Bermuda Post

Friday, Jul 19, 2024

Jens Risom's Block Island Family Retreat

Jens Risom's Block Island Family Retreat

Designer Jens Risom returns to his 1967 prefab off the coast of Rhode Island, readying it for his family's next generation.

"The popular magazines were all saying that one couldn’t build a summer home for less than $25,000," recalls Jens Risom, seated comfortably in a chair of his own design inside his home in New Canaan, Connecticut. "So I contacted Life magazine and said, ‘well, I have one.’"

Mid-century designer Jens Risom's A-framed prefab family retreat, located on the northern portion of Block island, is bordered by a low stone wall, an aesthetic element that appears throughout the land.

Life magazine was impressed, not just with the project but with Risom himself-at that point, the designer had already won decades of accolades in modern furniture circles. The resulting article, a lushly photographed ode to Risom’s customized A-frame that he sourced from a catalog and had delivered in pieces to his remote island site off Rhode Island, helped to raise the aesthetic profile of modular construction. At the time, prefab suffered from a public-perception problem-the post–World War II housing boom and the subsequent need for quickly produced, kit-assembly structures had given the landscape of "ready-mades" a "dreary sameness" and a "cheapjack reputation." Risom’s structure, with its use of weathered wood, soaring cathedral ceiling, and expansive openness tied to its bucolic location, set a new standard for what prefab could look like.

In the living and dining area, where mostly vintage Risom furnishings share space with a few new additions, the view facing north is framed by the wall of glass.

For Risom, however, there was nothing earth-shattering to the design. Risom, born in Copenhagen in 1916, spent his boyhood summers in a similarly simple structure in Fredensborg, Denmark. He warmly recalls a childhood spent among family in the countryside, far from city life. Risom was also heavily influenced by the ideas of his father, a successful architect who wrote a book on a stamped-earth building technique intended as a site-specific, low-cost alternative for people who wanted to build their own homes. Risom strongly believed in the personal freedom found in building a home from a tailored kit of components. "Architecture, to me, is the most beautiful of the arts," Risom explains. "But I watched my father struggle with the challenges, what was to me an enormous drawback: 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."

Inside the house, a relatively new Rais wood-burning stove is next to a Risom Rocker from Design Within Reach, a 2009 piece from the designer.

Risom’s quest for absolute design ownership, from conception to completion, has driven his long career. After graduating from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Risom cut his teeth working for architect Ernst Kuhn and the Stockholm-based department store Nordiska Kompaniet. From there he decided to pursue contemporary furniture design in the United States. By the late 1930s, he was in Manhattan, looking for a way into the business. He crossed the path of the respected designer Dan Cooper, who offered him a job creating textiles. Though conceiving patterns wasn’t Risom’s focus, he soon was able to introduce furniture pieces to the showroom, helping to raise Cooper’s profile and winning sought-after commissions. Risom’s fresh talent proved to be beyond Cooper’s staid milieu, and in short order Risom had a coterie of high-profile admirers in the design world flocking to the Cooper showroom to commission his work. In only a few years, Risom, realizing that as long as he worked for others he wouldn’t control the process, parted ways with Cooper. He then helped Hans Knoll launch his inaugural furniture collection, the 600 Series, gaining yet more acclaim. World War II intervened, and after Risom spent a few years serving abroad, he finally returned to New York to produce his own work under his own name.

An original dining table and chairs are located in front of the no-frills kitchen, which is nearly exactly as it was when it was first installed. The shelves hold knickknacks and serving ware, nothing precious.

By the late 1960s, Jens Risom Design employed hundreds of people. Risom, his wife Iben, and their children lived in New Canaan, Connecticut, but spent summers renting on Block Island, an informal seaside locale that reminded them of their native Denmark. After a few years, Risom found a prime spot on the northern portion of the island on which to build. Risom spent much time researching different options for buying a systemized kit of parts, mindful of finding an economical solution that could stand up to the island’s intense gales of wind. He finally found a Massachusetts-based company called Stanmar that produced a sturdy model costing $20,700 that could be customized to Risom’s exact specifications-including cedar shingles, an entire wall of glass, a 20-foot-high ceiling, and an additional ten feet in footprint. After drawing up the plans himself, Risom watched as a series of parts were trucked to Point Judith, Rhode Island, and then sent by "an ancient tug" to Block Island, about 13 miles from the mainland. Flatbed trucks picked up the pieces and drove up an arduous winding dirt road to the site. Remote but well placed, the plot has an elevated position, effectively sealed off from view. "You’d never know it was there," Risom says.

