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Willem Hendrik Gispen

07-12-1890 - 10-05-1981

W.H. Gispen was a leading figure in Rotterdam cultural circles and a champion of the Nieuwe Bouwen movement. Gispen found himself in the vanguard of designers experimenting with modern ligthting. Without underestimating the value of handwork, he was strongly attracted to the modern problem of the aesthetic design of mechanically fabricated products. In this respect, he aligned himself with Bauhaus ideas about the unity of art and technology.

Willem Hendrik Gispen (1890-1981) studied architecture at the Academy of Arts and Technical Sciences in Rotterdam, but dropped out when the First World War started. In 1916, after a few jobs in architecture practices, Gispen bought a small smithy for ornamental work on Coolsingel. He made a name for himself with his artistic forged metalwork. In 1919, the architect Henri Evers commissioned him to make the lanterns and radiator casings for the new Rotterdam City Hall. It was the first in a long series of orders for Gispen's work in important Rotterdam buildings.

In 1920, Gispen, together with his former fellow student Leen van der Vlugt and others, founded Opbouw, the organ of Nieuwe Bouwen. The magazine's charter placed much emphasis on the close relationship between architecture and related artforms. The contacts that formed in this artistic association yielded not only ideas and inspiration, but commissions for work as well. Membership of the Rotterdamsche Kring (Rotterdam Circle) had similar benefits for Gispen; the Circle presented opportunities to make the acquaintance of prominent Rotterdam figures. Gispen's extensive network, in combination with the city's relative prosperity in that period, formed the basis for a series of important commissions to equip the interiors of new buildings with lighting products and furniture.

The philosophy of the English Arts and Crafts Movement, with its integral design approach to crafts, interiors and architecture, caught Gispen's interest while he was still a student. Like the English artists, he felt a strong affinity for materials and placed a high value on simple beauty and good craftsmanship. By the mid-twenties, however he had abandoned the individual handcrafts for which Arts and Crafts stood and ventured into mechanical production. Writing about himself, Gispen stated: "He in no way underestimates the value of handwork as a means of achieving a more direct, personal form of artistic expression, but is strongly attracted to the modern problem of the aesthetic design of mechanically fabricated products." [From: Het sierend metaal...] In this respect, he aligned himself with Bauhaus ideas about the unity of art and technology.

Gispen found himself in the vanguard of designers experimenting with modern ligthting. As early as the 1920s, he was creating lamp designs with pure geometrical forms, as espoused by the modernists. By 1923, the Gisolamp was in serial production. Gispen supplied Gisolamps to the model house of J.J.P. Oud in Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart in 1927. It was there that he made his first acquaintance with the tube-framed chairs of Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe. Back in the Netherlands, Gispen began experimenting with his own tube-framed furniture, and by 1928 he went into production with various steel tube designs.

Typical of the years between the wars was the diversity of styles in both architecture and product design. Gispen created designs not only for modern interiors but for traditional brick-built buildings. He worked on interiors for Evers, Kropholler, Mertens, Van der Steur and other architects. The buildings were invariably conspicuous designs that attracted much discussion in the press. Many "total works of art" were realized within this broad spectrum of styles. Rotterdam City Hall is a prominent example of such a Gesamtkunstwerk, while the Van Nelle Factory and the Van der Leeuw House are on the opposite, more modernist, side of the spectrum. They are showcases of modern architecture, art, interior design and craftsmanship.

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