Born in 1927 to Danish-Norwegian immigrants, Jack Lenor Larsen is one of the most influential and innovative textile designers of the past fifty years. Frank Lloyd Wright used his fabrics for the music room at Taliesin, even though he had just come out with his own textile line, and Marilyn Monroe shopped for his upholstery whilst setting up home with Arthur Miller.
But it’s not really the famous people that have made his name. Receptive to world weaving traditions and with an ability to combine the sensibility of an artist with a flair for practical application, he was instrumental in opening up the huge world of textiles to the American public. Among a thousand other things, he designed fabrics for the coverings of airline seats that were durable as well as colorful and to this day is still innovating with environmentally friendly reflective solar window fabrics. He is an avid collector of ceramics, textiles and art pieces as well as the force behind the wonderful gardens, open to the public, at the Longhouse Reserve, his distinctive house in the Hamptons.
We interviewed at his apartment in Murray Hill, a space full of exquisite objects, and, not surprisingly, bundles of yarn, which, at one point, he obligingly wove for us upon a tiny loom.
I expected to come in and find a loom!
Well, at the Longhouse you will. I have a little one here that I use for samples to show other weavers what I’m trying to achieve.
How easily did you pick up the techniques?
I was studying architecture and there was a material study, natural materials, and you had to weave for a few hours. I liked it and so I finally made the change. It happened fairly quickly.
What is hard about weaving, from a technique point of view?
The trouble I had was finding yarns that wouldn’t break in the warp. I had a tendency to like those that would break … single yarns that are not plyed—they sometimes have more character, but they tend to be more fragile.
Weaving seems to require some mathematical aptitude.
In some ways, yes, like geometry. I became good at mathematics once I was weaving, only when I was weaving, particularly simple arithmetic. When I was threading a loom I could finally do long division in my head. I could add faster than our accountant and as a boy I couldn’t keep a bowling score!
Are you completely absorbed when you are weaving?
The craft method is very organic and commonsensical … it’s like if you’re crossing a mountain range, once you get on top of the foothills, you can tell better where to go … I even had [my current architect] thinking in those terms: ‘Let’s get started and as we go, we’ll understand better.’ Most architects want to decide on the last doorknob before they dig the hole, and I find that limiting.
Maybe someone like Frank Gehry lets it evolve. Typically architects seem to be very controlling.
And they run scared, as a rule, particularly of color and pattern.
Why are they so scared of color and pattern?
It’s an easy way to make a mistake.
Your apartment is more to do with texture than color, it seems.
When I moved in I had some pink shells and they were so wonderful and so I painted [the apartment] six different shades of rosy pinks that glowed on each other. And then I started [again] with this rug, so then I changed the wall color and I brought in blond furniture.
Can you live with a degree of ugliness? How about awful hotel rooms?
If they’re not serene, that bothers me.
What do you look for in a friend?
Loyalty. Support! [laughs]
I read somewhere that when you were teaching weaving, Joan Crawford was one of your students. It seemed unbelievable.
Well when I went to southern California I was disowned [by his parents, who lived in the Northwest] for going to the garbage can of the nation so I had to support myself. Many of the students were connected to Hollywood. They were directors’ wives and people who had been told that handcraft might be good for their nervous energy or something or other. Joan Crawford came in between husbands and she wanted to weave some things for her children. [laughs]
And rather well. I remember it was a Blackwatch plaid she decided on and she was good. A bright woman. You knew where she stood.
It’s a strange thing [for you] to be a famous weaver. There aren’t very many of them.
And even fewer men. There are some great ones of course, but not in America. There’s one in Japan who is a genius.
We’re talking about weaving as if it is very exotic but in poorer countries, whole communities do it.
We’re so remote from it. And today your generation isn’t much into quality either, nor was mine. My grandfather’s was.
Do you think there’s a return to that with this entry into green design?
There’s more curiosity about that, and things that are organic. What’s amazing is the return to cotton sheets. I was in that business when people threw out their pure cotton sheets for ones that didn’t require ironing.
Are you constantly touching fabrics, you must live in a very tactile world.
Yes, touch, and the visual … of course being a young revolutionary, I used to think that luxury like beautiful furs and cut stones and polished surfaces … servants … were all bad [laughs] they weren’t democratic but then I became more sensitive to texture and then I decided ‘These things are really nice!’
What did you want to change, then, when you were a young revolutionary?
I wanted to be more ‘pure’ … and I guess, more democratic.
Don’t you think purity is one of the most dangerous ideas we have … it’s the basis of racism.
Well, I’m deep into gardening these days and the new thing that is much spoken about now, besides zero-scaping, is ‘native’, or ‘indigenous’ but you know, we’re not indigenous!
What do you like about gardening?
I finally realized that it prevented leisure.