Textile Designer and Weaver Jack Lenor Larsen Dies at 93

Textile Designer and Weaver Jack Lenor Larsen Dies at 93

December 23, 2020

Weaver, textiles designer and collector Jack Lenor Larsen died Tuesday at the age of 93.

Plans for a memorial will be revealed at a later date.

Larsen died of natural causes Tuesday at his 16-acre garden and arts center, LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton, N.Y., according to a spokeswoman.

He leaves behind a lasting influence on midcentury modern design and textiles. The well-traveled Larsen appreciated natural yarns and preserved age-old indigenous patterns and techniques. Last year Larsen designed a textile collection in Sunbrella performance yarns that was distributed internationally under Cowtan & Tout’s Larsen brand. The designs were woven in chenilles and textured jacquards. Larsen once said, “They now live harmoniously both outside in the gardens and inside LongHouse on my iconic furnishings.”

His lengthy career resulted in Larsen designing thousands of fabric patterns and textiles, many of which used random repeats and variegated natural yarns. Prone to share the techniques he learned with others from his many travels, Larsen textiles were manufactured in more than 30 countries. Before sustainability set in, he was a champion of handmade, natural materials and locally made craft traditions.

Larsen designed draperies for the lobby of Lever House that was built by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Frank Lloyd Wright used Larsen’s textiles for Taliesen and Fallingwater. Eero Saarinen commissioned Larsen fabrics for his J. Irwin Miller house. Larsen was also part of the committee that selected architect Edward Larrabee Barnes for the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. Other leading architect collaborators included I.M. Pei, Louis Kahn and Hugh Hardy.

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Larsen’s company created fabrics that took to the skies — for Braniff’s Airways first jet planes and PanAm’s early 747s, as well as for earlier incarnations of Air Force One. His private clients also lived elevated lives and included the likes of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Alexander Calder and Leonard Bernstein.

During his lifetime, Larsen was honored by a myriad of organizations for his excellence in design, including The Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the New School’s Parsons School of Design, the Royal College of Art and the Royal Society of Art in London. He was one of only four Americans to have been honored with an exhibition at the Palais du Louvre. He also had a solo exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.

After being founded in 1962, the company Jack Lenor Larsen was initially known as a leading supplier of upholstery and drapery material. In 1966, his company and Winn Anderson teamed up to form a new company Ja-eL Fabrics, to create weaves and hand prints for the apparel industry. The new company carried fabrics that had been under the Winn Anderson label. The couture fabrics, however, carried the Jack Lenor Larsen label. At that time, designers who showed collections using Larsen fabrics included Bill Blass for Maurice Rentner, Donald Brooks, Vera Maxwell and Edie Gladstone for Deebs Inc.

By the late Sixties, Larsen’s company became an institution in its own right, excelling at the humble craft of weaving. It encompassed important areas of design like architecture, home furnishings and fashion. In less than a decade of starting his namesake company, Larsen was overseeing a $3 million enterprise.

After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington and a master’s degree from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Larsen left Seattle and relocated to New York City in 1950. “It was the first place that I had ever really felt at home.…I didn’t know that this was the marketing center of the world,” Larsen said of Manhattan in a 1969 interview with WWD.

After starting his own company, it was tough sledding early on, since by his own account, “No one would buy my designs.”

With his keen eye and sleek aesthetic, Larsen kept with the times. Typical workdays started at 8:30 a.m. in his 11th Street studio, where Larsen’s design sense could be seen in the Karen Karnes mugs he drank his coffee from. Cerebral, pensive and attentive, he credited his “good group of executives” and biweekly meetings for the company’s financial success at that time.

”In the fabric business, all successful people are designer-owners. I think we need this much control. Pucci, Ken Scott, Marimekko, Julian Tomchin — he doesn’t own his firm, but he is a vice president. If a designer owns the company, they are always looking ahead,” Larsen said in 1969.

He often drew inspiration from trips. One of his many projects, Irish Awakenings, a collection of nearly 150 Irish fabrics handwoven in Ireland, stemmed from a visit to the famed Kilkenny workshop in the late Sixties.  Recognizing the possibility in enlisting people long-skilled in handcrafts, he carefully studied and created a work program that proved to be profitable.

Larsen also developed creative programs in the Andean countries based on pre-Columbian culture, in Haiti and in Morocco. In the late Fifties, he served as a consultant to the State Department for grass-weaving projects in Taiwan and Vietnam.

Developing fabrics for fashion could be more challenging at times, according to Larsen. “To get something crystallized and it’s over — it’s like finally having a baby and then someone takes it away. In home furnishings, there is a 10-year life span in fabrics.” Larsen said.

Donald Brooks once said of Larsen, “There are just too few artists today. He is like an 18th-century man. He can use all the patrons he can get.”

LongHouse Reserve’s president Dianne Benson said, “In a world in which our senses are saturated with sameness, Jack Larsen is a shrine to individuality. 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.”

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