To commemorate Danish-born designer Jens Risom’s 100th birthday, his granddaughter, Cat Belluschi-Paulk (whom we are lucky to call a member of the Chairish merchandising team) sat down with her grandfather to ask a few questions about his illustrious career. Jens is a true living legend: many of his designs are considered classics, and his work is on display at countless revered institutions around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum, and even the Oval Office. Cat, a graduate of RISD herself, inherited her grandfather’s love of design, and prior to her work at Chairish, she was a set decorator, a staging designer, and more.

Read on below for Cat’s reflection on life with her grandfather, as well as our exclusive interview with the exemplar of Mid-Century Modern Scandinavian design in America. We’ve also put together a collection of Jens Risom pieces on Chairish here.

And, of course, happy 100th birthday, Jens!

Black and white photo of Jens Risom on striped sofa

I’m not sure my grandfather Jens can even believe he’s turning 100 years old; although, if you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s actually turning 200. He’s always had a great sense of humor.

Vintage family photos with Jens Risom and children in their home and outside

Equally wonderful to Jens’ sense of humor is his laugh, which is so very distinctly Jens. It’s a laugh that evokes fond memories of my family’s holiday gatherings at Jens’ home in Connecticut, where he and his late wife Iben (my mom’s mom), and later his second wife Henny (our surrogate grandmother), loved to entertain.

More recent Family Photos of Jens Risom and family in color

Holidays meant Jens would reveal his yearly Christmas card to all of us, something that I would look forward to all year round. The grandkids (11 of us eventually) used to spy on Jens in his home office, where he’d be sketching away.

black and white photo of Jens Risom at work with his Christmas cards

We’d ask to sit at the ‘adult table’ at Christmas just to listen to Jens laugh and tell stories in between shots of Aquavit with his brothers Niels and Ole (pictured below), my mother Helen, aunt Peg, uncles Tom and Sven, and friends visiting from Europe. Jens has an aura about him, and everyone that he meets can feel it. I feel very lucky to have been embraced by it all.

Photos of Jens Risom and friends having a drink at a bar

Jens’ home was always beautifully decorated with not only his own furniture, but also with pieces from many other designers he admired. Growing up surrounded by beautifully-crafted Mid-Century Modern design was bound to have an impact on me. And because of who he was and what he created, it took me a while to enjoy styles other than Mid-Century Modern!

Jens Risom in his older age sitting on a bench with children outside

I now have a family of my own in Los Angeles, and my husband, kids and I sit together on furniture made by Jens. These pieces really are my most prized possessions. Though my family members live all over, we’re connected by the pieces we each have, made with love by Jens.

Jens Risom poses in an orange chair at 100 with his grand daughter

We are so lucky to be able to celebrate the milestone of Jens turning 100! I’ve never had a chance to ‘interview’ him before now, and with the help of my cousin Thayer and mother Helen, we recorded a conversation with him just the other day. Read on for what he shared with us.

How, why, and when did you become a furniture designer?
My father Sven was an award-winning architect, and I was was exposed to the best of Danish design from an early age. Architecture, to me, is the most beautiful of the arts. But, I did watch my father struggle with some challenges, and that was an enormous drawback to me, the architect did not fully drive the end product. I always knew that I wanted to design, but only if I could create products over which I had total control. I was trained at the School of Arts and Crafts in Copenhagen, and then spent two years at Niels Brock Copenhagen Business College before working for architect Ernst Kuhn and the Stockholm-based department store Nordiska Kompaniet. I met an American Diplomat in Copenhagen who forever changed my career path. Upon seeing my sketches, the diplomat suggested that I should consider going to the United States, he said “We don’t have any furniture like this. I think you’d do very well.” I took his advice and moved to America at the age of 23.

Black and white photo of Jens Risom and collaborators at work on chair

Did you feel that you were in a design movement in the 50’s and 60’s, or was it not until looking back that you realized you were part of an important time for furniture design?
I was surprised to find that the America of 1939 had virtually no exposure to contemporary design or architecture. Interior decorators were only interested in “old things and making things look old…” Anything new or contemporary, especially from Europe, especially from Scandinavia, they didn’t want. I took a job designing textiles for the respected interior designer Dan Cooper and was introduced to furniture pieces in Cooper’s showroom, where his work reflected what I was exposed to when I was younger: namely that comfort and natural materials and gracefulness of style, was integral to good design. So yes, you could feel a movement approaching, but it was very gradual and took many years.

How did your collaboration with Hans Knoll begin?
When I met Hans Knoll, he was struggling to open a furniture company in New York with nondescript furniture. Two years later, Hans and I spent three months traveling across the country and returned convinced that there was a market for quality, modern designs amongst the rising generation. I sketched 15 pieces for Hans Knoll’s first catalogue. The 1942 series featured armchairs, stools and amoeba-shaped coffee tables. The chairs—including the No, 654 Lounge chair—were made under wartime materials mandates from cedar wood and surplus military parachute webbing. That was how it all got started and it flourished from there.

Jens Risom and other famous furniture designers pose with their respective pieces

Can you describe your design process? What comes first, design or materials?
The two aren’t really separate for me, they form together. It’s a fine balance of both design and materials, really. When we had war restrictions, of course, we had to take into consideration what we could use, but that was only for a certain time period. Also, there is a big difference between wood furniture and upholstered furniture. The arm is the main difference, you see the wood, you see the frame, this attracted me, so I always started from this perspective.

Did you have a favorite piece of furniture from your own collection?
Not really. I love them all.

Mid century Furniture Production Advertisement ft. Jens Risom leaning against a desk

Is there a designer from the past that you admired?
Finn Juhl was always one of my favorite designers, as were Charles and Ray Eames. There are and were so many incredible designers – it’s really hard to narrow it down. When the work is beautiful and functional, then I’m going to like it.

What is your advice for young designers?
My main advice would be to choose your materials wisely, choose quality fabrics and wood. Make sure that it’s not only beautiful to the eye, but that it will last. Cheap materials may save you a few dollars at the beginning, but if you are trying to design timeless pieces, really try to understand the materials that you are choosing to work with and their limitations.

Two photos of Jens Risom leaning against wood furniture in his early days and as an older man

Are you happy you chose to design furniture?
Yes. [Laughs] It was an attractive career to have chosen! It wasn’t very common, but it created a well balanced life for our family.

What inspired you to create all the holiday cards, place settings for family gatherings, and notes to send to distant relatives? Those are some of our favorite family keepsakes.
I chose to incorporate design into our life in many ways because I was inspired by my family. Some things are just better made by your own hands instead of someone else’s.

black and white photo of Jens Risom posing with his wood armchair

{Note: With Jens’ permission, the first three answers have been adapted from his 2012 Dwell Magazine interview. First image of Jens on chair via Dwell; image of designers George Nelson, Edward Wormley, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames and Jens Risom, via Playboy “Design For Living,” c. 1961.}

May 1, 2015

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