When Henry van de Velde (1863- 1957) founded the School of La Cambre, which at that time was called the Superior Institute of Decorative Arts – he was already over 60 years old. His busy international career as an architect and decorator had not allowed him the time to build his pedagogical “laboratory,” which he had dreamed about since he arriving in Weimar in 1902, and his founding in 1908 of the School of Decorative Arts of the Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar. That school was a modest, short-lived adventure, and unfortunately van de Velde was obliged to close it in 1915 – which nonetheless laid the ground for the first Bauhaus founded by Gropius in 1919.
Beginning in 1912, while he was still in Germany, van de Velde began looking at ways to build in Brussels another Institute comparable to the one in Weimar. Fourteen years later, the Minister of Arts and Sciences, Camille Huysmans, authorized this new project in November 1926, firmly resisting the wave of complaints made by the Belgian Academies. The School was hosted within a portion of the buildings of the Cistercian Abbaye de La Cambre.
Van de Velde hired his first teaching staff in May 1927: the teachers, all part of the Belgian avant-garde, were hired for 3 years. The school enrolled 80 students that fall, and by 1929 the graduates had earned degrees in the theory and practice of theatre, technical drawing, and applied and fine arts, and the first architects graduated in 1930. Production at La Cambre was shown in 1931 in the first exhibition of students’ work at the Palais des Beaux-arts in Brussels.
Van de Velde resigned as director of La Cambre in 1936. He was replaced by the poet and dramaturg Herman Teirlinck (1936-1950), the architect Léon Stynen (1950-1964), the art historian Robert-Louis Delevoy (1965-79), the writer Joseph Noiret (1980-1992), the art historian France Borel (1992-2002), the architect and city planner Caroline Mierop (20032017). Currently the position is held by Benoît Hennaut (2017), a specialist in Romance languages and in history of contemporary Performing arts.
Many generations of artists, teachers and students have contributed to the reputation and identity of the school. Among them are the plasticians Ann Veronica Janssens, Didier Vermeiren, Delphine Deguislage, Denis Meyers, Fabrice Samyn and Hamza Halloubi; the painters Manon Bara, Luis Guzmán and Carolina Fernández; the stylists Cédric Charlier, Sandrina Fasoli, Anthony Vaccarello and Marine Serre; the filmmakers Aubier and Patar as well as Sanaz Azari; the illustrators Benoît Jacques, Pascal Lemaître and Marie Assénat; the designers Thierry Brunfaut (Base Design), Nathalie Dewez and Elric Petit (Big Game); the performance artists Gwendoline Robin and Gaetan Rusquet, and the ceramicist Myung-Joo Kim.
La Cambre has not trained architects since 1980. They have been moved over to the Superior Institute of Architecture of the French Community, now subsumed into the Architecture Faculty at the Free University of Brussels (ULB). However, many new departments and areas of study have been added to La Cambre in the intervening decades. Industrial Design became part of the school in 1954 -- La Cambre was the first school in Belgium to teach this discipline; Film was introduced in 1957. More recently, the Urban Space, Stylisme and Fashion departments were introduced, as well as Art Conservation and Restoration in 1981. A new department was created in September 2015: Accessories (a Master’s level program only). And in 2016, Contemporary Creative Writing was introduced. Today at La Cambre there are 18 departments and a number of transversal multi-disciplinary artistic practices are taught.
Going beyond the departments, the names, the reflection of the zeitgeist -- as La Cambre has always reflected major trends in art, creation and ways of thinking -- an attitude and a way of approaching the world characterize the school: a great multi-cultural melting pot, a grand commotion, intercutting passages, the vigor of ideologies, high standards of thought, a demand for coherence, the dimension of dreams … and all the avatars of imagination! (Robert-Louis Delevoy, 1978)