Weaver, designer, collector, gardener, author, world traveler, entrepreneur, teacher and cultural scholar, Jack Lenor Larsen was mentor to textile connoisseurs, designers, artisans and artists throughout his eventful and gratifying 93 years. He died peacefully on the evening of December 22, 2020 of natural causes at the LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton, the 16-acre garden and arts center that is his legacy. Larsen’s companion of more than 30 years, Peter Olsen, was at his side.
A memorial service will be announced in the near future. For those who wish to honor Larsen, he would appreciate nothing more than a contribution to the Jack Lenor Larsen Endowment Fund, established to support the maintenance of and programming at his beloved LongHouse Reserve.
Larsen’s remarkable career as a textile designer began in the early 1950s when he founded his studio, Jack Lenor Larsen Inc., in New York City. His influence on midcentury modern design and textiles is historic and is distinguished by his passion for natural yarns; his appropriation and preservation of Asian, African and Indigenous patterns and techniques; and his aesthetic innovations. As recently as 2019, Larsen designed a textile collection in Sunbrella performance yarns, distributed internationally under Cowtan & Tout’s Larsen brand. Woven in luxurious chenilles and textured jacquards, the designs are timeless, with universal appeal. As Jack has said, “They now live harmoniously both outside in the gardens and inside Longhouse on my iconic furnishings.”
Larsen has been honored and recognized for his contributions to the fields of craft and design by leading arts and humanities organizations around the world. These include The American Craft Council, The American Institute of Architects, The Aspen Design Conference, The New School, Interior Design’s Hall of Fame and The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. He is the recipient of honorary doctorates from The Parsons School of Design, The Fashion Institute, The Rhode Island School of Design and both the Royal College of Art and the Royal Society of Art in London. The many tributes paid to Larsen in print occupy a voluminous archive. Larsen is also one of only four Americans to have been honored with an exhibition at the Palais du Louvre in Paris, as well as with a solo exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York in 2004. Larsen fabrics reside in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Art Institute of Chicago and The Victoria & Albert Museum, to name just a few.
“In a world today in which our senses are saturated with sameness, Jack Larsen is a shrine to individuality,” says Longhouse Board President Dianne Benson. “In our mega-multiple world where things are now routinely measured in billions, Jack cautioned us to be more mindful of what we take away than of what we add. ‘Subtraction is the key to elegance’ he insisted. Both fluid and authoritative, intimidating and shy, possessed of a dry wit and an elegant mien, Jack was also totally unpredictable. Often, he made an appearance dressed in the most hand-woven of ethnic costumes, including astonishing hats and uncommonly beautiful scarves and at other times he showed up in the outdoorsiest of garden woolens and boots, with everyone else primped for summer. Invariably, he had always made the best choice.”
Jack Lenor Larsen was born on August 5, 1927 in Seattle, Washington, the only child of parents who had come from Alberta, Canada and who traced their ancestry to Norway and Denmark. Influenced by his father, an architect, Larsen enrolled at the School of Architecture at the University of Washington in 1945. The following year he studied furniture design and began weaving; he then moved to Los Angeles to focus on fabric design. In 1949, Larsen studied ancient Peruvian textiles in Seattle and in 1951 he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. He later opened his design studio in New York City. A deep appreciation for handmade objects and weaving traditions from around the world were essential to Larsen as an artist, designer and educator throughout his life.
Over the course of his career, Larsen designed thousands of fabric patterns and textiles, distinguishing his fabrics with random repeats and variegated, natural yarns. He traveled widely and shared his distinctive techniques with others, resulting in the manufacture of iconic Larsen textiles in over 30 countries. In an era where artificial fibers and machine-made products were the latest thing, Larsen was known for handmade, natural materials and local craft traditions such as ikat and batik. His visionary collaborations with weavers in Japan, Southeast Asia, India and Africa helped preserve traditional techniques and inspire experimental design and manufacturing in those regions. Among Larsen’s notable early commissions was the design of lobby draperies for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Lever House (1951-1952). Frank Lloyd Wright also used Larsen fabrics at both Taliesen and Fallingwater. Eero Saarinen commissioned Larsen fabrics for his J. Irwin Miller House, and Larsen was on the committee that selected architect Edward Larrabee Barnes for the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. Other architect collaborators included Hugh Hardy, I. M. Pei and Louis Kahn (whom he also taught to weave).
Larsen’s company created fabrics for Braniff Airways’ first jet planes and then PanAm’s first 747s and other planes including Air Force One. His clients were global, sophisticated and diverse – they included Joan Baez, Leonard Bernstein, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Alexander Calder and Marilyn Monroe, among other artists and celebrities.
His multi-faceted life and career cast Larsen in many roles—Chairman of The Haystack Mountain School, President of the World Craft Council, Lifetime Achiever of the American Crafts Museum. However, it is at LongHouse that he staked his claim for the ages.
LongHouse Reserve is a nonprofit institution inaugurated by Larsen in 1991 and which opened to the public in 1992. Its mission, as articulated by Larsen is to exemplify and encourage living with art in all its forms. The gardens, sculpture and programs of LongHouse reflect world cultures and are designed to foster a creative life. After encountering a group touring LongHouse one day, Larsen remarked, “How rewarding to witness their excitement…they found a haven where all seemed to make sense, and everything is so beautiful! Passions were aroused and the question answered—how to make their lives more real, less conformist, with no thought of dollar signs? Being in it. This is what LongHouse is all about.”
