Jens Risom’s 1942 designs for Knoll were born out of wartime necessity but went on to become signature midcentury modern designs.
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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.
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.
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 entrepreneurial 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.
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.