The July 1961 issue of Playboy magazine included a feature story entitled “Designs for Living.” The article was illustrated on its opening pages with a group photo of six men who were among the leading furniture designers of the day, each with an example of his work. It was an illustrious ensemble.
That image, shown below, depicts (from left): George Nelson, perched upon a side table on casters he created as Herman Miller’s design director; Edward Wormley, in a lounge chair he designed for Dunbar; Eero Saarinen, slouched in his commodious Womb chair; Harry Bertoia, looking slightly discomfited while grasping his latticed steel-wire Diamond chair; and Charles Eames, cheerfully sitting sidesaddle on his molded plywood-and-metal DCM chair. At the far right is the sixth man, Danish-born Jens Risom, looking both sage and suave, his dark hair graying at the temples and one hand resting on his walnut-frame armchair.
Risom was the youngest man in that gathering, and today, at 96, he’s its last living member. Fifty-odd years ago, Risom’s profile may not have been as high as Eames’s or Saarinen’s, but he has had enormous significance in the field. “Risom’s work is a vital link between contemporary Scandinavian design and mid-20th-century design in the United States,” says Barry Harwood, curator of decorative arts at the Brooklyn Museum. “Furniture from Denmark, Finland and Sweden was known and imported. But Risom was hugely influential in bringing that simple, hair-down, wholesome Scandinavian design sensibility to practitioners in America.”
Risom came to these shores with a belief that furniture should be practical and modest in form. He also felt that integral to good design was comfort, the warmth of wood and other natural materials and a certain gracefulness of style. Risom had learned these tenets from the cradle. His father, Sven, was a noted Copenhagen architect, and, with his encouragement, young Jens took up studies in 1935 at the city’s School of Industrial Arts and Design. There, he trained under Kaare Klint — known as the “father of modern Danish design” — and his classmates and friends included the greats-to-be Hans Wegner and Børge Mogensen.
After Risom graduated in 1938, he was at something of a loose end, but a chance meeting with the United States consul in Copenhagen changed that. Risom showed the diplomat his design sketches, and, as Risom recalls, “He said ‘You should seriously consider going to America. We don’t have any furniture like this. I think you’d do very well.’ ” Risom heeded this advice and arrived in New York in 1939 — but it wasn’t an easy transition. “The truth is, I didn’t know anything about the United States, or about manufacturing there,” he says. When he sought guidance about finding a job from an administrator at the Museum of Modern Art, Risom was met with a shrug. “I learned there was no modern furniture production in America,” Risom says. Later that year, Risom obtained a position at the firm of the dapper Manhattan interior decorator Dan Cooper. Though his official brief was textile design, Risom also designed numerous pieces of furniture for the firm. But he fell afoul of the one-genius-per-company rule: Cooper’s name went on everything. After two years, working for $42.50 per month, Risom requested a raise. Cooper refused, and Risom quit.
Shortly thereafter, Risom made another fortuitous connection: He met Hans G. Knoll, the son of a German furniture maker, who had come to America in 1938 to start his own furniture company. “Hans and I were bound to meet — he needed me and I needed him,” says Risom. “We got along quite well, though he made it clear that I was his employee.” The designer eagerly sat down at the drafting table and soon produced some 20 schemes for Knoll’s first line. In mid-1941, with war raging around the globe, austerity measures were already in place in the officially non-partisan United States, and manufacturing materials were difficult to obtain. Risom hit upon the idea of making chair seats and backrests out of woven-canvas parachute-harness webbing straps that had been rejected by the U.S. Army. (He had the camouflage-green webbing dyed black.) What emerged included Risom’s best-known design: the No. 654 Lounge chair, which features a sinuous wooden frame wrapped in that webbing.
Hans Knoll’s expertise was marketing, and he took Risom on a barnstorming tour of the country, visiting architects, decorators and department stores while building a roster of clients. All went well until 1943, when Risom was drafted. He served through the end of the conflict in General George Patton’s Third Army, where his command of German made him a useful interpreter, and he employed his graphic-arts skills drawing maps and battle plans. The one good to come of the grim war experience, Risom says, is that “it allowed me to become an American citizen.”
Meanwhile, Knoll had met and fallen in love with Michigan native Florence Schust, an architect and designer “who had studied under such luminaries as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Eliel Saarinen. Knoll made her a full partner in his firm. When Risom returned to the company, tensions were unavoidable. Florence believed in architectural furniture composed of metal, plastic laminates and other up-to-date materials. Risom was a confirmed devotee of wood. He left Knoll in 1946 and opened his own business, Jens Risom Design. One hallmark of JRD, as the firm came to be known, was Risom’s commitment to quality construction. Intolerant of the slightest imperfections, Risom decided to take complete control over the production of his furniture. In 1954, he bought a textile mill and manufacturing plant in Connecticut and hired skilled laborers. The 1955 JRD catalog — illustrated with photos by Richard Avedon (talk about quality!) — notes: “Everything is designed and manufactured by us. Having the planning, engineering and production all under one roof is very important, we think. It guarantees uniformity and continuity of style.”
“Risom’s work,” says Barry Harwood, a curator at the Brooklyn Museum, “is a vital link between contemporary Scandinavian design and mid-20th-century design in the United States.”
The painstaking construction of vintage Risom pieces is one reason for their popularity among collectors, according to Christine Miele, co-principal of the Manhattan design gallery reGeneration Furniture. “They’re so solid,” she says. “They really hold up. The thickness of the wood is unusually generous, and the joinery is peerless.” Just as important, she adds, is the subtle elegance of Risom’s forms: “They’re timeless. They don’t scream ‘modern.’ There’s the quiet wedge shape of the legs on his benches and the trim floating top on several of his desks. He also designed wonderful upholstered seating. Risom’s work can be an anchor piece in any room. He nailed it.”
JRD operations initially focused on residential furnishings, but toward the end of the 1950s, observing that corporations had embraced modern design much more heartily than homeowners, Risom began to concentrate on office furniture. In the early 1970s, Risom sold his firm to Dictaphone Corporation, which wanted to expand a nascent line of executive furnishings meant to complement the firm’s core business selling office recording machines. Three years later, Risom opened Design Control, a consultancy based in his hometown of New Canaan, Connecticut.
Though the designer unofficially retired in the ’80s, recent years have seen a Risom renaissance. Knoll put his pieces from the ’40s back into production in 1997, and, since 2005, he has worked from his meticulous records to reissue his JRD designs for firms including Ralph Pucci International, Design Within Reach Studio and London’s Rocket Gallery. This year, DWR introduced the petite Risom Desk, which the designer originally created for his own home in 1968. And back in 2009, the then-93-year-old created an entirely new piece for DWR, the Risom Rocker, an elegant walnut version of that homely standby, the rocking chair. With Henny, his wife of 33 years, Risom now lives in an attractive, well-run seniors’ residency in New Canaan. The cheerful, chatty couple took a double-sized apartment so that Jens could keep an office space. Sketch pads and drafting tools sit on his desk. So could there be still more new Risom designs in the offing? “You never know,” he says, eyes bright. “As I have said before: I think furniture.”
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