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He's 93; Sits Where He Tells You

New York Times February 2010

He's 93; Sits Where He Tells YouHe's 93; Sits Where He Tells You

THERE are any number of challenges at a furniture gallery opening: signs on the tables reading, “Please Do Not Rest Glass,' signs on the chairs reading “Please Do Not Sit.' And you had better believe there are no price tags hanging off the chairs. These are collectibles, sweetheart.

Of course, if you arrive a little early, as we did for a reception at the Ralph Pucci gallery in Chelsea last week, and you are a reporter, Mr. Pucci, the gregarious owner, dressed in a striped Italian suit and caramel suede shoes, might forgo such rules, insisting that you sit, the better to demonstrate the excellent workmanship of a piece.
In this case, it was an armchair by Jens Risom, the 93-year-old Danish-American designer who has reached that point in craft and longevity where he is referred to as an icon. Price of the chair: $6,000.

“A piece of art inside and out,' Mr. Pucci said, adding that most of his Risom pieces were variations on designs from
the 1950s.
Like the stuff Mr. Risom has been doing for Design Within Reach?
A wave seemed to ripple beneath Mr. Pucci’s suit, from his neck to his knees.
“Was that a full-body shudder?' we asked.
“It was a full-body shudder,' Mr. Pucci said.
“This is better,' he said, referring to the furniture in his show.
The reception was really two parties — which, as Mr. Pucci noted, had two very different vibes. Actually, they had two different geographies.

Upstairs, on the 12th floor, where Mr. Risom’s work was being shown, it was the Upper East Side of Manhattan. On the 9th floor, it was more like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with furniture by Jim Zivic, 49, who sometimes designs in coal ($36,000 for his anthracite coffee table), and the husband-and-wife team of Robert Bristow, 47, and Pilar Proffitt, 42, who had built a bookshelf called the Barnwood Bookhouse ($18,000), in which a child or a very small collector could sit and read.
But when one reaches 93, attention should be paid, so it was back to the 12th floor with Mr. Risom, who was dapper in a double-breasted blue blazer and seemed, for an icon, extremely loose.
“You aren’t going to tell me I sound like Victor Borge, who I happened to know very well, are you?' he said. “I knew him when he was a piano player in a bar.'
Mr. Risom, like Mr. Pucci, was very eager to show how comfortable his designs were, walking around the floor and insisting that the reporter sit in what seemed like every chair in the show.

There was an undercurrent of playful lust in Mr. Risom’s conversation about his work. “Can you see a nice-looking girl and guy sitting on it?' he said of an upholstered bench. “You have to look at it from a nice, sexy point of view.'
But there is only so much sitting a person can take, so after a while it was off to talk with Mr. Risom’s 92-year-old wife, Henny, who wore a bemused expression along with a red sweater and turned out to be an osteopath.
Ever help him with a chair?
“Once,' Ms. Risom said. “It was a chair made in Denmark. It was made like this' — she made a concave swoop with her hand. “I told him put something to support the back.'
An attractive architect from New Canaan, Conn., where the Risoms live, stopped by and happened to mention that Mr. Risom had known Frank Lloyd Wright. “The stories he tells,' he began.

So it was back to Mr. Risom — taking care to stand far afield of any chairs — demanding he give up the goods on Mr. Wright.
“I’d been here a few years, and I met him, and he said, ‘Oh, you do furniture — well, tell me what you think of my furniture,’ ' Mr. Risom said. “That was a little tough, because I didn’t like his furniture. I said, ‘Mr. Wright, I admire your architecture so much, I think it would be nice if your chairs were a little more comfortable.’ He said, ‘God created man to stand on his feet, not to sit.’ I said, ‘You’re probably right.’
“He was always right — he had to have the last word. I like his architecture. But he shouldn’t have designed furniture.'

Picture By Hiroko Masuike