Jens Risom leaned back on his cane and reached out for a drawer in the tall oak prototype cabinet and rattled it from side to side. Could the fit of the drawer be improved, he wondered aloud? Everyone nodded. Someone scribbled a note.
Next he made his way to a walnut credenza, another piece in the prototype storage collection he had been working to perfect with the DWR staff.
He smoothed his hand over its top surface and seemed pleased. Then he asked if the luster needed more sheen. Yes, it turns out, the development team had wondered that as well, and now, with the master’s prompting, would be ordering up more polish.
Finally he turned his attention to the back of the credenza, exploring with open palm and eye. Would the back panel of the credenza be recessed in the final production version, he asked, to create a subtle shadow line?
The crew was quiet, trading glances all around.
“Um … ah … it could be,” someone finally offered. “The panel could be recessed a little.”
Risom straightened up.
“Should it be?” he asked.
• • •
Risom asked that question on a day in September 2014 at DWR headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, where he had come to see the latest factory prototypes in the collection he had been working on with young designer Chris Hardy.
He was 98 years old at the time, and though he moved as you would expect a man of 98 to move, his critique had the energy of an eager young student studying furniture design in Copenhagen – except it had 80 years of design acumen layered atop all that youthful enthusiasm.
Risom turned 100 on May 8, a tremendous milestone in a life filled with tremendous milestones. The U.S. Census Bureau says just 17 out of every 100,000 Americans make it to age 100. And, of course, only one has been a furniture designer who helped introduce Danish Modern furniture to generations of Americans.
He was born in Copenhagen in 1916 and by the time he was in his 20s was studying furniture design under Kaare Klint, a strong advocate of clean lines, superb materials and craftsmanship, and a matching of furniture dimensions to those of the human body – key elements that would inform Risom’s body of work.
In 1939, in his early 20s, Risom immigrated to the United States and by 1942 had teamed with upstart Hans Knoll to design a big share of Knoll’s first furniture collection. But then World War II changed Risom’s trajectory. He was drafted into the U.S. Army and served under Gen. George Patton in Europe during the critical last portion of the war.
Risom founded his own company, Jens Risom Design, on May 1, 1946, and embarked on a course that introduced Americans to Danish Modern furniture. Eventually, he expanded significantly into office furniture, establishing outlets in most major U.S. cities and also overseas. Illustrated with photos by Richard Avedon, a marketing campaign by JRD in the ’50s touted the slogan, “The answer is Risom.”
He sold his company in 1973 and established a design consulting business from his home in New Canaan, Connecticut, which eventually led to a partnership with DWR.
• • •
Risom is credited with many quotable statements of design truth, most famously, perhaps, that “Good design means that anything good will go well with other equally good things – contemporary or traditional.”
But the question he asked the team at DWR that day in 2014, with all its implications, may resonate as well as many statements.
It wasn‘t really a question, of course. He wasn’t really asking whether the panel on back of the credenza should be recessed to create a lovely shadow line. He was gently offering his opinion while leaving the door cracked for another view. In both cases, he was navigating as a master wielding a century’s worth of respect for the people around him and the wood beneath his palm.
“Should it be?” he asked looking up, his eyes blue and clear.