New Canaan’s Jens Risom is recognized as one of the founders of the Classical Modern Movement in furniture design — and at age 89 he’s still at it .

Living with Design

Pick a chair. Any chair. To sit in the New Canaan home of master furniture designer Jens Risom is to experience exquisite comfort, enough to make one redefine the verb “sit.” Just looking around, in fact, is a pleasure, beginning with the smile of welcome on the face of the gentleman responsible for it all.

“Hot!” Elle Décor proclaimed in its March 2005 People section in reaction to both the designer’s new collection and its creator. Not an adjective usually used to describe an octogenarian, but Jens Risom, knighted by the queen of Denmark in 1996, is not your average eighty-nine-year-old. Tall, trim and elegantly silver-haired, the man who introduced Scandinavian-inspired contemporary home furnishings to America has a twinkle in his eye in response to the magazine’s choice of words.

“I’m a very simple man,” says the Danish-born designer and entrepreneur, who, along with Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen and Arne Jacobsen, is regarded as one of the founders of the Classical Modern Movement of the mid-twentieth century. “A quality contemporary chair,” he says, “is as much art as anything Mr. Chippendale ever created.”

Along with craftsmanship and using the right materials, quality means excellence in performance; anything else is bad design.  “Sinking into a bunch of down pillows that provide no support,” he says, “will give you a backache in fifteen minutes.” Similarly, a Louis Quinze chaise is beautiful, but not as functional furniture. “I admire it,” he says, “as sculpture.”

“We recently moved to this house from a much larger one,”  says Jens. “Our children are grown and now it’s just the two of us. A house has to fit your lifestyle.” Leading the way into the living room, he introduces his wife, Henny, a retired physician who is completely happy to let her husband make all décor decisions. “He’s always on to the next project,” she says. “I’m in charge of what we eat.” In Denmark Henny and Jens’s first wife, Iben, went to school together. “After we both lost our spouses,” he says, “Henny and I discovered each other.”  

In the light-filled space, books and magazines indicate a room that’s actively used. “It has character and personality, I hope,” he says.  “When you walk in, you know who lives here.” Against neutral earth tones punctuated with occasional touches of vibrant orange, the furnishings create a welcoming environment, one where design supports comfort, function and communication.  

“Rooms should not be stage sets, nor should furniture and houses demand attention,” he says, expressing concern over today’s trend toward megamansions. “Families cannot connect when they are swallowed up by the house. These enormous places are bad for the children.”  

To make a house a home, he offers some ground rules.  “People and what they love come first,” he says, “then growing things like plants and flowers.” In his living room, everywhere the eye wanders — from paintings and sculptures to family photographs that honor past generations — details intrigue. They are more than mere decoration; each one has a story.  

In a corner of the room stands a chair, circa 1941, made of cedar and olive-green webbing. The first piece done in partnership with Hans Knoll, it’s as stylish and functional today as the day it was built. “Fine design at a reasonable price was our goal,” he says. “This chair cost $21 because it was simple to make and we found materials that weren’t expensive: a great supply of discarded parachute webbing that didn’t meet the U.S. Army’s wartime strength standards.”  
An immediate artistic and commercial success, the chairs are still selling today. “They’re using maple now and webbing in colors other than the army green,” he says. That first chair was followed by fifteen related pieces all expressing the simple, natural aesthetic of what would come to be known as Modernism. The collection launched an extraordinary career, which more than half a century later continues to move in new creative directions.  

It’s the kind of life Jens envisioned growing up the eldest of three sons of an eminent Danish architect. “From the time I was five, my father’s studio occupied the basement of our home, so we were in and out of it all the time,” he recalls. “As a kid I was always building things, always sketching.”

With both parents coming from historically distinguished families, Jens remembers an “idyllic” childhood in Copenhagen and at the family’s farmhouse in the countryside. Daily life included a wide circle of friends, aunts, uncles and grandparents and lots of dinner parties at which the three brothers would serve the guests and then join them afterward. “We loved it!” Jens says. “Children were welcome, which, unfortunately, is not the norm today.”

“Professionally, my father was my mentor,” he says, “but although I believe that architecture is the most beautiful of all the arts, I also saw a major disadvantage. The architect’s end product can be changed by other people.” Early on Jens knew that he would have to be able to manufacture and sell whatever he created in order to retain control.  

