July 2, 1964 is a momentous date in American history. On this day, President Lyndon Bird Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, ending racial segregation.
The cane-backed wooden chair he was sitting on as he did so received little attention, but that was right enough; in any case, its designer, Jens Risom (1916-2016), would have approved, believing that furniture should be modest, not attention grabbing.
The ‘C140’ chair’s presence in the Oval Office was a sign, though, of Risom’s status in the American Modern movement. Born in Copenhagen, the son of acclaimed architect Sven Risom, his career in the Danish design industry looked set, especially once he completed his studies at the Copenhagen School of Arts and Crafts, where his classmates included Hans J Wegner. But rather than rest, Risom decamped for New York in 1939, determined to introduce America to Scandinavian style.
At first, wartime privations made this a challenge. There were few materials to make furniture, so Risom worked as a textile and interior designer, and did experimental projects with young architects like George Nelson.
Then, in 1941, he met Hans Knoll, who had just set up his eponymous manufacturing company and was searching for someone to create an original collection. Together, the two toured the US, visiting architects and middle-class homes to discover what real Americans wanted.
Their first hit was the ‘650 Line’ (1943), which included a curvy cherrywood lounge chair with a seat woven from discarded parachute straps (one of the few unrestricted materials available). It sold in huge quantities. ‘That chair got us through the war,’ Risom’s daughter Helen later said.
In 1946, Risom set up his own brand, where he refined his simple style based on warm woods, ergonomic shapes and blocks of bold colour. In 1954, he bought a Connecticut factory and textile mill that allowed him to make his products himself.
It grew into one of the largest craft manufacturers in America. Risom was media savvy, too: he hired photographer Richard Avedon to shoot glossy campaigns (slogan: ‘The Answer is Risom’) and appeared with Charles Eames, Harry Bertoia and Eero Saarinen in a 1961 Playboy feature on the men ‘revolutionizing furniture in America’. They were dubbed the ‘Rat Pack of Design’.
By the mid 1960s, when President Johnson furnished a whole room in the White House with Risom pieces, the designer was an American icon. In 1967, his self-built holiday home appeared as a feature in Life magazine. The two-storey Block Island retreat, off the coast of Rhode Island, was constructed using prefabricated wooden A-frames Risom bought from a catalogue. Its façade was made entirely from glass and was filled with Risom designs in bright colours, plus a few treasures by fellow Danes, including Arne Jacobsen’s ‘Egg ’ chair.
Risom continued to work into his nineties, when he collaborated with British brands Rocket and Benchmark to reissue vintage designs, among them the beautiful ‘T539’ magazine table and ‘T390’ coffee table.
The large number of Risom creations still in production – Stellar Works makes the ‘C140’ chair, as well as bookshelves and a desk, and Knoll’s extensive collection proves how successful he was at popularising modernity, reflecting his maxim: ‘Anything good will go well with other equally good things.’ jensrisom.com; knoll.com; stellarworks.com
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