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The story of an artistic house

Updated: 6 days ago

In the beginning of my two weeks’ visit to Babs in Amsterdam a couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to see the home where she resides and relaxes. There, I was quite impressed by the artistic feel of the place, and so we started a discussion about the origin of this house. Babs told me that it initially belonged to Benno Premsela, a significant figure in the Dutch art and design world.

Image 1: Benno Premsela

So, who was the person and avid collector, behind the Prinseneiland house that Babs currently resides in? And how was this house destined to be a perpetual meeting place for many renowned artists?  These questions came across my mind. As I was scanning various books and magazines, in order to add them in Babs’s digital archive, I came across a book concerning Benno Premsela and his life story.

This Dutch designer and interior architect was an advocate of ‘good housing’ and central figure in the post-war artworld in the Netherlands. In addition, as president of the COC, he was a nationally known champion of gay rights.

Premsela rose to prominence in the post-World War II era, a time that demanded a moral stance in the arts. He believed that art and design should embody goodness as a counter to the war's devastation. Known simply as “Benno“ from the 1970s onwards, he was the embodiment of this counter. Proud of his identity, Premsela showed deep admiration for the arts. His collections of art and design were statements of his liberated attitude, influenced by his wartime experiences and time in hiding. They, also, sparked lively debates among the many guests he and his partner, Friso Broeksma, entertained. 

Premsela’s drive to collect had a specific purpose. He focused on pieces he deemed important at the moment, ensuring they had a place in history even without it being his personal preference. His collection, intended for future generations, now finds its place in museums, particularly the Design Museum Den Bosch. 

Image 2: “Exhibition Show Yourself“ at Design Museum Den Bosch

The museum received an exceptionally generous gift from Friso Broeksma’s estate, adding over 250 ceramic objects from Premsela’s collection. This gift significantly enriched the museum's already impressive ceramics collection, filling gaps and elevating the museum’s status. For example, the museum had hardly work by Geert Lap, a post-war European ceramist. With 29 of Lap’s pieces from Premsela’s collection, the museum now boasts one of the world’s finest collections of his work. This Broeksma gift underscores Premsela’s importance as a collector and enriches the museum’s collection for future exhibitions. 

Image 3: Poster for Benno Premsela's exhibition at the Stedejik Museum in Amsterdam

Premsela’s unrelenting passion for collecting, and dedication to the tactile arts, is evident in his diverse collections of visual art, ceramics, jewellery, glass, wood, textiles and even seemingly trivial items like Japanese parasols. 

Living in his renowned canal house on Keizersgracht 518 and later on Prinseneiland, Premsela integrated his collections into his home, making it a hub for cultural Amsterdam. His home was a testament to his commitment to the arts and his desire to share his knowledge and enthusiasm with others. Premsela, a modern homo universalis and an art authority, served on numerous advisory boards and juries, and his avant-garde tendencies were

respected and imitated.   Premsela’s later years were marked by a desire to live with many people in the same house, especially artists. Babs

revealed to me that, in 1995, he invited her and artist Geert Lap to live with him in his new home Prinseneiland 91, where Babs continues to live until today. Babs and Geert had graduated from the Rietveld Academy together and were close friends, so it was a great opportunity to live together with similar minded people.

Image 4: Babs Haenen between Benno and her vessels

Unfortunately, Premsela became ill and died two years later. But during those years the communal living arrangement allowed for interaction with the art world by hosting many artistic dinners. During these dinners, Babs met with important artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Philip Glass and Rudi Fuchs (the director of the Stedelijk Museum at that time). Many renowned artists exchanged ideas, held discussions about the art world long into the night, and simply had a great time.  

It is more than certain that Benno Premsela’s influence was palpable long after his death in 1997. From what I learned, his absence must have left a noticeable void in the cultural landscape of the Netherlands.

Therefore, I caught myself thinking: “Who wouldn’t really wish to be a witness of such a dinner with all these renowned artists, filled with artistic discussions and inspirations!”

See you at the next exciting story about the life of Babs! (^▽^)

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