Born in Copenhagen in 1916, Jens Risom (pr. yenns REE-sum) created some of the most functional yet elegant furniture of the 1950s and ’60s. As the son of the award-winning architect Sven Risom, Jens was exposed to the best of Danish design from an early age. “Architecture, to me, is the most beautiful of the arts,” he told Dwell magazine in 2012. “But I watched my father struggle with the challenges, what was to me an enormous drawback: The architect did not fully drive the end product. I always knew that I wanted to design, but only [if I could] create products over which I had total control.”
Trained at the School of Arts and Crafts in Copenhagen, Risom spent two years at Niels Brock Copenhagen Business College before cutting his teeth working for architect Ernst Kuhn and the Stockholm-based department store Nordiska Kompaniet. A chance meeting with an American diplomat in Copenhagen forever changed his career path. Upon seeing Risom’s sketches, the diplomat suggested he should consider going to the United States, saying, “We don’t have any furniture like this. I think you’d do very well.” Risom took the man’s advice and set off to make a name for himself in America at the age of 23.
Accustomed to the strong design culture of his native country, Risom was surprised to find that the America of 1939 had virtually no exposure to contemporary design or architecture. Interior decorators were only interested in “old things and making things look old,” he mused. “Anything new or contemporary, especially from Europe, especially from Scandinavia, they didn’t want.” Determined to be known as a Danish-born American designer, Risom set out to change this fact. With no work to be had for a furniture designer in New York, he took a job designing textiles for the respected interior designer Dan Cooper. Soon Risom was introducing furniture pieces into Cooper’s showroom, where his work reflected the tenets he had learned from the cradle: namely that comfort, expressed in the warmth of natural materials and gracefulness of style, was integral to good design.
That same year, in 1939, the designer met Hans Knoll, the son of a German furniture maker, who was struggling to open a furniture company in New York with what Risom described as “non-descript, commercial Grand Rapids chairs.” Two years later, Risom and Knoll spent three months traveling across the country and returned convinced that there was a market for quality, modern designs amongst the rising generation. Risom provided 15 pieces for Knoll’s first catalogue. This 1942 series featured armchairs, stools and amoeba-shaped coffee tables. The chairs—including Risom’s best-known design, the No, 654 Lounge chair—were made under wartime materials mandates from cedar wood and surplus military parachute webbing. The combination of simple, well-crafted Scandinavian construction and streamlined American forms gave Knoll the start it needed, and many of the pieces went on to become classics.
In 1943, Risom was drafted to serve in the war under General George S. Patton. By the time he returned, Knoll had partnered with Florence Schust (soon to be Florence Knoll) and had taken the company in a different direction. Risom founded his own company, Jens Risom Design Inc. (or JRD, as the firm came to be known), in 1946. His goal was nothing less than to get good furniture into the homes of every American. A quest for absolute design ownership, from conception to completion, led Risom to pioneer one of the first comprehensive corporate identities. He meticulously managed everything from the selection of materials and finishes to the company logo to the advertising (including an ad campaign featuring photographs by the great Richard Avedon), marketing and distribution. His perfectionism fueled him to be as hands-on with the manufacturing as he was with the design process.
In 1954, Risom bought a textile mill and manufacturing plant in Connecticut (where he and his wife Iben, had relocated with their four children) and hired skilled laborers to ensure that functional elegance infused both. “Having the planning, engineering, and production all under one roof is very important, we think,” JRD declared in its 1955 catalog: “It guarantees uniformity and continuity of style.” In the late 1950s, observing that corporations had embraced modern design much more readily than homeowners, JRD shifted its focus from domestic to business clients.
By fusing the craft tradition he learned in Denmark with hi-tech American production methods, Risom proved that the American public could learn to love modern design. If Risom had needed tangible proof of being a celebrated American designer, he got it resoundingly when President Lyndon B. Johnson selected a Risom chair for the Oval Office. By 1970, when he sold his business, JRD had grown to be the third largest furniture company in America.
Though Risom unofficially retired in the 1980s, he has remained active. In 1997, Knoll put his pieces from the 1940s back into production, 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. In 2009, the then-93-year-old created the elegant Risom Rocker, a walnut wood rocking chair, followed three years later by the Risom Desk, originally designed for his own home in New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1968. In 2010, Risom also collaborated on an exhibition that was part of that year’s London Design Festival.
As one of the first designers to bring the traditional Scandinavian values of function and craftsmanship to the United States, Jens Risom provided a vital link to contemporary Scandinavian design. As an icon of mid-century modernism, both Risom and his work have stood the test of time. Lauded with numerous honors and awards, many of his furniture designs are now considered modern classics, and displayed at the Museum of Modern Art, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Brooklyn Museum, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, and the Cooper–Hewitt, National Design Museum, to name a few. The ever-vigorous designer continues to live in New Canaan with Henny, his wife of 33 years (Iben passed away in 1977). The couple took a double-sized apartment in their senior’s residence so that Jens could keep an office space. Just shy of 100, Risom is one of the last of the mid-century modern legends still alive today — and still designing.