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An Extraordinary Bookcase

In 2010, the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands, exhibited various designs by the Dutch architect Robert van 't Hoff (1887-1979), who belonged to the artists' group De Stijl. An extraordinary bookcase from the IISH collections was on display at this exhibition. Van 't Hoff is noted for his villa in concrete 'Villa Henny' (1918) in Huis ter Heide, an early example of the 'Nieuwe Bouwen' (New Building) style in the Netherlands. This villa gave him a reputation worldwide.

Van 't Hoff also designed furniture and dwellings for communes, as he was of anarcho-communist conviction. During the 1920s, Van 't Hoff worked in England. In the reading room of the British Museum he studied the works of reformers and he became acquainted with the anarchist publishing house Freedom. As a passionate collector of books and a friend of London antiquarians, he obtained four first printings of the works of William Thompson (1834-1917), Irish philosopher and social reformer.

Van 't Hoff fell in love with these books and handled them with great tenderness. He designed a lockable oak case to package them appropriately. A carpenter was asked to realize this design using three hundred years-old oak wood, selected by Van 't Hoff himself (c 1933). It is 28.5 cm wide, 23 cm high, and 21 cm deep. There is an inlay at the front showing the initials WT for William Thompson. The four books lie on separate shelves with notches so that they can be handled without the fragile material being damaged. With a great deal of distress, Van 't Hoff donated this collection to the IISH in 1973. From then on, his daughter Megan visited the Institute at regular intervals with a jar of beeswax to polish the case.

The book case contains the following titles by William Thompson (collection William Thompson):

  • An inquiry into the principles of the distribution of wealth most conducive to human happiness; applied to the newly proposed system of voluntary equality of wealth. London, 1824
  • Appeal of one half the human race, women, against the pretensions of the other half, men, to retain them in political, and thence in civil and domestic, slavery; in reply to a paragraph of Mr. Mill's celebrated "Article on government". London, 1825
  • Labor rewarded. The claims of labor and capital conciliated; or, How to secure to labor the whole products of its exertions. By one of the idle classes. London, 1827.
  • Practical directions for the speedy and economical establishment of communities, on the principles of mutual co-operation, united possessions and equality of exertions and of the means of enjoyments. London, 1830

Van 't Hoff reflected on this donation in a letter to a friend (1973): 'For over forty years, I "lived" with those books, so now, every day it feels like a loss not to have them around; on the other hand it is gratifying that private belongings have now become public property. But no one can grasp the great pains spent in finding these books and having the case made.' The exhibition at Kröller-Müller and this small web presentation meet this latter objection of Robert van 't Hoff to some degree.

See also:

  • De Avonden (Dutch Broadcasting by VPRO, 13 April 2010) interviewing Dolf Broekhuizen, curator of the exhibition in the Kröller-Müller Museum.
  • Robert van 't Hoff : architect van een nieuwe samenleving / Dolf Broekhuizen (ed.), Evert van Straaten, Herman van Bergeijk, (Rotterdam, 2010).
  • Freedom archive at the IISH
1 May 2010