This is the seventh installment in our Designer of the Week series. We had Aino Aalto in the previous chapter.
Jens Risom is a Danish-American designer who helped introduce much of the Scandinavian style of furniture to the United States, mainly with the help of (you guessed it) Florence Schust and Hans Knoll. Born in Copenhagen, he was the son of architect Sven Risom, a very important representative of Nordic Classicism.
This style of architecture drew heavily from the same modernist principles that were beginning to appear around Central Europe: the work of the German Werkbund, The Arts and Crafts Movement, and even the Bauhaus, a few years later.
Risom attended the prestigious School of Industrial Arts and Design in Copenhagen. He was a classmate of Børge Mogensen, who is a previously featured Designer of the Week, and Hans Wegner.
He spent his formative and early-professional years in Europe, like most of his colleagues, but he developed an interest for American design that would lead him to New York, where he later ended up meeting Hans Knoll and founding the company that Florence would later lead.
The Knoll company’s first catalog
The Knoll brand itself states that Risom was the first true Knoll designer. He was at the beginning of it all, designing 15 pieces for their first catalog in 1942. Risom had already garnered a decent reputation after working with Dan Cooper, one of the most famous interior designers of the era.
The first iconic piece from that catalog was the Risom Lounge chair. The year is 1943, and wartime restrictions don’t allow the designers to have access to building materials. The first prototype was made of maple and spare parachute webbing that hadn’t met Army standards.
Knoll, interestingly, has kept the design untouched, offering almost the same original materials form the 1942 design in 2019. You can get the chair with a sturdy maple frame (of much better quality, of course), and a special type of webbing of either cotton or high-quality polyester.
The Lounge chair was a part of the 600 Series, which also included strange, curvy objects like the Amoeba Coffee Table. This collection introduced a lot of the traditional Scandinavian elements of furniture design, like the shape and position of legs, the all-wood finishes, and the homely quality of the pieces. Risom initially called this piece the Low Island-Shaped Table.
We like this name much better, as we believe it represents the natural aspect of the table much better.
Later work and solo endeavors
Risom himself had to go to war in 1943, and stayed long until after it had ended, finally going back to New York in 1946. Not too long after his plane landed, he founded his own firm: Jens Risom Design.
There was no drama involved, as Knoll had greatly benefited from his designs. He operated until the 1970s, sold his company, and moved on to do consultancy.
During the time JRD was active, he designed a lot of office furniture. President Lyndon B. Johnson sat on one of these chairs to sign the Civil Rights Agreement of 1964 in the Oval Office. He also has one of the first prototypes of the Lounge chair from 1941 in a permanent display at MoMA —though he wasn’t included in their newest exhibition: The Value of Good Design.
He was featured, however, in the early Good Design exhibits from the 1950s. Knoll reissued his collections in the late 90s, and the Lounge chair remained the crown jewel. He passed away in 2016 at 90 years old.