Jens Risom was one of the first designers to introduce Scandinavian design in the United States.Defined by sharp Scandinavian lines and fused with the rustic aura of Shakerism and American arts and crafts, the armless, affordable chair that became Mr. Risom’s signature (Risom Lounge Chair pictured on main page) in 1942 was one of the first mass-produced modernist furniture pieces introduced in the United States and not Europe.It both introduced Knoll as one of the world’s most enduring quality furniture brands and helped make great mass design palatable to American consumers, who continue to buy Mr. Risom’s chair 74 years later, in every possible color and fabric, through Knoll and Design Within Reach.
In the 1930s, Jens Risom studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, now known as the Danish Design School, which was for Danish cabinetry makers something akin to matriculating at Harvard.
One of his teachers was Kaare Klint, the father of Danish modernism. Mr. Risom’s classmate Hans Wegner went on to become perhaps the most renowned chair designer of the 20th century.
Shortly before Germany’s invasion of Denmark in 1940, Mr. Risom emigrated to the United States, took a job at a small textiles firm and met Hans Knoll, a German immigrant whose parents worked in the furniture business.
“Without knowing it, he was looking for me and I was looking for him,” Mr. Risom told Wallpaper Magazine in 2008. “He wanted to get into manufacturing quality furniture.”
Materials were hard to come by during the war, so Mr. Risom designed a chair with simple wooden legs and for upholstery used nothing other than surplus parachute straps. The surprise was that Mr. Risom’s creation — one of 15 pieces he designed for Knoll’s debut collection, and perhaps too humble to ever be described as a masterpiece — was almost comfortable enough to sleep in.
Mr. Risom left Knoll in 1946 (Mr. Knoll and Mr. Risom never spoke again) and began Jens Risom Design, which showcased his residential and office furniture in advertising campaigns by Richard Avedon that presaged the Madison Avenue aesthetic of the early 1960s.
In his later years, Mr. Risom served two five-year terms as a trustee of the Rhode Island School of Design and was knighted in Denmark by Queen Margrethe II. An enduring partnership with the upscale furniture dealer Ralph Pucci brought renewed attention to his work, as well.