JENS RISOM: Making Furniture Design in the US and the World Awesome

Jens Risom - photo by The Architect's Newspaper

Danish American Jens Risom

Portrait of Jens Risom – photo by Design Within Reach

Mid-Century Modern design, which flourished from the 1930s to the 1970s, was characterised by functionality, clean lines, organic or geometric forms, use of both traditional and non-traditional materials, and quality craftsmanship. Many furniture designs in this style were innovative when they appeared, and are today considered modern classics.

One of the icons of Mid-Century Modern furniture design was Danish American Jens Risom. He was one of the first to introduce this style, as well as Scandinavian design, to the US. His emphasis on functionality, quality and comfort means furniture pieces that are timeless in their appeal.

Born in Copenhagen, Denmark in May 1916, Risom was encouraged by his father, a well-known architect, in business and design. After studying at Niels Brock Copenhagen Business College for two years, he joined the architectural firm of Ernst Kuhn. He then moved to Stockholm, where he worked for another architectural firm before joining the design division of department store Nordiska Kompaniet. Here, he was introduced to the work of Alvar Aalto and Bruno Mathsson. This ignited an interest in furniture. Back in Copenhagen, Risom entered the prestigious Copenhagen School of Industrial Arts and Design (Kunsthåndværkerskolen). He trained under design greats Ole Wanscher and Kaare Klint. Among his classmates were fellow future icons Hans Wegner and Børge Mogensen.

The Hans Knoll Furniture Company

Jens Risom Model 652 Webbed Lounge Chair for Knoll – photo by 1stDibs

Risom moved to New York in 1939 to study American design, only to find no contemporary furniture design in the US. Their designs were based on traditional English patterns such as Chippendale. For a time, Risom designed textiles as opportunities as a furniture designer was difficult to be had. This led him to secure work in the studio of designer Dan Cooper; as a result, his work was included in the Collier’s “House of Ideas” designed by Edward Durell Stone during the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Risom also met entrepreneur Hans Knoll around this time. They found that each was the person the other needed. Risom was looking for a manufacturer of his furniture designs; Knoll was looking to get into manufacturing furniture and needed a good designer. They teamed up, with Knoll managing clients and Risom doing interiors and furniture design. In 1942, they launched the Hans Knoll Furniture Company and printed the first Knoll Catalog. Out of 20 pieces in the inaugural “600 line”, 15 were designed by Risom.

Because of the war effort, the designs were constrained by restrictions on the supply of materials, such as steel and wood. Nevertheless, by designing for the available surplus materials, Risom produced innovative and modern pieces that have now become classics. Stools, armchairs, lounges and tables were made from scraps of wood and rejected parachute webbing. His famous Knoll “652W” armchair had a supporting structure of rejected nylon straps for parachutes.

Jens Risom Design

Risom C140 Chair, dubbed the Playboy Armchair, the chosen chair for the Oval Office – photo by A+R Store

In 1943, Risom was drafted into the US Army and served during World War II. He returned to Knoll after military service, but there was a change. Knoll had married, and his wife now served as design director, with a preference for the style of Ludmig Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen. Realising his wooden furniture designs were no longer as favoured, Risom decided to establish his own firm. This caused a permanent break in his relationship with Hans Knoll.

Jens Risom Design (JRD) was launched in May 1946. Risom controlled design, manufacture and distribution. This was unusual for a designer, as being a manufacturer was considered lower than being a pure designer. Risom believed that control of manufacturing was necessary to control quality. Still, his reputation as a designer grew. He was among those who introduced Scandinavian design, marked by simplicity and functionality, to the American public. The company expanded every year and always made a profit. A successful 1950s ad campaign shot by prominent photographer Richard Avedon further boosted their profile with the tagline “The answer is Risom.”

JRD moved into office, hospital and library furniture in the late 1950s. President Lyndon B. Johnson chose to use a JRD executive office chair for the Oval Office. In 1961, Risom and five other “revolutionary” furniture designers were featured in Playboy magazine.

Post-JRD Work

Danish Walnut Sideboard by Jens Risom, 1970s – photo by 1stDibs

In 1970, Risom sold JRD to Dictaphone Corporation to focus on designing. He served as CEO for several years, after which he moved from New York to New Canaan, Connecticut. Unfortunately, poor management by the new owners of JRD led to the company’s downfall in just a few years, and the Risom brand disappeared from showrooms.

Meanwhile, Risom started Design Control, a consulting service. He also came on the boards of design museums and was a trustee of the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1996, he received the Danish Knight’s Cross from Queen Margrethe II of Denmark. Also, he received numerous awards and honorary doctorates. Risom continued to work into his 90s. He also doted on his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He died in his Connecticut home in 2016 at the age of 100.

Design Philosophy

A rare example of a leather Jens Risom chair and ottoman, c. 1960 – photo by Incollect

In an interview for the design and style website Wallpaper*, Risom identified function, comfort and construction as the touchstones of his design philosophy. Function determined design—an executive’s office chair or a chair for relaxing would both look and feel different. Comfort, as translated into support for the body, was also important. And the construction naturally had to be of high quality. Design, then, is not only visual but also experiential.

Jonathan Stephenson, curator of the exhibition of Risom’s work at London’s Rocket Gallery, describes the work as combining Danish tradition and early American modernism, resulting in simple and streamlined pieces that nevertheless remain committed to functionality and quality.

Recognition and Revival

Risom lived long enough to see a new generation rediscover and appreciate his work. In the 1990s, Knoll reintroduced some of his early pieces from the 1940s and 1950s. Furniture company Ralph Pucci started showing his work in the 2000s. And in London, the Rocket Gallery and the Liberty Gallery held retrospectives of his work in 2008. Other museums and galleries displaying his work include the Museum of Modern Art, Yale University Art Gallery, Brooklyn Museum and the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.