jens risom, living and working past 92!

i plan to live into my 90s and be productive and useful in some way until i die. you think about these things when you are nearing 50…  

if you need inspiration to set yourself such a goal, read an article about furniture designer jens risom at dwr’s design notes.  in my hunt for decent design websites, dwr, design within reach is so far my favorite.  they offer some thoughtful substance, not just bits of waffle and a picture or two. 

2008, jens risom (age 92), with dwr design studio, originally designed in 1949 for the caribe hilton hotel in puerto rico.

2008, jens risom (age 92), with dwr design studio, originally designed in 1949 for the caribe hilton hotel in puerto rico.

dwr worked with risom in 2008 to remake a 1949 chair and ottoman, and a bench.  what an opportunity, to be able to tap into all those years of hard work and wisdom. they used different materials and techniques, but risom has always been interested  in efficient production and exceptional accessible design.  he worked with this dwr team to do the same thing again.  

my granny lived into her 90s.  i remember her, her smile and the twinkle in her eyes well.  my goal is a distinct possibility….


the best lounge chair design: the la-z-boy??


a la-z-boy recliner

a la-z-boy recliner



second to tv’s, la-z-boy recliners are the fastest selling items at your local thrift store.  for some this may be the perfect lounge chair.  their factory pumps out 6000 a day, they say.  maybe la-z-boy’s stocks will never go down.  the makers have an impressive history of clever invention, risk taking, hard work. you can read about it at lazboy incorporated company history.  and shop for a wide variety of reclining chair styles at

we have one at my house, and it has been well used.  but for my personal hunt for a lounge chair, it is out of the running right away.  it is an anti-social chair.  it says “leave me alone with my tv.”  now this may be harsh, but tell me this is not what most people in your house sit in it for?  

when i lounge, i prefer not to do nothing or to zone out.  i like to talk with a friend, read a book, do some needlework, or diddle on my laptop (check my mail, scan the news, do a bit of twittering and blogging, read interior design articles and blogs), have a drink or eat a bit.  these activities are not conducive to the reclined position.  i want my feet up, sometimes, to rest my head, sometimes, but to maintain an attitude of engagement with life and the people around me.  when i want to check out and sleep i go to bed. 

compromise: at our house a few years ago we bought a big leather couch, each half of which reclines, with no arm rest (divider contraption) in the middle.  it is one big cosy lounge couch for two, or for two with a grandchild in between.  it still sort of says, “leave us alone we are watching tv,” but it is more social.  and jungle book or mary poppins make for very happy conversation with a small person.


reclining sofa -- for social tv watching

reclining sofa -- for social tv watching

furniture design – thonet’s lifestyle

how do you get from this….
The Battle of Trafalgar by J. M. W. Turner (oil on canvas, 1822–1824)

to this?

Thonets mass produced no.14 chair

Thonet's mass produced no.14 chair

you cannot separate great designers from their life and time.  case in point, michael thonet.  he was a cabinet maker by training.  interior design at that time was following the trends of architecture and that was inspired by royalty (and the church.)  see me, my great buildings, trust me and follow me (even though i am rather foolish), sort of thing (well, not the church entirely, nor all royalty, but lots of it).  but this was the beginning of the end for those that inherited moneyed upper classness.  along with the rise of british naval power was the beginning of the industrial revolution.  hard working innovators were the rising rich, first in britain and spreading to western europe and north america.  meanwhile, in prussia, and then austria, thonet and his four sons experimented with chairs.  

trade and war went hand in hand during the early industrial revolution, and the greatest need for both was fast ships.  the shipbuilders were the only ones bending wood.  lighter, stronger, sleeker, faster.  then sail to china, bomb their ports, trade your opium and tea, steal hong kong (1842). back to london for huge profits. (for example).

i was born and raised in hong kong and only the very old sat around there, much.  everyone worked hard to make the most of every opportunity — which was plentiful because of the hard work of the people that had built the place (and few regulations, low taxes, and good government).  factories were set up in tiny apartments, where whole families also lived, even in the shacks perched on the slippery hillsides.  little 3 year olds studied their characters to make it into the first year of school.  everyone studied english.  people were selling anything and everything wherever they could.

hong kong island, transformed from the 1800 fishing village

hong kong island, transformed from the fishing village of the early 1800s

but back to thonet and sons, whose story reminds me of hong kong.  he was born in 1796, apprenticed with a cabinet maker, was invited in 1842 to be the royal furniture designer for austria.  turned the offer down to keep his independence and vision of worldwide sales.  below is a excerpt from “Thonet 14,” by Giovanni Renzi.   bear in mind that there were no phones or emails, no cars or trucks.  steam ships and trains were only just getting under way.  there were no gas stations, no credit cards.  europe and north america were growing and changing rapidly, with every man for himself, more or less.  

The history, development and copies of the bestselling chair in the world 
Over a hundred and forty years ago, in 1859, a Thonet factory in Koritschan in Moravia, produced the first chair known as number 14 in the catalogues of the Viennese company. Since then several million chairs of this model have been manufactured and sold. 
According to various scholars of the Thonet phenomenon 
(1), it is possible to speak of fifty million examples manufactured and sold by 1930, whilst according to the advertising of Gebruder Thonet in its contemporary catalogues, fifty million chairs had been sold before 1914. This success was followed by extremely widespread competition from local, national and international firms, with several million (2) copies of the original built using the same bent beech-wood technique. Finally, the same model was reproduced using other materials; firstly iron, which was initially handcrafted and later worked using modern welding techniques, and then plastic. 
Such figures have never been repeated in the furniture sector, and although they have probably been inflated by advertising propaganda, they still represent the worldwide success of an extremely simple model: an archetype of the chair. 
Ever since the last quarter of the nineteenth century news papers and magazines and travel magazines have portrayed people of all races and ranks sitting on the number 14, firstly in drawings and later in photographs. 
The success of number 14 is the success of Michael Thonet and the final result of the stubborn conviction that beech-wood and the bending technique represented the future of chair making. Following twenty years of experimentation, marketing mistakes, technological intricacies and partial failures, Thonet managed to create the economic chair for mass consumption. 

michael thonet and sons, who started their own company in 1819

michael thonet and sons

more on thonet another time, but i am impressed by his story and his chairs.  we want things to be given to us today.  make it easy, make it fast.  but that is not how it happens.  get to work – or dream on and only see it on your dreams.