Jens Risom is one of the greats of the Mid-Century Modern design movement. In the early 1950s, he helped bring Scandinavian furniture to the United States, and was one of the founders of Knoll; his chair designs were extremely popular in that era, especially after Lyndon Johnson chose one for the Oval Office in 1961, and are coming back into vogue again today.
My very good friend and colleague Stephen Coles had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Risom for an article he's just posted at his own blog, The Mid-Century Modernist, and we are lucky to be able to include their conversation - just a few more than our usual three questions - below.
Stephen Coles: First I was interested in why you originally decided to leave Denmark and come to America.
Jens Risom: It started when I was visiting my fiancé outside of Copenhagen and as I walked to the train station I saw a large black automobile and it turned out to be the American ambassador and he asked if I wanted a ride into town. I thought this interesting and yes I would like a lift. And he said he was interested to know what my plans were for the future. I told him I was going to study furniture design and hoped that there would be an opening for me. He asked if I had ever thought of coming to the United States. And that’s how it started. When I got back to school 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. The one thing I did not do was to find out how difficult it would be to get going in the United States because as you well know there was no furniture design in the United States. There was no acceptance of contemporary design of architecture. I used to talk with architects who were unhappy that no one wanted their work. They had to Europe to buy furniture and it was a miserable thing for them. I was absolutely the first one to come from Europe and settle here as a designer in the United States – this was in 1938. Then I got going and got papers and got on freighter and got to New York just before the World’s Fair opened in 1939.
I came here without really knowing how impossible it was for a furniture designer to get going in the United States. I got a job, an interview with one of the directors of MOMA. He said her had no idea what I could do or why anybody would want me. There was nothing going on except he knew someone (Dan Cooper - ed.), one of the interior decorators, who was starting a textile business. If I should ever run into a guy who knew something about printed fabrics send him over. So that was my beginning as a furniture designer in the United States. I said I could get something together for him in a few days. I didn’t tell him I had never done any textile design, but I didn’t see any reason I should not have done it because it’s so close ... A few days letter I came up to him with a stack of sketches and drawing of simple printed designs. He looked at me and he said this is wonderful! This is exactly what I am looking for and I would like to buy these five of six designs. I said there is only one problem; I don’t have a table big enough to repeat this design. I see you have a table big enough. Could I work in your showroom? After the third day working in his shop I said Mr. Cooper you don’t have any furniture. Furniture is really my field, can’t we do something. I asked if he would let me show him some sketches and we talked about it and he picked out a table he thought would do. I talked to the craftsmen who were in the neighborhood and asked if they could make my models and they were happy to do it and they did a very nice job. When Mr. Cooper saw it he said well all right we could try it and see if anyone is interested. But my big support were these modern, young architects from New York who kept coming around Cooper’s office for a drink and crying in their beer because there were no customers and nobody bought contemporary things. It was really true, 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. So we made a few of these models up and a few architects came around and interestingly enough it was architects, never interior decorators. Interior decorators were only interested in more traditional design and old things and making things look old. Anything new or contemporary especially from Europe, especially from Scandinavia, and of course England too - they didn’t want it. That was really the story of how I got going here.
SC: So what make you interested in doing this reissue project at this time?
JR: There was always much more acceptance of modern design in England than here in this country. It was interesting that I should be in on the birth of contemporary furniture in the United States, but I was I guess. But, I have to admit that England has always been very close to my heart. I have been there many, many times. We had a company there, I worked there with people, what was his name, doesn’t matter- Gordon Russell and I got attached to them at one point. And we did a lot of work with my designs in London. And we love being there. There is something very closely connected between me and Great Britain. So it’s very wonderful and I am delighted it’s doing so nicely.
These things were designed and made many, many years ago. And it started with Jonathan buying up more than a hundred pieces on eBay before I knew about it. Then he came over and said I have all this and I intend to show it in my gallery and I would like to work with you. And that’s how we got to know each other. I was impressed with his courage and what he’s been doing. So this is a very warm affair between me and your country because they are wonderful equality minded and design minded and when you find the right people hopefully it will be interesting. As you know he has had my things in his shop for a few years now in London with exhibits in various stores and I am very happy with that.
SC: and what - you've probably had other companies come to you asking to do reissues, and i'm wondering why this one seems to be the most successful?
JR: This is the one that came to me. It wasn’t anything I picked but I accepted the invitation to show there and was very pleased with the understanding they had of design. It was not important whether it was new design, but good design. And he is very knowledgeable at showing, and Scandinavian things and furniture especially. Now he will have more of an opportunity to sell and work architects and stores. So I am very optimistic about it and we look forward to it. I am very sorry that I’m not coming myself because I have so many friends in London and there is so much going on there, but that will have to be some other time or maybe some other life but I look forward to hearing about the opening.
SC: My website is dedicated to furniture and design in the '50s and '60s - and one thing many of our readers wonder is how furniture is different today than it was then - besides just aesthetically - what do you think are the main differences?
JR: I don’t know that it is that different I suppose. We have two different kinds of contemporary furniture. One is Eames, which is a totally different type of design and production and use of wood. The other is _____ and they are both American and developed new ways of doing furniture and new shapes, new ideas. Most of them and me included did it at the time. We knew each other well and admired each other. This is a problem in your country and mine. We need to get people to get used to not looking for traditional designs. Of course the whole thing started with Chippendale. Most of his designs were basically architectural, fitting into the houses, fitting in to the shape of living, fitting into people and so on and I think that is where British furniture shows up so well. As far as I am concerned England is a charming country and I like to work with them and that is what we’re looking forward to doing with Rocket. I hope people will come to see it. I hope people will come and take advantage of sitting in the chairs and using the tables and cabinets because it’s all designed very much for contemporary people, us, you and me to use and live with. I think maybe that’s one of the reasons I’ve been lucky to find them to still have this furniture selling or still being bought o many years later. Of course you are familiar with the Knoll furniture… Then I started my own company designing and manufacturing. But as I think I said my work was always with architects much more than interior decorators or designers because they appreciated my refinements and the combination of periods and all of that.
SC: do you have your own furniture at home?
JR: I have all of my own furniture in my own home with the exception of three of four pieces from designers I was close to. I went to design school in Copenhagen and my two closest friends in my class were Hans Wegner and ___ doesn’t matter. I knew the teachers and instructors as well and my father was an architect so I had lived with that for years before I got actually into it. I left Denmark in 1938 and I’ve had a wonderful time every since. I am happy here I’ve been accepted in this country, in both design and manufacturing and also business connections . We started a different way of manufacturing furniture by producing machine made parts for some of it and hand made parts for some wherever it would seem most practical, but it was a new way of producing good quality furniture by using the best methods and translating that to machining and to handwork so that the final combination comes out well. I think my furniture has been recognized as of very high quality and that’s of course the way it should be and the way I wanted it.
SC: I have one last question before I let you go - are you still designing or drawing today?
JR: I am always close to a piece of paper and a pencil. I must say I find myself surrounded by strange little details that give me ideas I thought about at one time. I would say I am staying very much abreast of it and sometimes ahead of it. People say to me “what do you mean you still design furniture?" and I have to tell them I do. I think furniture. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking of a particular detail I would like to incorporate in something I’m working on. It is a very healthy and attractive feeling.
The whole thing is about educating the people who buy furniture to do it the way it was done many, many, many years ago. People expected to buy the present style of the present time and that’s the important thing.