In 1916, Willem Hendrik Gispen bought a small smithy on Coolsestraat 27a in Rotterdam. He made art objects and light fixtures there. Gispen was so successful that he had to move his business to a full blown factory on Voorhaven 101 in 1919. The importance of the light fixtures is shown by Gispen's invention in 1926 of GISO lamps, milk glass lamps that were more economical and didn't need to be shielded to prevent blinding.
However, business really took off with a breakthrough of Gispen's steel tube furniture at the exhibition Die Wohnung in Stuttgart, co-ordinated by globally famous modernistic architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Gispen instantly became a recognised modernistic designer. It allowed him to work with other famous modernists, such as Mies van der Rohe, architect J.J.P. Oud and furniture designer Gerrit Rietveld. In line with those and earlier modernists, such as René Lalique, Gispen produced "industrial art", artwork, reproduced in large numbers with industrial techniques. His designs were artful, thoughtful, simple but luxurious. Yet, Gispen did not mind using the same parts for different models. Gispen won spectacular orders, including the furniture of the headquarters of Van Nelle and Unilever.
During the great crisis, Gispen bought a large number of cheap, used machines in Germany, bringing his company on the brink of bankruptcy. He obtained new capital on the condition of accepting a co-director for financial affairs in 1932. The co-director became a champion of using plate steel for office furniture, some of it based on original Gispen home furniture. Gispen saw the office line, called Stalachrome, as a technical operation without artistic merit. Slowly, the co-directors grew apart.
The Rotterdam factory was too small and could not expand. Gispen relocated the factory to Culemborg in 1934. The move made it possible to introduce a separate line of office and home furniture. In the second world war, only wooden furniture could be produced. Metal was reserved for the war industry. In 1942, Gispen was arrested by the SS for not being a member of the Kulturkammer. He was released after four weeks, but thought it safer to go into hiding. His co-director became in fact sole director. In 1942, a large new factory was built on Triosingel, just to paint steel. In 1949, Gispen resigned. Eventually, he became partner in Kembo, a furniture producer that still exists. Gispen died in 1981.
Meanwhile, the factory needed expansion again. The company was able to secure a large plot of land on Parallelweg West, across the Culemborg station and on the railroad. New buildings were opened there in 1951 and 1953. In 1951, the former hotel Het wapen van Gelderland (The Gelderland arms) became Gispen's new office building (photo). It became a living showroom for Gispen furniture and lamps. Gispen concentrated on office furniture and slowly gave up on home furniture.
The company Gispen still exists. It contributes in an important way to employment in Culemborg, but it is also an innovator, an environmental activist and a contributor to local culture and society. Early Gispen furniture is collected and increasingly found in museum collections. The design of the coffee token reflects the simple, effective style of the company's products.