embodies van de Velde’s overall creative vision.

Three letter openers from the estate of the great Art Nouveau artist, architect, and designer Henry van de Velde joined the collection of the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich in 1905. We don’t know for sure for whom the artist originally designed them, but he presumably used them himself in his final years, which he spent in Switzerland. The letter opener is a simple everyday object, made here from an exquisite animal material that at the time was not yet ethically reprehensible. On the contrary, van de Velde even used it at the explicit behest of King Leopold II of Belgium, who administered the Belgian Congo as his private property and had a commercial interest in promoting luxury items made of ivory. Originally a fine artist, from 1895 van de Velde devoted himself programmatically and emphatically to the design of all manner of utilitarian objects. He regarded the items that accompany us each day as art in the highest sense, viewing them as a mirror of reality and a tool with which to influence it: “Art is changing its shape because society is changing its shape.” We can thus read into the small object of the letter opener the vision of a new way of life. For van de Velde, this new way of life would have to leave room for the revival of the applied arts. (Franziska Müller-Reissmann)

Brieföffner, um 1905
Entwurf: Henry van de Velde
Herstellung: Bauer & Sohn, Weimar, DE
Material/Technik: Elfenbein, geschnitzt
24 × 4.3 cm
Donation: Nele van de Velde
Eigentum: Museum für Gestaltung Zürich / ZHdK

Klaus-Jürgen Sempach/Birgit Schulte (Hg.), Henry van de Velde. Ein europäischer Künstler seiner Zeit, Köln 1992.

Thomas Föhl/Sabine Walter (Hg.), Leidenschaft, Funktion und Schönheit. Henry van de Velde und sein Beitrag zur Moderne, Weimar 2013.

Image credits

Brieföffner, um 1905, Entwurf: Henry van de Velde, Donation: Nele van de Velde
Abbildung: Museum für Gestaltung Zürich / ZHdK

Brieföffner, um 1905, Entwurf: Henry van de Velde, Donation: Nele van de Velde
Abbildung: Museum für Gestaltung Zürich / ZHdK

Fotografie, Henry van de Velde in seinem Arbeitszimmer im Haus Hohe Pappeln in Weimar, 1907–1908, Reproduktion: 2014, Fotografie: Klassik Stiftung Weimar
Abbildung: Archiv ZHdK

Fotografie, Das von Henry van de Velde gestaltete Arbeitszimmer in der Secessions-Ausstellung München, 1899, Reproduktion: 2014, Fotografie: Klassik Stiftung Weimar
Abbildung: Archiv ZHdK

Exhibition text

Ivory, to which magical powers are sometimes attributed, is one of the oldest and finest materials used in fine and applied arts. Ivory was especially popular for decorative tableware and fashion accessories in the nineteenth century. Due to its scarcity and high price, artisans often tried to replace it with bone. The desire to imitate ivory and thus profit handsomely from its visual and tactile qualities was one of the factors leading to the development of modern plastics.