Jens Risom, Danish furniture designer, had the very rare privilege of celebrating his one-hundredth birthday in 2016 shortly before he passed away. “America’s last surviving design star from the Mid-century Modernist movement”, as described by Wallpaper magazine, had had quite an eventful life. He survived two world wars, established Modernism in America and left a substantial legacy with the production of over 1000 of his designs over the years. As a designer, he wasn’t loud. He didn’t build his name on eccentricity and scandal, rather the enduring and pragmatic qualities of his furniture. This, paired with unwavering focus and pioneering direction, immortalized the remarkable century of Jens Risom’s life.
Jens Risom was born in Copenhagen in 1916. As the son of a notable architect, he followed a similar career path, studying design at the Copenhagen School of Arts and Crafts. He expressed that the reason he didn’t pursue architecture was because of the power contractors and clients had over the creative process. Risom wanted greater control, which ultimately steered him towards design. From a young age, he was exposed to the great creative minds of the time. At school, Jens Risom studied under Ole Wanscher and Kaare Klint, both important pioneers of modern Scandinavian design. He also worked in Stockholm for a brief period of time, where he was introduced to notable functionalists, Alvar Aalto and Bruno Mathsson. It is important to note these names as undoubted influences in the shaping of Risom as a designer, especially during his foundation years.
In 1939, Risom moved to America, hoping to expand his knowledge on contemporary American design. Instead, he found that “there was very little” of the Modernist notions which were sweeping Denmark present in the US. Underwhelmed by the lack of opportunities in his field, Risom turned to textile design, which ultimately introduced him to designer Dan Cooper. His first textile projects for Cooper paved the way for further work, including furniture for the Collier’s House of Ideas. Jens Risom was slowly gaining exposure and, in 1941, his breakthrough came in the form of a meeting with Hans Knoll of which he said: “he was secretly looking for me, and I was secretly looking for him”. Knoll had emigrated to America in 1938 to found his own furniture manufacturing company. The two immediately hit it off and embarked on a journey which would bring both entrepreneur and designer significant success.
Knoll and Risom set off on a road trip, approaching architects and clients all over America with drawings of furniture. Hans handled the business side, while Jens designed furniture and interiors. As they took on more projects, the experience reinforced their recognition of a gap in the market, which they were eager to fill. Americans seemed to love modern furniture, but it hadn’t yet taken off in the US. Thus, in 1941, the Hans Knoll Furniture Company was established, and their first line of modern furniture for the American people was launched.
Of the twenty pieces of the inaugural line “600”, Risom designed fifteen. However, his most recognizable designs were yet to come with the “650” line, created for production during the war. The collection consisted of lounges, armchairs and stools which effectively made use of scraps of wood and nylon due to wartime material shortages. With the best quality materials going to the army, designers were making use of what was left. When Risom realized that a large amount of parachute webbing was being rejected, he decided to integrate the surplus material into his designs, making for cost-efficient production.
Among the products of this new, economic line, and one that would withstand the test of time, was Model 654. More famously called the Risom Lounge chair, it has remained in production at Knoll for almost eighty years. The chair is best regarded for its honest and sturdy design which could blend in almost anywhere. Helen Risom, Jens’ daughter spoke of the significance of Risom’s designs: “All the architects were thirsty for good design that wasn’t Chippendale. The minute he was out there, it was a success, it sold, it was an instant hit. That chair got us through the war.” The “650” line established Knoll as a leading source of modern furniture in America.
The Answer is Risom
In 1943, Risom was drafted into the US army, which he served for the following two and a half years. Upon completing his military service, he briefly returned to Knoll, but found that things had changed. Under the guidance of designer Florence Schust, Hans Knoll’s wife, the firm had developed a flavor for metal furniture, such as that of Mies Van der Rohe. Her Bauhaus driven vision clashed with Risom’s warm Danish modern. It seemed that the best way forward was to separate, a decision which pushed Risom to establish his own company.
In 1946, Jens Risom Design (JRD) was created, continuing to grow into the fifties. Advertised under the slogan “The Answer is Risom”, it implanted Scandinavian values into the American household. Employing over 300 people, the company became one of the largest furniture manufacturers in the US, selling its products worldwide. Despite the scale of the company, Risom was its only designer and quality craftsmanship was the main concern.
“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.”
In the late fifties, JRD’s focus shifted from the home to commercial interiors, designing furniture for libraries, offices and hospitals. After running the company for twenty four years, Risom sold it to the Dictaphone Corporation in 1970. Leaving the manufacturing process behind, Risom’s wanted to concentrate solely on design.
Shortly after removing himself from JRD, Risom focused on his freelance design service, Design Control in Connecticut. Among his notable clients were the Howe Furniture Company, Do-More, Gaylord and Ralph Pucci. His partnership with Pucci continued into the twenty-first century, when Ralph Pucci International released a collection of reissued designs, some of which had been lost and forgotten. For the collaboration, Risom set to work on reconstructing the designs, partly even from memory. Well into his nineties, he still actively partook in the design and manufacturing process. His greatest regret: not getting to know as many of the good architects and designers as he’d have liked.
A 1961 Playboy article titled “Revolutionizing furniture in America”, saw five design giants depicted seated on their iconic furniture: Eames, Nelson, Saarinen, Wormley and Bertoia. Only Risom was shown standing in a presage of the future. Until his death in 2016, Risom remained the last man standing of the pioneers dubbed “the Madmen of design”.
With him died a sweeping era of mass-production and quality craftsmanship with the stamp of mid-century cool. What didn’t die was the timelessness of the pieces of this whirlwind period of modernization; pieces coveted and collected by all manners of design enthusiasts today. Risom rightfully lives on in the American home of today, which he first envisioned almost a century ago.