One of the first designers to bring the Traditional Scandinavian
values of function and craftsmanship to the United States, Risom was part of a
new vanguard that helped establish post-war America's leadership role in the world
of modern furniture design and manufacturing. Born in Copenhagen on May 8, 1916,
Risom was highly influenced by his award-winning architect-father who encouraged
Jens to pursue academic studies in business and contemporary design. After completing
two years at the Business College of Niels Brock in Copenhagen, Risom worked briefly
for Danish architect Ernst Kuhn and he created several furniture designs for Gustav
Weinreich of A/S Normina in Copenhagen. Risom's early designs for Normina were
shown at the Cabinetmaker's Guild Exhibition in 1937. The young Risom also worked
for a small design studio/shop in Stockholm that specialized in residential furniture.
While in Sweden Risom also worked with Nordiska Kompaniet—NK, where he was further
exposed to the designs of Bruno Mathsson and others including the Finnish architect,
Alvar Aalto. Risom began his formal studies in furniture design under the direction
of Ole Wanscher at Kunståndvaerkerskolen, the School for Arts and Crafts in Copenhagen.
From 1935–1938, along with classmates Hans Wegner and Borge Mogensen, Risom
learned the value of simplicity and utility from master craftsmen like Kaare Klint
who also headed up the furniture school at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.
The enduring influence of good Danish design can be traced back to the efforts
of dedicated craftsmen and designers who firmly believed in the value of sharing
the techniques and aesthetics of their crafts to aspiring young students.
Early Free-lance Years
In 1938, after a chance meeting with the American Ambassador to Denmark, Risom
decided to go to New York to further his studies while familiarizing himself with
contemporary American furniture design. Arriving in 1939, Risom soon discovered
that there were no real opportunities for study or work in his field. Instead,
Risom was given an introduction through the Museum of Modern Art to the fabric
and interior designer, Dan Cooper. Risom's original textile designs, created solely
for his interview with Cooper, landed him his first free-lance project in America.
More work followed, including original furniture designed and built for the Collier's
House of Ideas, a model house built on a terrace at Rockefeller Center overlooking
Fifth Avenue. Designed by Edward D. Stone, who personally chose Risom to design
all the furniture, the Collier's House project created a wider interest in Risom's
ability to design furniture that fit perfectly into the new homes being built
by architects like Stone. In 1941, having recently completed plans for a new furniture
department for Georg Jensen in New York City, Risom joined forces with Hans Knoll, a young energetic entrepreneur who, though
he understood the basics of the furniture business, was not a designer. Finding
they made a good team together, the two set out on a cross-country tour visiting
modern architects while simultaneously gaining a better understanding of the potential
market for a new line of modern furniture that Risom would design and Knoll would
In 1942 when the Hans Knoll Furniture Company was launched, 15 of the first 20
pieces—the "600" line—were pure Risom in design and
construction with a subtle Scandinavian sense of modernity that created even more
interest in the young designer's abilities. These were the first and last
pieces Risom would design for Knoll.
Married and with a young daughter, Risom, like many others, was soon drafted into
the U.S. Army. Initially planning to work within the Army's Industrial Design
Unit at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, Risom eventually joined the
Army's Civil Affairs Department. Arriving in Great Britain, he was then
assigned to the Headquarters of Third Army under General George Patton where he
began training for the upcoming European invasions.
Risom stayed with the Third Army as it made its way though France and Germany
until the end of the war. Returning to New York, Jens briefly continued his free-lance
consulting with Hans Knoll, but he had also decided that it was time to form his
own concern, Jens Risom Design, Inc. (JRD), which he launched on May 1st, 1946.