The origins of the Gerrit Rietveld Academie can be traced back to the merger of three schools in 1924 to form the Instituut voor Kunstnijverheidsonderwijs (Institute for Education in the Applied Arts), or Kunstnijverheidsschool (School of Applied Arts) for short. From 1939 to 1960, the study programme was heavily influenced by the functionalist and socio-critical ideas of De Stijl and the Bauhaus, partly thanks to the role of the socialist architect Mart Stam, who was the director of the programme.

The role and influence of the autonomous visual arts and individual expression increased from the 1960s onwards, particularly in the 1970s. Together with a practical orientation and a critical mentality, these influences continue to define much of the face of the academy today. In 1967, the school moved to its present academy building, designed by architect and furniture designer Gerrit Rietveld. When the school became part of the higher professional education system in 1968 and was given the status of an Academy for Fine Arts and Design, the name was changed to the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in honour of Rietveld, who had passed away in 1965.