The Risom plot, located on the northern portion of the island, is bordered by a low stone wall, an aesthetic element that appears throughout Block Island.

Block Island weather is notoriously capricious-fog can roll in at a moment’s notice. Due to this, the house took two months to build, rather than the three weeks the contractor originally specified. (At times the fog was so thick that the carpenters couldn’t see each other, even from two feet away.) By summer, the Risom clan was firmly ensconced.

It was an intentionally cozy space. At this time, only the Risoms’ youngest sons were living at home, as the elder daughters were already in homes of their own. Risom conceived the nearly 700-square-foot house to comprise two floors. On the first level, there are two bedrooms, a bathroom, and an open kitchen, living, and dining area. Above, a large loft held the boys’ quarters. As the years rolled by, the family happily spent every summer at the house, fishing, collecting stones on the beach, and walking the trails of the island. Though Jens couldn’t always get away, the rest of the family enjoyed the house from May to November, which they continue to do today. Iben Risom passed away in 1977, a much-beloved member of the Block Island community.

Originally, glass doors opened to the deck, but after years of gusty winds, it was decided that a side entrance, protected by a sliding steel door, would be the preferred entrance.

After decades of wear and tear, maintenance is of course necessary. Last spring it was decided that the glass sheets of the north facade were dangerously shrinking back from the frame. John Spier, a Block Island contractor, was called in to oversee the job, an admittedly hair-raising endeavor. "Working with big glass is always scary," he admits. "But it was more nerve-racking taking the old glass out because it wasn’t safety glass," he says. "You work it out of the frame carefully, but if it shatters and breaks into big lethal shards-let’s just say we were happy to get all the old glass out without bleeding too much."

There is a small workstation on the upper level of the house.

Though Jens, 97, and his second wife, Henny, do not often make the trek to Block Island from New Canaan these days, they made a special trip to see the new glass in place and supervise the photo shoot that accompanies this article. "I was worried it was going to look too new," Risom admits. Knowing the exacting standards of his father, youngest son Sven Risom was concerned about how his father would view any change to the house. How did his father respond? "Well, you ask a designer about design and he’ll have an opinion, no matter what," Sven explains with a laugh. "But he’s proud and happy that the family is still enjoying the house, and improving it rather than letting it fall apart. I think his real joy was realizing that this house is a serious thing to us. That, to someone in their 90s, is more important than anything else."

The sofa is a prototype that never went into production-the base slides out and the two cushions become flat for sleeping. Today, one can buy Risom furniture from a variety of sources, including Knoll, Design Within Reach, and Ralph Pucci.

Risom is content with the state of the house that he is leaving in the care of his family. Though he regrets that his own children didn’t have the same close relationship with their grandparents that he did, he is thankful that the carefree summers he enjoyed as a child are similar to those he has provided for his grandchildren. "In the country, life was very different," Risom recalls of his idyllic Danish childhood. "It was very primitive, it was very simple, but it was such a lovely time."

A portrait of the designer. "Architecture, to me, is the most beautiful of the arts. I always knew that I wanted to design, but only [if I could] create products over which I had total control."

A low stone wall surrounds the perimeter, which Jens planted with trees in order to create a buffer between the house and the surrounding vista.

On the north-facing facade, it’s easy to discern where the original glass doors used to open directly to the deck. In spring of 2012, Block Island contractor John Spier replaced the entire wall of glass panels.

A bright-yellow "R" sign, from a truck that used to deliver furniture from Jens Risom Design, sets off the southern facade. When Jens designed the house, he stipulated that he wanted cedar shingles, not the asphalt ones that came with the original design from the catalog.

An orange chair and cream ottoman of Risom's design.


