Alexandra Lange | Essays

Sitting Pretty

See this chair? They are selling it for $1100 at Design Within Reach as the Jens Armchair, a reissue of a chair designed by Danish-American designer Jens Risom in 1949 for the Caribe Hilton Hotel in Puerto Rico. Risom (who is still alive and living in Connecticut) is best known for his webbed chairs, manufactured and distributed by Knoll, but after parting ways with Knoll in the 1950s, he designed a series of more interesting and more craftsman-like pieces of furniture, many in walnut. I know this because I own one that is probably my biggest design score to date. It was in the townhouse my husband and I ended up buying and when I saw it I knew it was something: definitely Scandinavian, maybe Finn Juhl, who knew? I am no expert. But it didn’t matter, because I bought it and its matching ottoman from the estate for $100. Even unpedigreed it had great lines.

It was only when I got around to reupholstering it (in a subtle orange-blue-tan stripe) that I found the R tag on the seat, under the cushion, and realized I had an icon. It was a thrill, even better than the day I picked up a Finel enamel mushroom bowl and platter for $10 at the Thetford (VT) Hill fair. What’s so nice about the chair is how comfortable it is. The long lines aren’t just for show, but thrust you back into a relaxed position, feet up, with a magazine. The arms aren’t angular but smooth, widening to accomodate the elbow. It looks good from all sides, like a line drawing of a chair. And on mine, the walnut has a dark and mellow glow, making it work in a room with antiques and lots of other woods.

But while the reissue may be equally comfortable, making it in maple (and such dry, dessicated-looking maple) robs it of several of those beauties. No longer is there contrast between dark wood and light struts, it is all light. No longer is there the suggestion of luxury that walnut brings. In the photo, against the white background, the chair fades as it would in a bright living space. It wouldn’t hold the corner of an open-plan living room. It is not really the same chair. Risom collaborated on the reissue (and vintage catalogs on the Risom website show it in some lighter wood), but I fear he and DWR succumbed to mid-century revisionism.

I had seen this scourge before in the reissued Hans Wegner wishbone chairs. My grandmother has them in a mid-brown wood, probably teak, but the new ones in catalogs are pale. The image of mid-century living today is all light and white and glass and blonde wood. That’s what we see in expensive apartments in magazines (or did until people became ashamed of their expensive apartments). That’s how iconic chairs are in the windows of the DWR stores, surrounded by increasingly trite design friends of the same era, like the Nelson Bubble lamps. But mid-century modernism, Scandinavian design, American modern, all the simultaneous 1950s trends, were a lot more complicated and more interesting than that. Blonde wasn’t the only wood, just as white and black weren’t the only colors. In the moment, they mixed it up. It is only we at some nostalgic remove that are trying to sanitize the record, and strip a chair like this (one a non-modernist could love for its comfort and craft) of its darker soul.

Posted in: Product Design

Comments [1]

I think you're on the money about reducing all these designs to blond woods. In fact, when we think back to Juhl's beautiful creations, for example, we envision them in walnut or teak--warm looking woods that played against the sleeker lines. That's the beautiful synthesis of the best Scandinavian designs. I would have resisted deriding nelson's Bubble lamps, though: they may be overused--but one of them placed properly exudes excellent ambient light without drawing too much attention to itself.
Mark Mussari

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