Jens Risom, 100

Fri, 12/16/2016 - 7:45am
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Jens Risom, of New Canaan, CT and Block Island, RI died on Friday, December 9th, 2016 at “The Inn” in New Canaan, where he had lived since early 2010. He was born on May 8th, 1916 to Sven and Inger (Henriques) Risom in Copenhagen, Denmark. His father was the prominent and award-winning architect Sven Risom, a student of Nordic Classicism.

Risom was one of the first designers to bring traditional Scandinavian values of form, function and craftsmanship to the United States, creating post-WWII “Danish-modern” furniture design. He had graduated from the Copenhagen School of Industrial Arts and Design, and went on to pursue academic studies in business and contemporary design at the Business College of Niels Brock. Briefly working for the Danish architect Ernst Kuhn, he created several furniture pieces for Gustav Weinreich of ALS Normina, in Copenhagen.  Risom’s early designs for Normina were exhibited at the cabinetmakers Guild Exhibition of 1937. He went on to work for a small design shop in Sweden specializing in residential furniture, and Nordiska Kompaniet (NK) where he was exposed to other designers (e.g. Hans Wegner and Borge Mogensen).

Jens Risom immigrated to New York City in the U.S. in early 1939 to study contemporary American furniture; he found there was almost none. Undaunted, he free-lanced with Dan Cooper in a small textiles firm and did a few pieces of furniture on the side for various architects. This led to being included in Collier's "House of Ideas" designed by Edward Durell Stone and constructed at Rockefeller Center during the 1939 New York World's Fair.

In 1941, he teamed up with Hans Knoll to produce a high-quality, contemporary line of furniture. In 1942, Risom designed 15 of the 20 pieces in Knoll's inaugural "600" line. Materials were hard to get during the war, so he designed simple, elegant, clean-lined birch furniture with surplus parachute webbing. This signature line is still sold through Knoll.

He was drafted into the U.S. Army (1943-45), serving under General George Patton. After the war, Risom returned to NewYork City to start his own company, Jens Risom Design, Inc., on May 1, 1946. In 1949 he moved his family to New Canaan, Connecticut where he lived until his death. In 1956, the family began vacationing on Block Island, RI. He assisted in the design of his own house there in 1967, it was featured on the cover of LIFE magazine (and later in DWELL magazine). 

In the early 1950s he teamed up with fashion photographer Richard Avedon who did a series of ads for Risom, using the tag line “the answer is Risom.” His photographs were seductive and the campaign, with unique calligraphy and font, was very successful.

Risom (JRD) soon needed larger production space and more employees. In 1955, the Connecticut Development Commission approached Risom, about establishing a factory in North Grosvenordale, CT. The area had become depressed after the mills had closed, but the workers were skilled and hard-working and the factory (Risom Manufacturing Company) became a place of respect and success. Risom set up a program so that workers could earn their GEDs while at work. In the 1960s, Risom’s designs became less residential as he worked with hospitals, libraries, offices, and hotels around the world.

Risom furniture is permanently exhibited at many major institutions including: Brooklyn Museum, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum, and the Yale Museum of Art and Design. Jens was a trustee at RISD for two 5-year terms and during their 120th Commencement Ceremonies he received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degree. In 1996, he was knighted by Queen Margrethe of Denmark, with the Danish Knight's Cross. The Brooklyn Museum awarded him “Man of the Year” and in 2004 he was the honoree for the Russel Wright Design Center. 

JRD/RMC was sold in the early 1970s and Risom set up Design Control, Inc. in New Canaan, through which he could license his designs to: Ralph Pucci; Rocket (London); and Design Within Reach (DWR) among others, to continue the Risom name with quality furniture.  One of his latest designs (at age 93) was a rocking chair.

Jens Risom was also very much a family man. In 1939, he married Iben Haderup and they had four children: Helen Risom Belluschi, Peggy Risom Bull, both of New Canaan, Thomas C. Risom of Old Lyme, CT and Sven C. Risom of Block Island, RI. After Iben died in 1977, Jens married Dr. Henny Panduro Madsen. They were married 36 years until her death in late 2015.

Jens Risom was always involved in design. He was on the boards of Silvermine Guild and RISD, and was involved with local design projects in New Canaan and NYC. He helped with design decisions at Waveny, the First Presbyterian Church of New Canaan and the Historical Commission (among others) in New Canaan. The New Canaan Historical Society named the Risom Room, at their Gores Pavilion in Irwin Park, to honor Jens.

He always said the worst part of getting older was losing so many friends. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Iben; his second wife Henny; his infant son Jens Edward; and in 2000, his brother Ole Risom.

He was a loving father-in-law to Dr. Sherman Bull, Pam Austen, and Laura Pinkham Risom; and a step-parent to Helle Jacobsen and Dr. Michael Madsen. He was a loving grandfather to Pietro, Catharine (Bryan), Sky (Bill), Thayer (Chris), Whitney (Becca), Thatcher, Tyler, KC, Ethan (Chirona), Tucker and Leah. He was great-grandfather to Josson, Axel, Sofi, Ellie, Natalie, Gabe, Nate, Lily, Abby, and Fiona.  He is also survived by his youngest brother Niels (Kay) in Denmark and 7 nieces and nephews.

In lieu of flowers, please consider donations to Block Island Conservancy, P.O. Box 84, Block Island RI 02807 or to The Inn (part of Waveny LifeCare) 73 Oenoke Ridge, New Canaan CT 06840.

Interment will be private to be followed by a celebration of his life in May, 2017. For updates and online condolences visit www.hoytfuneralhome.com