The summer house: a place of quiet retreat
“In Block Island we are surrounded by the water, we are part of the environment. Weather and the land and the water all really work together, much like furniture and design and textiles.”
Sven Risom, the youngest of Jens’ four sons
Built in 1967, Jens Risom’s summer house on Block Island is nearly as iconic as the furniture that made his name. The first pre-fab building on the island, it was never expected by anybody but Jens himself to last longer than its first year but – as with much of his work – it has stood the test of time: with its expansive glass walls, open plan layout, incredible vaulted ceiling and simplistic design, it looks as strikingly contemporary today as it did upon its completion over 50 years ago.
Located about thirteen miles off the coast of Rhode Island, Block Island offers a kind of peace that is difficult to find – only accessible by boat or plane, with a population of just 1,051 inhabitants at the last census, it remains a place untouched by the distractions of city life. It was this seclusion, a feeling of being connected with the land that surrounded him, that first made Jens fall in love with the island that he would return to with his family each summer for almost six decades.
“Block Island by its design was not intended to reflect the hustle and bustle of New York, it was calm and collected.” Sven Risom
A source of continuous inspiration for the designer, the bucolic nature of the island provided Jens with a keen understanding of the ways in which the colours, textures and tones found in the different woods, seasonal foliage and changing water could be reinterpreted through his textiles and furniture designs. Believing movement to be key to achieving the intrigue that lays at the heart of art, and eager to avoid the flat and static colours he found unappealing, many of his fabrics embody this transitional feeling - created through combining different tones, colours and textures within one textile. Jens’ youngest son, Sven, recalls the inspiration the summer house created for his father’s work, as he observes: “When you look at his fabrics, for the vast majority, there is movement going on, there is action going on within the colours, within the woven structure, within the application and then more importantly within the materials and the fibres themselves.”
As much as the summer house was a place which ignited Jens’ creativity, it was – above all – intended to offer his family a place where they could just be, providing the quiet stillness that he treasured from his visits to the northern rural parts of Denmark as a child. Reflected in the very design of the home, the open loft and living space emphasised that its purpose was to simply be together. Sven remembers his time spent there as a child with his family as being incredibly peaceful, recalling memories of evenings spent together: “At night, the house sort of became a glow because one light in the darkness throws a lot of lumin. We used to sit and play cards and do millions of puzzles. We didn’t have TV, or computers, or phones the way you do now, it was very family oriented and very quiet.”
With an initial aim of building a summer house that was simple, to scale and appropriate – a place that reflected the Danish roots so prominent in his elegantly minimal furniture designs – Jens transformed the perception of what a pre-fab home could look like, in much the same way the mid-century modern movement he pioneered revolutionised the concept of what constitutes good design. Encapsulating the comfort and style for which he is renowned, the summer house remains in use today by the Risom family – a haven of peace and quiet for generations to enjoy – and there is possibly no better testament to the timeless appeal of Jens’ designs.