Rietveld was born in 1888 in Utrecht, a municipality in the Netherlands, as the son of a joiner. He left school at 11 to be apprenticed to his father. When he opened his furniture workshop in 1917, Rietveld had taught himself drawing, painting, and model-making. Afterwards, he set up in business as a cabinet-maker. In 1918, he started his own furniture factory.
Rietveld was concerned with social housing, inexpensive production methods, new materials, prefabrication, and standardization. In 1927, he was experimenting with prefabricated concrete slabs, a very unusual material at that time. In the 1920s and 1930s, however, all his commissions came from private individuals, and it was not until the 1950s that he was able to put his progressive ideas about social housing into practice.