Sixty-seven years ago, fresh from three years of studying furniture at the Copenhagen School for Industrial Arts and Design followed by a first job working for the architect Ernst Kuhn, Jens, age twenty-two, hopped a freighter bound for New York City. “I’d left my fiancée Iben in Denmark; it was January 1939,” he recalls.  “Europe was on the brink of war. I was quite alone.”

His intention was to study American contemporary design.  “Little did I know,” he says, “that it did not exist.” Nobody bought modern furniture in those days, he points out. “They bought bad copies of traditional styles, and the majority still do today.”

Meeting people from the newly opened Museum of Modern Art led to a first job designing textiles “and a little furniture” for Dan Cooper, Inc. By the end of that year, he’d moved to a fifth- floor walk-up on East 62nd Street and married Iben, who’d managed to get out of Denmark in the nick of time.

“We were married on December 12, 1939,” he says, “at a little Danish church in Brooklyn.” Shortly after her arrival, war broke out in Europe. All contact with Denmark would be cut off for the next five years.

Meanwhile the young designer met a group of up-and-coming architects including Edward D. Stone, who had been contracted by Collier’s magazine to build the House of Ideas, a one-family redwood house on the terrace of Rockefeller Center’s International Building overlooking Fifth Avenue.

“It was a permanent exhibition of contemporary things for the home, and I designed all the furniture,” he says. “That was very exciting.” By then he’d already met Hans Knoll, another ambitious émigré, son of a well-known German furniture manufacturer. Both were ready to go freelance and they made a good team, Jens did the designs and supervised manufacturing; Knoll handled sales, promotion and administration.

“I became an American citizen while serving in World War II,” he says. By the time he reported for duty on September 30, 1943, his daughter Helen had been born and the fledgling designer had developed a reputation that would serve him well in the postwar years; Georg Jensen was featuring his furniture under Iben’s excellent supervision. Landing in Normandy twenty-five days after D-day, he returned home two years later. “I was twenty-nine,” he says, “eager to get on with my life. I knew I needed to open my own company.”

In 1946 Jens Risom Design, Inc. opened in a small space tucked behind an upholstery shop on East 58th Street. “We started with a ball typewriter and a drawing board,” he said. “I had a silent partner whose cousin came in to work on sales and accounting. I did all the designs. We had no inventory; first we sold the piece, then produced it.”

It might have been easier, he reflects, to market the traditional furniture people were comfortable buying. Instead he decided to offer what people should want. “Carrying water uphill, if you wish,” he says, “but ever so much more rewarding if we succeeded.”

In 1947 a second daughter, Peggy, was born and JRD, Inc. moved to a Fifth Avenue showroom, right across from Georg Jensen. “That’s when we finally got a secretary and sales staff,” he says, “and began some real growth.” An upholstery shop and then a finishing shop followed. “It was the strength of the company to have ‘a handwriting’ based on my early work,” says Jens. “We called it Furniture with a Signature.”

The young family arrived in New Canaan by Christmas of 1949. As the family grew, so did the business. In 1954 son Tom was born and his dad established Risom Manufacturing Corporation in tiny North Grosvenorsdale, Connecticut. Son Sven was born in 1959, on the cusp of what would be first a national and then an international expansion of the company, which shifted its focus from domestic design to office and library furnishings.

The ingenious hinged, multifunction bookcase Jens designed for New York’s Levittown, a landmark community of “attractive, but affordable” homes for the families of returning servicemen, had already brought him some attention. “The bookcase could swing out to serve as a room divider,” he says, “allowing part of the L-shaped floor plan to be used as a den or extra bedroom.”  

Advertising his collections with photographs by Richard Avedon dramatically increased visibility. The company expanded, first nationally and then overseas. “We had licensees in Canada, England, Australia, Argentina and even in Denmark,” he says.
 
By the time he was featured in Playboy in 1961 along with Charles Eames and Knoll designer Harry Bertoia as “a designer who was revolutionizing furniture in America,” Jens Risom Design, Inc. was recognized, along with Herman Miller and Knoll, as one of the midcentury’s top three contemporary furniture companies.

When Dictaphone bought JRD, Inc. in 1970, Jens stayed for three years before leaving to start a home-based consulting business called Design Control.

