Talking to the Man Who Introduced Danish Modern Design to America

By
Furniture designer Jens Risom. Photo: Bobby Doherty

“Are you naturally gray, or …?” Jens Risom teases me when we meet. I’ve just shown up at his home in New Canaan, and he’s kidding rather than insulting, because his own hair is pure white. He lives with his wife, Henny, in a two-bedroom apartment at a retirement center called the Inn. His son Sven and daughter Peg are visiting today. The complex is pretty nice — airy, bright, spotless — but it has busy hotel carpet in the hallways, and the common spaces are full of the speckled beige-pink-mauve that seems to exist only in the institutional world. 

That is, until you cross the threshold of apartment No. 201, into the best furniture showroom in New York, circa 1959. Against one wall stand a low credenza and a pair of end tables, with a neo-Cubist bronze sculpture at one side. A neat little desk has a bright-red work surface that seems to float about an inch above the base. They offer me a seat, and it’s a swoopy Arne Jacobsen swivel chair. This is a bougie loft ideal of old age, where, even late in life, nobody has to submit to the indignities of taupe vinyl.

Risom sits in a rocker in the corner, next to the bronze. If you own a piece of Danish Modern furniture — or your parents or grandparents do, because it was the dominant contemporary style of the ’50s and ’60s — there’s a good chance that the tag underneath reads JENS RISOM DESIGN. It’s not going too far to say that Risom is the person most responsible for bringing Scandinavian design to this country, remaking the look of the American home forever. His first produced work was in the mid-1930s, and his most recent — it was for Design Within Reach in 2009 and called the Risom Rocker — is the chair he’s sitting in right now. Lately, he’s collaborated with a young colleague, Chris Hardy, on a new line of cabinets called the Ven Storage Collection. DWR is planning to introduce it around May 8. On that day, Risom will turn 99.

Army-reject webbing for Knoll (1942). Photo: Courtesy of 1stdibs

He came to America from Denmark in 1939, not quite 23 years old. I ask him what he saw, upon arriving here, in the way of the contemporary design he’d studied in Copenhagen, and he matter-of-factly says, “There was very little.” He found a job with Dan Cooper, on East 62nd Street — “an interior decorator of little value,” he recalls, “and I wouldn’t say he was a brilliant designer. But there was a showroom that would sell furniture and fabrics, and there were a few pieces, and they were not very exciting. So I told him that I would like to make a few drawings and see whether he would like to make them.” He did; they did. The East 60s then were full of cabinetmaking shops, and the pieces were constructed and sold right in the neighborhood. “Architects were interested,” he says, “because there was nothing for them to buy.” What does he think of them today? “For that time, I think they were good.” And they are recognizably from the same hand as his later work: “They were what you’d call a Risom design.”

I tap on a small table next to his chair, admiring it. “That’s about, oh, 1940s,” he says. “Three legs.” Or really two: One side is supported by a slab that pokes through the top, through a tidy little slot where you can slide a magazine. Later on, I look it up, thinking that I might like to own one, and find that originals are going for three grand.

His breakthrough was meeting Hans Knoll, founder of the company that bore (and bears) his name, and with Knoll as salesman and Risom as creator, they began to build a line and then put on a traveling Euro-furniture road show with their wives. “Knoll had a car, and I didn’t,” Risom recalls, “and we drove around the country to any architect who had shown any interest in our furniture in New York, and stopped wherever there were people who’d liked our things. I don’t think we had a catalogue or anything — this was very primitive. We had drawings of things we had done.” Did potential buyers find contemporary design alien or strange? “No — they liked it! They just didn’t have any way of buying it.” Knoll and Risom soon changed that.

The furniture Risom made didn’t have the steeliness of Mies van der Rohe’s, or, later on, the spaciness of Jacobsen’s or Eero Saarinen’s. His was an approachable, livable kind of mod. He worked mostly in wood — in the earliest days, he says, simply “because it was available.” For his first line with Knoll, in 1942, he designed a chair with curvy side frames (at first cut from softwood, because better stuff was all going to the war effort) and was casting about for a seat material. He settled on cotton straps of the type used in parachute packs, because he’d found that, of the miles of webbing the Army was buying, a great deal was being rejected because it couldn’t pass strength tests. It was, however, more than strong enough to make a springy, comfortable seat. The chair that resulted — you can still buy it from Knoll today, Model 654 — is one of those designs that don’t date; it continues to be fresh without seeming strange. In fact, that’s a particular quality of Risom’s work. It looked sharp in a spanking-new interior, but you could also drop it into a traditional room and it would blend. Lyndon Johnson had a Risom swivel chair in the Oval Office, and it fit in just fine among the museum pieces. “Good furniture,” Risom says when I ask about mixing and matching, “is good with good furniture.”

Risom today is sturdy in some ways, fading in others. After talking for a while, we head down the hall to lunch, and he’s robust, trundling along nicely with a cane, holding the room with that great snowy hair; he charms table-hoppers, flirts a bit with a neighbor, adopts the role of host, makes sure the food is to my liking. Macular degeneration is creeping up on him, though, and his hearing, too, is not what it was. Most annoying to him is that his eyesight now keeps him from sketching — “Once I was a mad drawing-maker, but I don’t do anything anymore.” (When I ask whether he ever tried working on a computer, he responds, “Are we making a joke?”) For the new Ven line at DWR, Chris Hardy — who is literally young enough to be his great-grandson — did the heavy work of designing and rendering; Risom’s role has been to inspire, critique, and occasionally browbeat. At a recent review of prototypes, Sven tells me, his father needed a few minutes to get himself oriented, but once he did, he immediately started picking the details apart, saying, “These edges are terrible — this is all wrong!” and explaining why. (The edges got fixed.)

Talking with Risom, you quickly grasp that he was always a practical and forthright Dane, good at the business of design as well as the art of it. Ask him about designers he admired when he was young, and his emphasis is on furniture “that can be made” — manufactured, in quantity, without undue complication. When Frank Lloyd Wright met him, Wright preeningly asked what Risom thought of his furniture, which is legendarily attractive and legendarily uncomfortable; Risom responded, “Not much.” A few years ago, Risom’s daughter tells me, he was in the hospital for a bit and, soon after arriving, called his son-in-law, a doctor, and said, “I can’t stand this — can you talk to someone?” It was not a medical problem but an aesthetic one. “Well, I’ve never got that one before,” an administrator responded, “but if he really does want to move the furniture in his hospital room …”

Most of Risom’s post-Knoll work was with the two firms he founded: Jens Risom Design, which he sold in 1970, and then another called Design Control. Richard Avedon shot his elegant and spare-looking advertising, which carried the slogan THE ANSWER IS RISOM. That was especially true in New Canaan, where not only Risom but Philip Johnson and a clutch of design professionals settled in the 1940s and ’50s, making it the most design-forward suburb in America. Johnson’s Glass House complex, now a museum, is a short drive from the Inn, and Risom sits on its board. There’s a plan for a birthday bash on the grounds next year.

*This article appears in the April 6, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.