Design Classic: Jens Risom Collection

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By Dora Vanette / Published by Dwell
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Jens Risom's 1942 designs for Knoll were born out of wartime necessity but went on to become signature midcentury modern designs.

Jens Risom's furniture collection was the first designed for and manufactured by Knoll. Originally known as the 600 Series, it quickly put the new furniture company on the map, and remains one of its most popular designs to this day.

Jens Risom's side chair is the centerpiece of the spacious living room in this Austin residence. Photo by Dave Mead.

Jens Risom's side chair is the centerpiece of the spacious living room in this Austin residence. Photo by Dave Mead.

Born in Denmark, Risom left for the United States in 1938. Soon after settling in New York, he met Hans Knoll, who was a year older and had been in the United States a year longer than Risom. The two quickly bonded, aware of the gap in the American furniture market and ambitious to fill it with quality design. "There was no furniture, nothing to be had…everybody was anxious to buy everything they could get their hands on," Risom recalls. 

In this San Francisco home, Risom lounge chairs were rewoven with cat–proof leather strapping after the originals were shredded. Photo by Leslie Williamson.

In this San Francisco home, Risom lounge chairs were rewoven with cat–proof leather strapping after the originals were shredded. Photo by Leslie Williamson.

The two embarked on a mission to create simple, inexpensive furniture for American consumers. The resulting collection made two of the few materials widely available during wartime—surplus army webbing and parachute straps—and wrapped them around a supple, curving wooden frame. Aided by Knoll's enterpreneurial prowess, the collection was quickly became a mainstream staple of office furnishing. But the lounges, armchairs and stools, which made up the collection, also proved immediately successful with broader American audiences eager for simple and functional design. 

In this recently renovated San Francisco Victorian, a Florence Knoll sofa from Knoll is paired with the Jens Risom lounge chair. Photo by Sharon Risedorph.

In this recently renovated San Francisco Victorian, a Florence Knoll sofa from Knoll is paired with the Jens Risom lounge chair. Photo by Sharon Risedorph.

Risom didn't have much time to enjoy his successes; drafted in 1943, he spent two and a half years in the army. When he returned, he found there was little room left for him at Knoll. In this time, Hans had married Florence Schust, who, according to Risom, "was a brilliant designer but was not as impressed with the Scandinavian wood furniture as she was the metal furniture from Mies and Saarinen." Nevertheless, Knoll continued producing the collection without Risom's name attached to it. In the late 1990s the collection was reintroduced under his name, capturing the attention of a new generation of design enthusiasts. 

Jens Risom’s 1941 lounge chair for Knoll sits alongside custom-made cabinets in the Wilson’s master bedroom. Ken’s father, an archeologist, collected the pottery and wall hanging in the American southwest.

Jens Risom’s 1941 lounge chair for Knoll sits alongside custom-made cabinets in the Wilson’s master bedroom. Ken’s father, an archeologist, collected the pottery and wall hanging in the American southwest.

The designer in his iconic Risom lounge chair.

The designer in his iconic Risom lounge chair.

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Risom Lounge Chair
Risom Lounge Chair
The Risom Lounge Chair was born from a relationship between two of the design world’s most influential characters. Besides being the first piece to be commissioned and manufactured by Knoll, it also raised the need for creating inexpensive, simple furnishings in the United States. When a young Jens Risom first met Hans Knoll, Knoll was working as an importer of European Designs and was worried how WWII would disrupt his supply lines. Knoll recruited Risom in the hopes that he could design furniture to be produced locally in New York. After researching the state of manufacturing in the U.S. for four months, they created the 600 Series with materials that weren’t limited by wartime restrictions. The first Lounge Chair was built locally in 1943 with a simple maple frame and discarded parachute webbing. Today, it’s still produced by Knoll—but with 100 percent natural cotton webbing and a frame made of maple or walnut hardwood. You can also choose to have it with or without arms. Photo: Dave Mead
-Written by Paige Alexus | Dwell
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