Nowhere is the designer’s appreciation of family more evident than in his latest “downsized” New Canaan home. “Only the things we really love,” he says, “made the cut.”  Occupying a place of honor on the living room wall, for example, is a circa 1890 painting by the noted Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoj. The dreamily abstract, black-and-white treatment of doors once belonged to his maternal grandfather, writer Axel Henriques, with whom Jens was very close. 

Moving from past to present, he stops to share the secret of an intricately crafted wooden snake, a gift from his granddaughter Catharine, who is about to make him great-grandfather to twins. “Look,” he says, indicating a small bulge mid-serpent. “He’s just eaten a mouse!”   

In his studio the walls are filled with memorabilia, including pencil sketches done by his father while on an archeological trip to Greece as a young man and the two circa 600 b.c. clay vessels he brought home. All are reminders of his dad’s lifelong passion for history. On a corner shelf, a piece of furniture neatly connects past to present. Minus its original base, but otherwise completely functional, is a cabinet with a tambour front, “I built it when I was a boy,” Jens says. “I needed a place to keep my sketches.”

With the exception of three chairs and the dining room table, all the furniture in this house was designed by Jens and produced by his company or by Knoll in the early years. Of the three chairs, two are famous designs by Arne Jacobsen: his egg chair and swan chair. A Hans Wegner armchair and the Borge Mogensen dining room table have both artistic and sentimental value. “They were classmates of mine,” Jens says, “but their pieces are here because I wish I’d designed them.”

When it comes to comfort and function, this designer sets the bar high and makes no exceptions. “I was perhaps twenty-three or -four when I met Frank Lloyd Wright,” Jens says, recalling a very dramatic man who wore a cape and a hat indoors. Aware that Jens designed furniture, Wright asked for an opinion of his work. While admiring Wright’s architecture, Jens wondered if perhaps his chairs could be made a bit more comfortable. “Young man,” said Wright, “comfort is not the goal. God created man to stand up or lie down, not to sit.”  

“Times have changed,” Jens says. “Women no longer wear corsets nor men armor.” Along with comfort, elegant understatement has become synonymous with a Jens Risom piece of furniture. Whether reflecting on wood (“animate, a naturally grained, very touchable material”) or the humble egg (“practical, beautiful, the most perfect piece of industrial design”), his perspective is reliably infused with common sense.   

Jens’s current home in New Canaan reflects his conviction that environment should be determined by lifestyle. The house itself is “not special,” but it borders on the Nature Center. “Wonderful walking trails begin just beyond that stone wall,” he says. “Henny and I love to take walks.”  

A renovation was accomplished with the help of his eldest daughter, Helen, a New Canaan designer. It was a rewarding, if at times tricky, collaboration. “My dad approached the house with the same precision he would have applied to crafting a piece of furniture,” Helen says. “A contractor’s ‘degree of tolerance’ is about an inch-and-a-half variation on the exact measurements; discrepancies are hidden by trim. Dad hates trim.” When asked for his degree of tolerance, Jens was succinct. “One thirty-second of an inch,” he said. Helen told the contractor, “Just do it!”

Helen describes her father as a man for whom design is a passion, a person whose work has always been his pleasure. It’s a joy he’s now communicating to eleven grandchildren. “He’s not the kind of grandfather who’ll get down on the floor and play trucks with them,” she says. “But he shares the things he loves; he’ll show them a piece of sculpture or a painting and describe it in a way they will never forget.”

Back at his drawing table, the about-to-be great-grandfather relaxes by sketching an idea for a chair, inspired perhaps by the large ceramic horse on a table in the corner of the room. “Oh, he is lovely, isn’t he? It’s about 100 years old from Montana where they made horses that children could sit on,” he says. “So he’s just a workaday horse. Nothing pretty about him, but isn’t he absolutely charming?”

Meanwhile, at Ralph Pucci International’s Chelsea showroom, a new generation is discovering his classic designs. The Risom 2005 collection — ranging in price from $1,800 for an ottoman to $18,000 for a dining room table — includes variations of fifteen basic pieces that have been praised by Elle Décor as “even more refined and elegant” than those of the 1940s and ’50s. Now occupying 4,000 square feet of gallery space, it’s getting rave reviews from design professionals.  

“We expected that,” says Pucci, “but people who know nothing about who Jens Risom is are being stopped in their tracks. They’re saying, ‘This is great!’  Take away the name, the history; that’s the true test. His furniture is timeless.”

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