The sleek, inspiring style of New Canaan’s Jens Risom spans decades
Photo by: Mark Jespersen
On a Friday morning in late June, Jens Risom is sitting on the patio behind his home, located on a shady street about a mile from the center of town. At ninety-four, the Danish-born furniture designer is credited with bringing the Scandinavian aesthetic to the United States some seventy years ago. He is widely considered a master at pairing sleek lines and functional comfort, which he honed at the School for Arts and Crafts in Copenhagen in the studio of master craftsman Kaare Klint. His fellow students included furniture designers Hans Wegner and Borge Mogensen. Today Risom finds himself at the apex of a prolonged resurgence in the popularity of his work.
Risom cuts an imposing silhouette of six feet or more, topped by an abundant crop of snowy hair and a matching set of bushy brows. He settled in New Canaan in 1949, just as it was gaining ground as a crucible of tradition-busting architecture and design thanks to the arrival, roughly in tandem, of architects Eliot Noyes, Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson, John M. Johansen, and Landis Gores, who together would later become known as the Harvard Five on account of their shared alma mater. Like his peers, Risom says he was drawn to New Canaan’s rolling landscape, its easy commute, its architecture, its available land at reasonable prices, its superior schools for his children, and its blossoming culture of ideas that eventually earned the bedroom community a firm place in the pantheon of modern design.
“I just felt that my designs were right for our time,” says Risom, whose signature aesthetic was, and is, equal parts beauty and usability. “They were supposed to be a reflection of our lives and of our time, and of the people living at that time, particularly in architecture and design, and those who were pursuing creativity in general.”
The time of which he speaks spans important events in his career. It begins with his arrival in New York in 1939 after a chance meeting back in Denmark with the U.S. ambassador. Then, he had an initial stint as a designer of patterned fabric that was followed, from 1941 to 1946, by his collaboration with furniture maker Hans Knoll. After that, Risom had a twenty-five-plus-year run at the helm of his eponymous firm, Jens Risom Design Inc.
“Stupidly enough, I had no idea that there wouldn’t be an interest in contemporary furniture,” says the designer, whose father was an award-winning architect back in Copenhagen. “I just couldn’t imagine that what was going on in Italy and Sweden and Norway and Denmark wouldn’t be of interest here.” In fact, he recalls that the director of the Museum of Modern Art at the time asked him why he was here.
Naysayers aside, Risom made a series of important acquaintances that ultimately led to an introduction to the fabric and interior designer Daniel Cooper, whose clients included members of the Vanderbilt family and other well-to-do clans more preoccupied with taste than cost.
Cooper said he was looking for a young draftsman to design contemporary prints for fabrics, and that if Risom had such a stash of designs, he’d be happy to review them. With a bit of well-timed guile, the young Dane said he didn’t have any with him, but that he’d be back in a few days. “I had nothing of the kind, of course,” says Risom with a twinkle in his eye, adding that he worked “like a beaver” for the next two or three days until he’d produced a stack of sketches. He then took them to Cooper who exclaimed, “This is exactly what I’m looking for.”
Risom wound up working in Cooper’s studio for the next two years, during which time his side tables and cabinets helped solidify Cooper’s reputation—but not his own—as the singular source for contemporary furniture.
At the time, despite collaborating on marquee commissions like the Collier’s House of Ideas, a model house designed by architect Ed Stone and built on a Rockefeller Center terrace that overlooked Fifth Avenue, Risom was still working for $35 a week. When he asked Cooper for a raise to $75 a week, Cooper told him he was “out of [his] mind.”
He left, and in short order was introduced to young German entrepreneur Hans Knoll, whose family was a furniture giant back in their homeland. “Without knowing it, Hans Knoll spent his entire life looking for me,” Risom says. In fact, the two were a partnership made in furniture heaven—at least for a time. Knoll was seeking a competent designer, and Risom needed a showroom and a sales force that could promote and sell his designs.
The two went on the road, making a three-month cross-country journey from Tennessee to Texas and California, showing Risom’s drawings and photographs to modern-minded architects, retailers, and interior designers on appointments they arranged in advance by telegram and telephone.
Their survey revealed that the new homes the architects were designing, smaller, often single-story houses with open floor plans, provided a natural habitat for Risom’s slender and unadorned forms. In 1942 they launched the Hans Knoll Furniture Company in New York. With a showroom, a manufacturing plant, and a new catalog, orders began coming in daily by cable and telephone for the twenty-some pieces that comprised Risom’s 600 Line. With materials in scant supply due to the war effort, Risom and Knoll discovered that webbing that didn’t pass muster for military parachutes made for great chairs. One of their largest commissions came from the U.S.O.