“Jack Lenor Larsen is one of those curious personalities who exude an awareness of high modernism and yet insists on living squarely in this era that has not yet been defined with any kind of moniker, any kind of ‘ism,’” honorary LongHouse board member Bill T. Jones notes. “In Jack we have a true Renaissance man, a master of weaving, design, gardening. The greatest testament to Jack’s legacy is the number of makers he’s mentored and championed. He is a grand gentleman and a brave visionary. My life has been enriched by knowing him.”
With his passing, the ownership of the house and of Larsen’s personal collection is being transferred to the LongHouse Reserve Foundation, which is committed to maintaining Larsen’s aesthetic philosophies while expanding the public presence of LongHouse. Larsen’s home will be transformed into a “house museum.” Larsen was a true enthusiast who searched out and embraced the new, the unexplored, the next thing. He repeatedly stressed that LongHouse should “be relevant, not reverent,” and the Foundation will ensure that it is.
“During the course of over 24 years of working with Jack, I learned the importance of dreaming, planning and being open to all possibilities,” Longhouse Executive Director Matko Tomicic comments. “Each day proved to be an adventure, a challenge, an experiment, an exploration and an opportunity to envision and to realize the warp and weft of life. We would, indeed be fortunate to create until our final breath, as he did. Jack was my mentor, Jack was my friend, he will be missed.”
Larsen first visited East Hampton in 1953 and in 1964 he acquired land that became Round House, his first residence. Modeled after Bantu dwellings in West Africa, it was his home until 1990. In 1975 Larsen bought an adjacent 15.4-acre property on which he planned to display alternatives in design, architecture and art. Today, that property is LongHouse Reserve. Larsen noted with his usual practical approach “property so far from the ocean was not only affordable but had better weather for year-round gardening.”
In 1990 Larsen sold Round House to good friends, Judy and Ennius Bergsma. From the very beginning, his intention was to make LongHouse a place of learning, open to the public and especially welcoming to children. The house was a collaboration with the architect Charles Forberg and was built by Joe Tufariello—construction was completed in 1992.
The structure’s design was inspired by the seventh century Shinto shrine at Ise Japan. It encompasses 13,000 square feet, with 18 spaces on four levels. Larsen’s friend, playwright Edward Albee, called LongHouse, “a 16-acre unreality of forest, garden and vista put together over many years by a man whose sense of what with sufficient vision might be, is made reality.”
With typical modesty Larsen recently wrote, “For a long time now, I have been a maker—often of the less usual and with some success. While mid-century furniture endures, my cloths are in shreds, their successful exhibits long forgotten. LongHouse, on the other hand, transcends each year more splendidly.”
LongHouse is a showcase for Larsen’s extensive collections of historical and contemporary crafts, including works by Anni Albers, Dame Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Edward Wormley, a particularly fine collection of Wharton Esherick furniture as well as works by Dale Chihuly. Larsen once advised Chihuly, then a student, to “give up weaving and go into glass blowing.”
“Jack Lenor Larsen was an extraordinary designer, teacher and friend,” Chihuly says. “Already a legend when we met at the University of Washington while I was still a student, he encouraged me and became a mentor. Jack was remarkably creative and continues to help artists and craftsmen—opening doors for them and helping them find their way.”
The gardens surrounding the house, wholly conceived by Larsen down to the choice of rocks and placement of hedges, include works by Willem de Kooning, Bryan Hunt, Sol LeWitt, Grace Knowlton, Yoko Ono, Toshiko Takaezu and others amidst rotating pieces that change each season. Buckminster Fuller’s striking Fly’s Eye Dome is the largest work at LongHouse, the one that stands out on a Google map that Larsen favored as he explained, “It was his last dome—he envisioned it being dropped onto hillsides by helicopters and used as living space.” LongHouse Reserve is one of the few public collections to have always maintained parity between female and male artists and, its renowned summer galas have honored artists and thinkers of all origins and persuasions.
“When Jack Larsen was honored by the Smithsonian, he was very clear, acknowledging that he did not get where he is alone,” LongHouse curator Wendy Van Deusen says. “Jack has always embraced collaboration. He’s been my greatest teacher.”
Larsen was also a giver, having donated important examples of 20th century design and craft, as well as his own textiles and wisdom to a myriad of institutions. He was a man of distinct tastes, the curator of many exhibitions including two at MoMA (1968-69 and 1977), The San Francisco Museum of Art (1981) and the Textile Museum in Washington DC (1986). In addition, he was an accomplished linguist and author. Larsen’s 10 books, the most recent of which is Learning from LongHouse, published by Pointed Leaf Press in 2016, are a compendium of acerbic anecdotes and thought provoking pearls of design wisdom.
In 2016 Larsen wrote to Dianne Benson what might be the perfect eulogy for him: “If coming home has always been the best part of travel, this is true of coming home from the hospital. With that, for the first time, came the realization that one day I will not come home. Pity that, as I have come to be so appreciative of the environment here and of the friends remaining. Having been chosen for a long life does not diminish attachment to that life.”
To learn more about Jack Lenor Larsen and his beloved LongHouse Reserve, visit longhouse.org.