Jens Risom is enjoying his place in the canon of mid-century furniture designers while also distinguishing himself as a great contemporary designer. At 93, he shows no sign of putting down the pencil.
In 2007 Design Within Reach ran an ad campaign that aimed to capitalize on the present design zeitgeist by making use of a 1961 photo spread from Playboy. As the Danish-American furniture designer Jens Risom recalls it: “Playboy wanted to become highbrow, you know. It never really worked, but they started out with a big series on architects, and then there was one on furniture designers. The center-fold, which normally pictured a lovely, yummy girl, was instead replaced by a picture of six male furniture designers!” Though the enlightened editorial direction at Playboy in the early 1960s didn’t stick, DWR can attest that the magazine was onto something. For today’s design enthusiasts, the desire for mid-century-modern artifacts can be commensurately licentious.
Indeed, this iconic image seems to reify today’s conception of mid-century cool, our collective false nostalgia for a time when great design infiltrated the mass market and America was soaking up a glut of talented European émigrés, a handful of whom were pictured in the Playboy photo. Of the men shown—–George Nelson, Edward Wormley, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames, and Jens Risom—–only Risom is still around. He is 93 and “living comfortably doing nothing” with his wife, Henny, in New Canaan, Connecticut. As he humbly puts it, “There’s been a good deal of talk about my work these last couple of years only because I’m the only one left of that early bunch.”
One could argue, though, that Jens Risom’s spot in the canon of mid-century American design is one marked by displacement. Some of the accolades heaped upon the great designers should rightly have gone to Risom, who, with Hans Knoll, began priming the market for modern design as early as 1941 with the Risom-designed 600 line for Knoll. It included the first Knoll chair ever.
Risom first met Knoll in 1941, two years after arriving in the States. He had been doing freelance design work for Dan Cooper, a well-respected New York interior designer. Cooper had introduced him to many of the great architects and designers working in New York, including Edward Durrell Stone, for whom Risom designed furniture for the Collier’s House of Ideas in Rockefeller Center. Eventually Risom split off from Cooper for financial reasons and began subcontracting work out to local cabinet shops throughout the city, selling his designs directly to the architects and designers he’d come to know.
When Risom and Knoll met, Risom says, “He was secretly looking for me, and I was secretly looking for him; you need to have someone to promote the work and to take care of the company, and then someone to take care of design and manufacturing and to find out what you want and should be doing.” Risom recalls that the original Knoll chair, one from his classic 600 line, retailed at $21 when it first went on the market in 1941; it now retails for almost $600. He was finally starting to make a name for himself, but Risom’s trajectory was thrown off course in 1943, when he was drafted and served in General Patton’s Third Army.
“I served for two and a half years—– that’s a long time,” says Risom. “Fortunately, I stayed alive. Because I spoke German and had grown up in Europe, I could be used for a lot of translation. I could also design maps and do layout.” During his tour, Risom fell ill with meningitis and was sick in the hospital for months. When he was discharged, he’d been separated from his outfit, which had crossed the channel into Normandy. “I came out of the hospital as a nobody—–I didn’t even have a name or a number—–that’s the most degrading thing a person can experience. I got over the channel on my own and got into Normandy, and stayed there for a long time—–we had some bad fights there.”
When Risom returned to the United States, he found that the world had continued on without him. Knoll had avoided the draft due to a history of tuberculosis and had married Florence Schust, who, according to Risom, “was a brilliant designer but was not as impressed with the Scandinavian wood furniture as she was the metal furniture from Mies and Saarinen.” Feeling that, perhaps, it was best for the two collaborators to go their separate ways, Risom started his own company, Jens Risom Design Inc. (JRD), in 1946, which he ran for 25 years.
“I had to decide whether I wanted to continue on with Knoll, and, ultimately, I didn’t. He was a little too overwhelming a salesman for me. I don’t think he and Schu [Florence] ever ate a meal alone. It was just overwhelming business, and I wasn’t really up for it. So they went on with their company and we never really talked or saw each other, which was sad. After Knoll died in 1955, I met Florence once or twice, and she wrote a couple of nice letters, but nothing much more than that.”
As the demand for Risom’s furniture grew, so did his business. Knoll continued to produce the 600 series after Risom went off on his own—–though, starting in 1952, without his name attached so he wouldn’t be competing against himself. (Knoll reintroduced the chairs under Risom’s name in the late 1990s.) But Risom continued to mine the same aesthetic vein; like the 600, his designs have a stout, earthbound quality to them, with the horizontal lines dominating the vertical ones and a telltale Danish tapered leg.
JRD positioned itself as one of the few manufacturers in the United States producing well-crafted furniture, but unlike Knoll and Herman Miller, which employed a rotating coterie of design talent, Risom served as JRD’s sole creative director. Browsing through a 1955 company catalog shot by the fashion photographer Richard Avedon, one gets a sense of Risom’s prolificacy. The collection ranges from basic pieces for the home to executive office furniture. The number of “R” cabinet units alone is staggering. As the marketing material states, “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.”
When Risom was ready to sell his company in 1970, he had about 300 workers and a showroom in every major American city as well as offices in Argentina, Australia, and England. He sold JRD to the Dictaphone Corporation, which was interested in pushing their executive furniture line. However, the president of the company died shortly after the acquisition, and the subsequent management did not share the former’s interest in expanding its furniture division. Risom had stayed on to try to help guide the design process, but he eventually left. “I didn’t want to be in manufacturing anymore. I really wanted to design only.”
Risom’s biggest regret about opening his own design and manufacturing company was that “I was getting outside the architecture/designer groups, and more into the manufacturing group, which was not so bad in the U.S., but in Europe they consider design and architecture to be art and the rest to be trade. So I didn’t get to know as many of the good architects and designers as I’d have liked.”
Today Risom’s desire to create hasn’t diminished. His collaborations with manufacturers like DWR Design Studio and Ralph Pucci International have enabled him to focus solely on design. In October, Pucci will release its third collection of Risom’s designs—–all reproductions of original JRD products. His first collection of 15 to 20 pieces included the Easy chair, the Low armchair, and the U-620 upholstered bench. The new collection will feature a remake of the 1955 U sofa and an executive chair that gained notoriety when Lyndon Johnson used it in the executive office of the White House. “Jens is still very involved,” explains Pucci. “He cannot wait to get to the factory—–to follow the production all the way through to the end.”
Risom’s legacy as the last of the great mid-century American furniture designers should not be overshadowed by the fact that he was one of the first. In our haste to understand him as simply a member of an intimate and elite collective, his biography reminds us of his dogged individuality and singular vision. In reality, the Playboy photo from 1961 says more about our perception of that time. “People always say, ‘This must have been a wonderful opportunity for you designers to get together.’ The trouble was, it wasn’t! We spent
an entire day in a studio in New York being photographed,” exclaims Risom. “I didn’t know many of them too well. I knew Eames and I knew Saarinen, but it would’ve been good to have sat around and had a drink, but we never really did get to know each other.”
Fortunately, we’re still enjoying the opportunity to get to know Risom.