The world lost a great designer December 9, and Design Within Reach lost a great friend. Jens Risom, the pioneer who led the introduction of Danish modern design to America, died at age 100.
His career, from which he never really retired, spanned 75 years, stretching from his 20s well into his 90s. He had been collaborating with DWR since 2005.
“He lived an inspiring and long life,” said DWR CEO John Edelman. “We loved working with him.”
His works have been added to the permanent collections of museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper Hewitt in New York, and are still being produced and celebrated far and wide.
Late in his career, Risom struck up a working friendship with DWR, designing the Risom Rocker for DWR in 2009 (the only rocker he ever designed) and the Risom Desk in 2012 and collaborating on a line of storage cabinets with designer Chris Hardy in 2013 and ’14.
Edelman recalled a dinner held to celebrate the collaboration of Risom and Hardy that provides insight into the character of a man who was as warm and welcoming in friendships as he was talented in his work.
“Jens must have made 15 toasts throughout the evening, his eyes sparkling with each one,” Edelman said.
Hardy said it was impossible to express how meaningful it was to work with Risom, but one lesson he will always remember.
“The most important thing in the room is the person. Not the furniture,” Hardy recalled his teaching.
Jens Risom was born on May 8, 1916, in Copenhagen. On the advice of his father, Sven, a notable architect, Risom attended business school and later, from 1935 to ’38, studied at the School of Arts and Crafts in Copenhagen under Ole Wansher and Kaare Klint and alongside Hans Wegner and Børge Mogensen, who would become legends in Denmark. Risom, however, was destined for the United States, which came about through a chance encounter.
While outside a train station one day, he accepted a lift into town from the American ambassador to Denmark, who asked if he’d ever considered working in the United States.
“When I got back to school,” Risom told Stephen Coles in 2010, “I thought more about it and decided it was something worth following up on. That is the reason I began to look for opportunities in the States.”
When he got to New York, though, just before the 1939 World’s Fair, he found almost no opportunities for Danish furniture designers.
“It was really true,” he recalled. “There was nothing going on at that time. You could have looked for a furniture designer, and you wouldn’t have found one. I was very, very early, and it was fortunate.”
His first big chance came in 1941 when he began a collaboration with Hans Knoll, a German immigrant whose family had been in furniture back home. Knoll knew sales but not design, so he and Risom made a good team.
Risom designed a large share of the furniture in Knoll’s first catalog in 1941.
Soon after, Risom entered the U.S. Army and shipped out to Europe to serve in World War II under Gen. George Patton.
After returning home, he founded his own company, Jens Risom Design Inc., on May 1, 1946, and published the first catalog in 1950. He gradually found that the biggest market for his furniture, with its sleek simple lines, was in the American office.
A distinctive feature of the Risom company was its control of the entire process, from design through manufacture and sales. He established a factory in Connecticut employing more than a hundred workers and had showrooms in such places as New York, London and Sydney.
A hallmark of the manufacturing was building furniture with a mix of handmade and machine parts.
“It was a new way of producing good quality furniture by using the best methods and translating that to machining and to handwork,” Risom recalled.
His advertising took a distinctive turn when he hired legendary photographer Richard Avedon in the 1950s to create striking images of models interacting provocatively with his office furniture. His slogan was, “The answer is Risom.”
Risom ran the company until 1970 when he sold it to the Dictaphone company, which had designs on expanding from office technology in a big way into office furnishings. It never happened.
Risom, meanwhile, from his home in New Canaan, Connecticut, started up Design Control, a consulting firm, which operated, more or less, late into his life.
DWR began collaborating with Risom a decade ago and together brought back classics from his body of work and developed new pieces, including the Risom Rocker.
Whatever he designed though seemed to perfectly blend with whatever surroundings you placed it – perhaps because it lived up to his own measure of good design, which he famously stated this way:
“Good design means that anything good will go well with other equally good things – contemporary or traditional.”