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Design world loses two greats: Jens Risom and Lella Vignelli

January 17, 2017

Jens Risom, a pioneer of Modern furniture design, passed away December 9 in New Canaan, CT, at the age of 100. Framed in wood, his signature pieces combined the spare aesthetic of Danish Modernism and American Shaker precedents. A simple, armless chair introduced in 1942 by Knoll was pivotal in establishing the reputations of both designer and manufacturer. His furniture is still selling well through both Knoll and Design Within Reach. 

Born in Copenhagen, Risom studied cabinetry at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where the equally famous furniture designer Hans Wegner was a classmate. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1940, where he happened to meet Hans Knoll, an émigré from Germany whose family produced furniture. After serving in the U.S. Army in Europe, Risom resumed his design career in America and was for a time—according to his New York Times obituary —”involved romantically and professionally” with the furniture designer Florence Schust, who was to become Florence Knoll. Heartily active into his later years, Risom outlived two wives and left four children.

Lella Vignelli, the three-dimensional designer in the partnership Vignelli Associates, died December 22 in New York at the age of 82. Her husband Massimo Vignelli, noted primarily for his graphic design, had passed away in 2014.

She was born Lella Valle in Udine, Italy, into a family of architects. (Her brother Gino Valle was a prominent Italian Modernist.) She met Massimo at an architects’ convention, when both were students, and they enrolled together at the University of Venice School of Architecture. Marrying in 1957, the couple designed graphics and products for such Italian companies as Pirelli Tire and Olivetti, then a manufacturer of typewriters.

After some shuttling between countries, the Vignellis settled in New York in 1965—first as partners in Unimark, an international design and branding consultancy, then heading their own firms, Vignelli Associates and Vignelli Designs. Among Lella Vignelli’s most notable designs were her Handkerchief stacking chairs for Knoll, a club chair for Sunar, and her Serenissimo glass-topped tables for Acerbis. One of her more ambitious and lasting works of design is the recently Landmark-designated interior of St. Peter’s Church, at the base of the Citicorp Center in Manhattan, for which she designed most of its components, including the pews and the ceremonial objects.
– John Morris Dixon

Lella Vignelli, a Designer with a Spare, Elegant Style, Dies at 82,” New York Times, December 28, 2016.

Jens Risom, Modernist designer whose Furniture still has legs, dies at 100,” New York Times, December 22, 2016.

Photo © Knoll