The run ended when the new Mrs. Knoll, Florence Schust, who was a talented designer in her own right, showed a proclivity for the metal furniture being churned out by the Bauhaus movement. Risom, returning from a three-year stint in the army in World War II under General George Patton, realized there was no longer a place for him in the partnership. (He and Knoll never spoke after that.)
He then went on to found Jens Risom Design Inc., which ultimately occupied offices and showrooms not only on New York’s Fifth Avenue, but also in markets like Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Melbourne, Copenhagen, and Toronto.
By the early 1950s, he was running ground-breaking advertisements featuring photography by Richard Avedon and the tagline “The Answer Is Risom.” The resulting growth of his business mandated the relocation of his manufacturing facilities to a large new site in northeastern Connecticut, where the business continued until about 1970, when after an ill-fated series of sales to third parties and subsequent demise, Risom reinvented himself as Design Control, a consultancy serving commercial clients and based in New Canaan.
Today, his house is decorated with an assortment of his pieces—a credenza here, a rocker there. But it was his first home in New Canaan, a one-story, slab-on-grade structure designed by architects Sherwood, Mills & Smith as a showcase for a new lightweight, precast concrete construction product called Durisol, that manifested, for all to see, the dovetailing of modern architecture and Risom’s furniture.
According to the New Canaan Mid-Century Modern Houses Survey, which was sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and others, Risom’s was the first house to be built entirely of the material, which was molded into blocks, slabs, and tiles that could be finished with treatments such as stucco. For its cutting-edge use of the material, its efficient layout, and the prominence of its owner, the house was praised by the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, House and Garden, and the Herald Tribune Magazine, among others.
The enduring appeal of Risom’s design will be evident this fall when Sotheby’s auctions four of his stools topped with circular cushions in geometrically patterned upholstery. This is part of a fundraising initiative called Modern Views that is being coordinated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Proceeds from the auction will subsidize the repair and restoration of Philip Johnson’s mold-compromised Brick House (located directly across from the Glass House) and the restoration, maintenance, and operations of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, located in Plano, Illinois. The items will preview on September 16 in Chicago and on October 6 in New York. Each house will exhibit many pieces of original art, drawings, and models by architects, artists, designers, and landscape architects. Many of the contributing artists are considered pioneers of modernism, among them Norman Foster, Michael Graves, Zaha Hadid, Frank Stella, James Rosenquist, Ed
Ruscha, and Dave Salle.
In addition, in 2005 artful mannequin manufacturer/furniture dealer Ralph Pucci recommissioned some of Risom’s old designs and introduced some new ones—dining tables, sofas, slipper chairs, stacking tables, armchairs—and is selling them at prices ranging from $2,500 to $18,000. Design Within Reach has licensed a line of more modestly priced Risom designs. Vintage pieces are available from numerous dealers featured online at the mid-century furniture and décor emporium 1stdibs.com. And there’s more: The New Canaan Historical Society will soon name a room for Risom at the Gores Pavilion in Irwin Park, and London-based Rocket and Benchmark has just secured the rights to reissue, in oak and walnut, a collection of nine pieces from the 1950s and 1960s.
These days Risom and Henny, his wife of more than thirty years (Iben, his first wife, with whom he had four children, died in 1977), divide their time between this house and an inn not far down the road. There, according to Henny, a retired osteopath, they maintain a “secret” phone number, one suspects in order to maintain a bit of privacy from a devout following of furniture-ogling fans.
“Jens Risom’s work is truly timeless,” says Ralph Pucci. “The lines are clean and modern. There will always be a place for him in modern design.”
A place indeed. On the morning we talk on the patio, a caller who rings from London asks Henny to relay her husband’s choice in floral arrangements for the party that will mark his twenty-first-century European expansion, courtesy of Rocket and Benchmark.
The answer: roses or a mixed bouquet.
Like the shape of the cushions on the soon-to-be-auctioned stools, things do come full circle.
Mark the Date: Oct. 6, Modern Views: A Project to Benefit Farnsworth House and the Glass House. Donated works by over 100 artists, architects, and landscape architects, will be sold at Sotheby’s. An online exhibition starts September 7 at sothebys.com/modernviews. More information at philipjohnsonglasshouse.org.