Jack Lenor Larsen, innovative textile designer, dies at 93

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Jack Lenor Larsen, innovative textile designer, dies at 93
Jack Lenor Larsen. Photo: Roberto Dutesco.

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Jack Lenor Larsen, a textile designer who blended ancient techniques and modern technology to weave fabrics that enlivened postwar American homes and workplaces and, in the process, became an international presence, died Tuesday at his home in East Hampton, New York. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by LongHouse Reserve, a nonprofit sculpture garden and arboretum that Larsen founded in East Hampton where his home was located.

Larsen rejected offers of an academic career to open his own textile business in 1952 in New York City, where he clothed the windows and furnishings of sleek modern towers as if they were fashion models and cut a dashing figure among the cultural elite in Manhattan and the Hamptons. He also influenced major cultural figures of his time.

In the mid-1960s, he persuaded artist Dale Chihuly, then a recent interior design graduate of the University of Washington, to give up weaving glass and to try blowing it instead. He instructed architect Louis Kahn, with whom he collaborated in 1969 on hangings for the First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York, in weaving.

Born in Seattle, Larsen was shaped by the Pacific Northwest’s moody, misty landscape and Asian cultural influences. He traveled the world to study weaving techniques and translated what he learned into nubby, luminous, porous, variegated, spidery and feathery fabrics.

Many of his designs were produced on power looms for the modern commercial market. Offices, hotel lobbies and aircraft interiors had never received anything like them.

His textiles are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Musée Des Arts Décoratifs at the Louvre, which gave him a one-man retrospective in 1981.

Among the homes containing Larsen textiles are Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Eero Saarinen’s Miller House. In the 1960s, Larsen took a brief detour into designing garments, including shaggy ties worn by Alexander Calder, Leonard Bernstein and I.M. Pei. Joan Baez asked him to create custom clothing for her. (He declined.)

He dropped ikat and batik patterns on Americans hungry for exoticism and was co-author of a book on the techniques that produced them. An upholstery fabric called Magnum, designed in 1970, was inspired by Indian textiles embedded with small mirrors; Larsen and his associate Win Anderson reproduced the effect with a layer of Mylar film.

His experiments also yielded draperies that reduced the glare of modern glass buildings without detracting from their architectural rigor or decomposing in heat and light.

Just such a project was a professional watershed. Larsen, who had moved to Manhattan fresh from graduate studies in weaving at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, received a commission in 1951 to design the curtains for the Manhattan tower Lever House, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The building’s limpid walls called for something special — “a translucent lace weave of linen cord and gold metal,” as he described it in his book “Jack Lenor Larsen: A Weaver’s Memoir,” published in 1998. (He published 10 books in all.)

Larsen went on to pioneer the use of stretch nylons that could be smoothed over the globular-style seating designs typical of midcentury style; screen-printed velvets (a tricky thing to manage with complex detail until he worked out the correct pile depth); and bath towels woven on specialized looms to produce double-sided textures and patterns.

“He was always thinking of textiles in three dimensions, never as flat surfaces,” said Matilda McQuaid, the head of the textile department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. This approach, she said, a legacy of his undergraduate schooling in architecture, gave him uncommon mastery over a fabric’s structure.

Larsen was an adventurous colorist. Searching for hues that would bring out the dimensions in his beloved rough cottons and linens, he befriended the yellow family.

“Olives, ochers, caramel and earthy oranges could be used at full intensity without seeming aggressive,” he wrote in his memoir. They complemented the oiled wood finishes and teals that were popular midcentury. But olive and ocher then evolved into “the saccharine Avocado and Harvest Gold color epidemic of the American sixties,” he lamented.

Jack Lenor Larsen was born Aug. 5, 1927, to Elmer Larsen, a building contractor, and Mabel (Bye) Larsen. His parents were Canadians of Danish Norwegian ancestry who immigrated to Washington state from Alberta and moved to Bremerton when Larsen began high school.

He enrolled at the University of Washington to study architecture but was hampered by struggles with drawing and found more interest in interior and furniture design. Weaving, a craft then taught in the home economics department, soothed his maker’s itch.

He worked with “every yarn available,” he recalled in his memoir, “then wove with straw, bamboo, raffia, wire, rope and rags. Every strand of nature, it seemed, could be woven.” Taking a break from college, he apprenticed with a weaver in Los Angeles and taught movie star Joan Crawford how to “warp,” or string a row of fibers vertically on a loom.

He opened Jack Lenor Larsen Inc. in a donated walk-up on East 73rd Street in Manhattan. By 1997, when he merged his business with Cowtan & Tout, the American subsidiary of the British company Colefax & Fowler, he had operations in 31 countries.

Rigorous standards, elegant comportment and an easy way among influential people propelled him upward and outward. One mentor in the early 1950s sent him to Haiti to teach villagers who were twisting wild magnolia fiber into wicks for oil lamps to weave the strands into cloth. Later in the decade, designer Russel Wright enlisted him to work on economic development projects for the State Department, and he traveled to Taiwan and South Vietnam to advise artisans on creating goods for export.

In 1972, five years after his friend Jim Thompson, the force behind the international Thai silk weaving industry, disappeared into the Malaysian jungle, Larsen assumed management of the company’s manufacturing.

Although he worked, by his reckoning, in more than 60 countries, Japan was dearest to him. Matko Tomacic, LongHouse Reserve’s executive director, recalled accompanying him on one of his 39 trips to the country and watching him communicate effortlessly, even though he didn’t know Japanese. “We speak the same language, the textile language,” Larsen told him. His home at LongHouse was modeled on a seventh-century Shinto shrine.

He continued designing almost to the end of his life. In March, Cowtan & Tout released new Larsen collections of indoor-outdoor fabrics for which he had updated two of his midcentury motifs.

He is survived by Peter Olsen, his domestic partner.

Helena Hernmarck, a Swedish tapestry artist who met Larsen shortly after moving to New York in the 1960s, remembered his unwavering support of artisans, architects and industrial designers. “Everyone went to Jack at one time or another just to talk to him and be recognized,” she said.

He was closely associated with the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle, Maine, where he taught, led the committee that invited Edward Larrabee Barnes to design the campus and ultimately served as board chair. From 1981 to 1989, he was president of the American Craft Council.

But LongHouse Reserve, over which he lovingly fussed, overseeing the nonstop additions and rearrangements of plantings, artworks and landscape features, was his most potent legacy, his friends and admirers said. Housing his collection of more than 1,000 craft artifacts, it opened to the public on 16 acres in 1992.

There, Tomacic said, he played “with texture, color and the shapes of the plants just as he was playing with his fabrics.” It is, he added, “very much a garden of a weaver.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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