Willem Hendrik (W. H.) Gispen, a pioneer of Dutch functionalism, was born in Amsterdam in 1890. Prior to the outbreak of World War I, he studied design in the architecture department at the Academy of Visual Arts & Technical Science in Rotterdam. In 1916, he set up an eponymous metalwork shop dedicated to ornamental iron, brass, and bronze decorative arts. During these early years, Gispen produced objects in Expressionist and Art Nouveau styles.
In the 1920s, however, through encounters with influential theorists and practitioners of modernism—such as De Stijl architect J. J. P. Oud, Deutscher Werkbund architect Hermann Muthesius, and Purist architect Le Corbusier—Gispen’s firm increasingly moved toward mechanized production and rational, economical, minimalist designs. His geometrically reduced Giso Light (1926/7), now considered one of the Netherlands’ greatest design icons, was the culmination of his newfound commitment to functionalism. It was quickly followed by his first cantilevered, tubular steel chair, inspired by the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Mart Stam. Gispen’s marketing and advertising arms also adopted the vanguard spirit of the day through cutting-edge typography and collaged photos by the likes of graphic artist Paul Schuitema and photographer Jan Kamman.
Gispen’s successes in the 1920s were followed by years of hardship. The 1929 Wall Street Crash and the resulting Great Depression nearly sent the company into bankruptcy. In response, Gispen was reorganized, and naval architect W. van Osselen was brought in as co-director to develop a promising office furniture line in steel. Multiple patents lawsuits—from Stam and van der Rohe in particular—further hampered the company’s growth in the 1930s. Then, in the 1940s, W. H. Gispen was imprisoned for protesting the Nazi Kulturkammer censorship policies. In 1949, he resigned from his own company due to mounting artistic tensions with van Osselen, but he remained a consultant for Gispen until the 1960s.
Gispen flourished in the 1950s and '60s, even after its founder's departure. In particular, the company found great success with the minimalist, rationalist designs of A. R. Cordemeyer and Wim Rietveld. Standout designs from the Gispen collection in the postwar era include the 1407 Armchair (1954) by Cordemeyer and Rietveld, Model 663 Storage System (1954) by Rietveld, Model Giso 4050 Lamp (1956) by Rietveld, 217 Chair (1957) by Rietveld and his father Gerrit Rietveld, 1262 Chair (1959) by Cordemeyer, and 1637 Swivel Chair (1963) by Cordemeyer.
W. H. Gispen's design career did not end upon his departure from the company. he went on to found another design manufacturing company, called Kembo, in 1953 and taught at the Koninklijke Academie in The Hague, among other design ventures
Today, Gispen operates under the name Gispen International BV and continues to reproduce W. H. Gispen’s original designs alongside evolving lines of office furniture. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam organized the first exhibition dedicated to Gispen in 1981, which focused primarily on lamp designs from 1916 to 1949. The Giso Model 404 Piano Lamp (1927/28), designed by Oud and Gispen and produced by the Gispen firm, can be found in a number of museum collections, including the Cooper Hewitt and MoMA in New York and the Wolfsonian in Miami.
*All images courtesy of Gispen