Knoll Inspiration: In Conversation with Helen Risom
This story was originally published on Knoll Inspiration in 2016.
Helen Risom Belluschi is one of Jens Risom’s four children and, along with her sister Peggy, is an everyday companion for the soon-to-be centenarian. Jens Risom (pronounced ree-sum) celebrated his 100th birthday in May of 2016, and he remains as committed as ever to the design program he first embarked on almost 80 years ago.
One could say it was fate that brought Hans Knoll and Jens Risom together. Born on the same day, May 8, two years apart, the two would meet shortly after emigrating to the U.S. from Germany and Denmark in 1937 and 1938, respectively. Jens Risom was the first original designer for the fledgling furniture company, Hans Knoll Furniture, and the Risom Collection remains one of the most beloved and admired mid-century modern designs at Knoll.
On occasion of Risom’s 100th birthday, Helen graciously agreed to speak on her father's behalf about his early years in America, at Knoll and during WWII.
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Knoll Inspiration: Your father' father, Sven Risom, was a successful Danish architect. How did his father's work inspire Jens Risom's own?
Helen Risom: Yes, he was reasonably successful. He wrote a book on stamped earth houses, he did some popular buildings and some government buildings. But my dad went into furniture because he wanted the control. An architect does something and then the contractor changes it, et cetera. My father wanted the product to leave the factory as he intended it. You could put your own fabric on it after the fact, but not before, when it was under his name.
Before arriving in the U.S., your father studied and worked in Copenhagen alongside classmates Hans Wegner and Borge Mogensen. While working in the design department at Nordiska Kompanient, Jens met Alvar Aalto and Bruno Mathsson. Do you think he absorbed influences from these other great Scandinavian modernist designers?
You have to remember that in ’39 he would have been just 22 or 23. So he didn’t have a big, long history in Copenhagen.While in school, he did all kinds of different projects.... But he came over to America because he wanted to see what they had in terms of furniture. He was appalled—there was nothing. Not only that, he couldn’t get a job because there was nothing available in what he was looking for: furniture design. It practically didn't exist.
In the U.S., Jens' first commissions were for Collier’s House of Ideas, a model house designed by Edward Stone and built on the terrace of Rockefeller Center overlooking Fifth Avenue. This was around the same time as the "demonstration houses," installed in the courtyard of MoMA, and just before the famous Case Study Houses erected in Los Angeles, in the mid 1940s. What questions, problems or solutions did these projects houses pose for your father?
The purpose was for people to see these houses, and the furniture within them. People didn’t know what they wanted, they didn’t even know there were options. You just went Ethan Allen to buy a chair—"You mean there’s something else?" It was that kind of mentality. Most people hadn’t been to Europe or they had emigrated away from it. So these demonstration houses, the Edward Durell Stones and so on, were really showcasing a new way of living. The purpose was to get out there and do the talk shows. And all of this was pretty damn exciting for a guy who wasn’t even 25.
When your father and Hans Knoll connected in 1940, it was at an interesting time for them both. Hans Knoll was getting his furniture company off the ground, and Jens was studying American design while trying to establish his career in America. What was that time like?
I wouldn’t say that he and Hans were social friends, but they did drive all the way out to California—which was not something people did back then—to find out "where it was." Ultimately, they decided on New York. Shu [Florence Knoll] wrote recently that she had been going through some old photo albums and she had come across some photographs of me with George Nakashima and [his daughter] Mira, so I’ve recently reconnected with them. There’s some overlap in their furniture, but they were very different in how they approached projects.
Several years earlier, your father had created a series of textiles for a job interview with Dan Cooper, the fabric and interior designer at MoMA. Did this work with textiles influence him when, asked by Hans Knoll to design furniture, he found himself restricted to excess parachute webbing and off-cast wood at the outbreak of the war?
I don’t think so. First of all, he ended up with Dan Cooper, who was an independent textiles person. He only designed a few of Dan’s fabric patterns and some other things, but not enough for it to have a meaningful impact on his process.As for the wartime shortages, there was plenty of surplus, but they couldn’t get basic cottons. So it wasn’t that the wood was so difficult to get, it was the fabric. When he came across this defective, discarded parachute webbing, he thought, "I bet I can use that." It was a product of that kind of thinking, because there simply wasn’t anything extra in those years. The war broke out over there in ’39 and ’40, so everything disappeared fast.
"Good design will work with
good design, forever."
What happened after the war? Your father left Knoll shortly thereafter.
During the war, Knoll had moved forward, and when Dad returned in November 1945, he decided it was time for him to head out on his own. He started Jens Risom Design on May 1, 1946.With Shu at the helm, the two didn’t have reason to collaborate, but they parted amicably.
Your father has never stopped designing. At this point in his career, how does he look back on these early, celebrated designs?
It’s funny because my daughter went to RISD, as did I, and all her classmates want to talk to Mr. Risom, especially the ones who want to go into furniture. They want to know, "What do you think of this?" He’ll look at them and ask, "Do you really want to know?" Because he’ll tell them, "This is wrong, that’s not comfortable, that’s going to crack, etc."
From the early days to now, my father has always had a phenomenal appreciation for natural materials, especially the woods. You'll also notice that there are no screws or nails that you can see in his designs. The whole assembly process is vital to him, how it works. He can’t forgive a piece furniture that fails these criteria. It drives him crazy.
I’ve got a huge stack of drawings that went nowhere. He would sit at his desk and create furniture for imaginary clients by the rolls. He could just crank out that yellow trace [paper].
Risom has said that contemporary design is created "in our time for today’s people, environments, habits and activities." But while his furniture was created for a different time, it’s safe to say that his designs still respond to today’s people, habits and activities.
He was surprised when it all started coming back, but "modern" is not a word his generation used. It was "contemporary"—to the moment, to the people, to the living environment. To this day, his designs fit that objective. Even when paired with antiques, they fit in fine. Good design will work with good design, forever.