Following the recent release of his new furniture collection, modernist master Jens Risom sits in his living room overlooking Connecticut's New Canaan Nature Preserve, waxing philosophical about the state of design in America. With the high-profile Ralph Pucci international producing and marketing his new line and reporting a overwhelmingly positive initial response, a full Risom collection has the attention of the design community got the first time since he sold his own company, Jens Risom Design, in 1971.
Risom is often counted among those who shaped postwar design in America with the introduction of simple, elegant designs made with contemporary materials and updated production methods. Born in Denmark in 1915, he studied at the Copenhagen School of Industrial Arts and Design under revered Danish Designer Kaare Klint before emigrating to the U.S. in 1939. While designing the Georg Jenson showroom in New York in Ned chair in 1941, the first chair to be manufactured by Knoll's new company. After serving with American troops in Europe in World War II, he settled in New Canaan in 1945 and founded Jens Risom Design in New York. The company's residential and contact furniture, through never high profile, was long considered a staple by interior designers and architects.
Risom finds that many of today's consumers don't embrace design with the same fervor he experienced in the 1940's and 50's when young couples, many with partners just got back from the war, eagerly adopted innovative shaped and new materials like canvas webbing and Formica. He worries that when people see new design that recalls, or draws inspiration from, the modernist aesthetic they often dismiss it as nostalgic. Getting people to accept 'new contemporary design today is like carrying water uphill,' he laments. His Pucci collection, with forms that echo some of his classic pieces, and includes several modified versions of design s spanning the last 50 years, is provoking persuasive, however Risom is committed to reawakening the public to the role design can play in creating a cultural, and even domestic, foundation.
Concerned today that families treat home as 'a bus station,' Risom believes that a few well-made pieces and a hands-on approach to furnishing one's surrounding can help create a much-needed sense of security and tradition. 'Why is the emphasis so on speed and on doing the unexpected and unnecessary?' he asks. 'I think that furniture is a very important element for people to set their standards by and to create an attractive home in which to bring up their children.' Risom rejects the fear of 'making a mistake' in home decoration. 'It doesn't matter when design, if it's good, is made: now or many generations ago when the 'traditional' furniture was modern.' Indeed, at the Ralph Pucci showroom in Manhattan, the juxtaposition of Risom to be a perfect bridge between the 'good design' of the postwar years and that of today.
Risom's wide-range interest in art, design and architecture is evident in the reading material on this living room coffee table. Press clippings about the Pucci collection mingle with books on contemporary home design, Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Central park Gates project, the houses of Philip Johnson, and a copy of Guide to Easier Living, Russel Wright's reissued tome from 1950. A tour of the renovations he has made to his own home - including pushing back a wall several feet to accommodate a deep window planter, and outfitting another wall with built-in storage that includes a cork and mirror bar cabinet, linen drawers and two coat closets - confirms that the Pucci collection is the culmination of decades spent experimenting with solutions to everyday design problems.
The proof is in the details of his furniture designs, like a woven cane 'shelf insert' that can be installed as a bottom shelf on a low table with a circular or hexagonal revolving top, and the aforementioned T-539 table, which has a lip on one side for displaying a book jacket or magazine cover.
Flexibility, notes Risom, is key to his design approach. 'Everything I normally design is done so you can create modifications, 'Risom says. Indeed, many of the pieces in the Pucci collection can serve multiple purposes. A walnut sideboard can be outfitted for a dinning room, with draws and shelves custom-designed for cutlery and glassware, or for desk accessories. The exterior remains the same; clean and classic with a fine wood grain.
When asked about the high cost of many pieces on the collection - the magazine rack is $2,000 tables range from $3,600 to $6,000 and a dinning table costs $15,000 - Risom cautions, 'you shouldn't say 'expensive,' because it implies that the price is to high for what you are getting.' As they would with their wardrobe, he says, people should buy a few quality pieces with an eye towards how they make them feel, and mix different styles together. It's like 'walking down the street when your suit is pressed and shoes are shined: you feel a little better. It's a psychological thing,' he says 'each piece is good design and it should inspire you to do things well.'
While manufactures have been producing single piece and small collections with Risom's name attached since early 1970's he had not found the right partner for a new major collection. 'No one had come to me with a combination of quality, comfort and design under one roof,' says Risom. When he met Ralph Pucci at Sanford Smith's modernism show at the Park Avenue Armoury in New York City several years ago, he realised, he says that Pucci 'appreciates good things, can get them made, and knows people who like, and are ready to invest in, these good things.' For his part, Pucci quips that he uses a New York woodworking shop that focuses 'on three things: one, quality, two quality, three quality.' The furniture is beautifully made in walnut, oak, leather and textured fabrics and the attention to detail that evokes old-world cabinet making, with intricate, visible joinery and careful alignment of the wood grain.
After visiting Risom's home and exploring the designers trove of drawings and ideas, Pucci selected designs that make up an updated and well-edited collection, including dining tables, benches, stacking tables, armchairs, side chairs and coffee tables with variations available in each category. Likening the work to the music of Bill Evans and the Modern Jazz Quartet, Pucci says it 'speaks quality and elegance.' He adds, 'it doesn't shout, look at me!
Risom's comments about his own design choices areas disarmingly simple as his designs. Speaking about a new wood-topped version of the marble-topped circular coffee table that graces his own living room, he says, 'you always have square rooms and it's a relief to have a round table.' His choice of materials stems from his conviction that' people go for wood over the feeling of plastic. They go for natural materials that have texture and depth and life.'
Speaking of Mies van der Rohe, he might be speaking of himself when he says that Mies's style of modernism has endured because 'It's so basic and correct.'
When this magazine profiled Jens Risom in it's winter 2003-04 issue, it was essentially the retrospective of a completed career. But with the release of his extraordinary new Pucci collection, Risom is again finding himself courted by the press, and he is using his renewed fame to speak about 'preserving the very best, whether it's done today or what we would call traditional.' He is a member of the New Canaan Historical Society, which watches over the town's Colonial gems as well as its modernist residences by Marcel Breuer and Philip Johnson. He is also active in DOCOMOMO, an organisation dedicated to the study and preservation of significant works of modern design.
With more than 50 years of professional experience under his belt, and lifetime of close relationships with people like Johnson, Kaare Klint, Han Wenger and others who shaped architecture and furniture design in the 20th century, Risom is indeed a living legend. The international design community is fortunate to have his eye on preservation and his hands in new designs.