When you think of Gispen you probably think about tubular steel chairs with no back legs, and office furniture. But in its hundred years of existence the company has made much more than that.
In 1916 Willem Hendrik Gispen (1890-1981) bought a smithy in the centre of Rotterdam and started ‘W.H. Gispen & Co’. At first he designed wrought-iron objects like lamps, clocks and signs to order, as well as wooden furniture. Soon, though, he began to focus on mass production and in the early 1920s the designer made a series of lamps manufactured in moulds. In 1926 this resulted in the well-known Giso lamps. These machine-made lamps were made of Giso glass: crystal glass with a layer of opal glass over it.
In 1927 Gispen also made his first prototype chair with no back legs. In 1930 he published the first catalogue offering tea tables, occasional tables, beds, settees, stools and many more kinds of furniture as well as chairs. Throughout the company’s existence, its catalogues have showcased modern design, advertising the range with pictures by leading photographers.
Relocation and Expansion
In 1933 W. van Osselen was appointed commercial director. A year later the company moved to Culemborg, where it is still located today, and there was a shift to larger-scale production. The machinery had to be upgraded and the company took over the buildings of a metal factory there. In 1935 Van Osselen set up the Stalachrome Department, where sheet steel office furniture was manufactured. The designers in Gispen’s drawing office made the designs for the furniture; Willem Hendrik Gispen was only responsible for the graphic design of the Stalachrome catalogues.
The War Years
During the Second World War Gispen was unable to get hold of steel but the company remained in business by switching to the production of wooden furniture marketed under the name ‘Pelko’. In 1949 W.H. Gispen stepped down as a director. The furniture was designed by new designers, André Cordemeyer and Wim Rietveld being the best known.
From the 1970s onwards, the company devoted itself entirely to office design and stopped making furniture for domestic interiors. Banks, government buildings and offices were fitted out.
Gispen Design Collection
Around the turn of the century the company started working with contemporary designers under the name Gispen Design Collection. Richard Hutten was appointed creative director and designed various products. Gispen also marketed products – like the popular Domoor beaker – that Hutten had designed previously.
Gispen has now been in business for a hundred years – an anniversary worth celebrating with an exhibition about the company at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Gispen always responded to his clients’ specific wishes – not just at the outset, when he worked exclusively to commission, but later, too. Gispen Specials: The Customer is Always Right did not feature the products from Gispen’s standard range, focusing instead on the ‘specials’ – one-off designs or items made in small editions. For example, the wrought-iron lamp that W.H. Gispen designed for his own house and the extra-large diagonal chair for the Van Nelle factory. More recent specials, like the Berlage Chair for the Grand Café of the Gemeentemuseum designed by Richard Hutten, also appeared in the exhibition.