Related Articles

Bermuda Post
Paper straws found to contain long-lasting and potentially toxic chemicals - study
FTX's Bankman-Fried headed for jail after judge revokes bail
Blackrock gets half a trillion dollar deal to rebuild Ukraine
Steve Jobs' Son Launches Venture Capital Firm With $200 Million For Cancer Treatments
Israel: Unprecedented Civil Disobedience Looms as IDF Reservists Protest Judiciary Reform
Google reshuffles Assistant unit, lays off some staffers, to 'supercharge' products with A.I.
End of Viagra? FDA approved a gel against erectile dysfunction
UK sanctions Russians judges over dual British national Kara-Murza's trial
US restricts visa-free travel for Hungarian passport holders because of security concerns
America's First New Nuclear Reactor in Nearly Seven Years Begins Operations
Southeast Asia moves closer to economic unity with new regional payments system
Political leader from South Africa, Julius Malema, led violent racist chants at a massive rally on Saturday
Today Hunter Biden’s best friend and business associate, Devon Archer, testified that Joe Biden met in Georgetown with Russian Moscow Mayor's Wife Yelena Baturina who later paid Hunter Biden $3.5 million in so called “consulting fees”
Singapore Carries Out First Execution of a Woman in Two Decades Amid Capital Punishment Debate
Spanish Citizenship Granted to Iranian chess player who removed hijab
US Senate Republican Mitch McConnell freezes up, leaves press conference
Speaker McCarthy says the United States House of Representatives is getting ready to impeach Joe Biden.
San Francisco car crash
This camera man is a genius
3D ad in front of Burj Khalifa
Next level gaming
Google testing journalism AI. We are doing it already 2 years, and without Google biased propoganda and manipulated censorship
Unlike illegal imigrants coming by boats - US Citizens Will Need Visa To Travel To Europe in 2024
Musk announces Twitter name and logo change to
'I just lost it' Lowe’s worker fired after 13 years of employment for confronting thieves trying to steal $2K of merchandise
The politician and the journalist lost control and started fighting on live broadcast.
The future of sports
Unveiling the Black Hole: The Mysterious Fate of EU's Aid to Ukraine
Farewell to a Music Titan: Tony Bennett, Renowned Jazz and Pop Vocalist, Passes Away at 96
Alarming Behavior Among Florida's Sharks Raises Concerns Over Possible Cocaine Exposure
Transgender Exclusion in Miss Italy Stirs Controversy Amidst Changing Global Beauty Pageant Landscape
Joe Biden admitted, in his own words, that he delivered what he promised in exchange for the $10 million bribe he received from the Ukraine Oil Company.
TikTok Takes On Spotify And Apple, Launches Own Music Service
Global Trend: Using Anti-Fake News Laws as Censorship Tools - A Deep Dive into Tunisia's Scenario
Arresting Putin During South African Visit Would Equate to War Declaration, Asserts President Ramaphosa
Hacktivist Collective Anonymous Launches 'Project Disclosure' to Unearth Information on UFOs and ETIs
Typo sends millions of US military emails to Russian ally Mali
Server Arrested For Theft After Refusing To Pay A Table's $100 Restaurant Bill When They Dined & Dashed
The Changing Face of Europe: How Mass Migration is Reshaping the Political Landscape
China Urges EU to Clarify Strategic Partnership Amid Trade Tensions
Europe is boiling: Extreme Weather Conditions Prevail Across the Continent
The Last Pour: Anchor Brewing, America's Pioneer Craft Brewer, Closes After 127 Years
Democracy not: EU's Digital Commissioner Considers Shutting Down Social Media Platforms Amid Social Unrest
Sarah Silverman and Renowned Authors Lodge Copyright Infringement Case Against OpenAI and Meta
Italian Court's Controversial Ruling on Sexual Harassment Ignites Uproar
Why Do Tech Executives Support Kennedy Jr.?
The New York Times Announces Closure of its Sports Section in Favor of The Athletic
BBC Anchor Huw Edwards Hospitalized Amid Child Sex Abuse Allegations, Family Confirms
Florida Attorney General requests Meta CEO's testimony on company's platforms' alleged facilitation of illicit activities
The Distorted Mirror of actual approval ratings: Examining the True Threat to Democracy Beyond the Persona of Putin