Jack Lenor Larsen… A Conversation

Interview by: Michael M Merrill, ASID, CID

Jack Lenor Larsen is, quite simply, the single most important textile designer who has ever lived–period. I was recently granted the rare privilege of interviewing Mr. Larsen for SF Design Magazine. His comments were charming, insightful and inspiring.

Jack Lenor Larsen - Michael Merrill Design Studio
Jack Larsen in Johnny Swing’s quarter lounge Photo credit: © 2011 Shona Valeska/courtesy of LongHouse Reserve, East Hampton, NY

Mr. Larsen was born in 1927 in Seattle, Washington. Initially, his education was in architecture and interior design, but within a few years, he had determined that his life’s work was that of a weaver. I suspect life is easier if you are clear, absolutely clear, about your life’s work. I became aware of Larsen textiles, carpets, leather and furniture in the mid 1970s. There was simply nothing like his work on the market. He has set so many trends, and opened so many paths, that it is impossible to enumerate them. One, often overlooked, is his introduction of sisal and coir floor coverings–40 years ago. It is Mr. Larsen who made these sophisticated floor coverings widely accepted.

MMM: What are a few of the most memorable commissions you ever worked on?

JLL: I did commissions in addition to the collections we did for profit–furniture and fabric. I did a lot of opera house curtains and special hangings and so forth. There are two that come to mind. One was the opera house curtain in Arizona, commissioned by WelTon Beckett. They wanted the feeling of the southwest, and asked “Did I know about those mirage fabrics in India?” “Yes I did.” I finally managed to do very, very dense heavy embroidery on mirror Mylar that covered most of the Mylar but actually did leave inch square mirrors all over it–thousands of them. The stitches were perforating the mirror Mylar, almost like stamps. I was concerned that as strong as it was, it might also fall apart. Samples on that embroidery machine were 10 yards long and cost a couple of thousand dollars each back then. I was getting a little desperate, so I sent a sample out to the curtain maker in Los Angeles and I asked him to test it for dry cleaning. He called me and said, “Sonny, do you know that each half of that curtain is going to be 600 yards? It’s never going to be dry-cleaned. If you’re lucky, they’ll vacuum it.”

Another one was the biggest hanging commission I ever had. When Sears Tower went up, it was the tallest building in the world. At the bottom of it was a new Sears Bank. Their feeling was, if we’re new, we better be the best. There were two extraordinary banking rooms with 18 foot ceilings–full of glorious trees–with marble flooring and no carpets. The sound was impossible. They commissioned me to do 18 hangings in each room over the teller’s counter, which would provide visual interest and absorb sound. The woman who sewed those panels–they were in the International Style, was the best drapery maker in America. I recommended that she also install the hangings. She went out to the job site and the younger architect in charge, not Bruce Graham, but a younger one came in and said, “They are almost perfect–if we just cut eight inches off of the bottom of each one, they will be absolutely perfect.” The drapery maker looked at him and she said, “Now I know who cut the Rembrandt!”

MMM: Did your mother have much of an influence on your career?

JLL: Yes, she even became a weaver and president of her weavers’ guild–but after I did. She was remarkably organized. Every day she had tasks and she never didn’t do them. Everything had a place and every time had a function–that’s her chief contribution. My father was creative, but my mother was organized. After I left home, I became organized.

Interplay by Jack Lenor Larsen - Michael Merrill Design Studio
Interplay - a woven textile inspired by traditional African basketry. Jack Lenor Larsen.

MMM: What are a couple moments in your career when you really felt as if you had achieved something or been recognized by some honor that in your estimation moved you to a new level?

JLL: When we launched our African collection in about ’62 or ‘63 at the Arts Club in Chicago–it’s a wonderful place to have an opening. We gave out tickets and we had Pinkerton guards and the exhibit was wonderful! We took out the Brancusis to make room for my things.

Our publicists had hired the Mrs. Roosevelt of the black community, who had been the first Bess in Porgy and Bess. She was charming and a great hostess. She taught us highline dancing–we even had African musicians. It was not only one of the best openings of hundreds I’ve had, but it was one of the best parties that any of us had ever been to. No one who was there has ever forgotten it. I think we all sort of floated out of there. It was so much more than I was hoping for. It was just incredible. We later had other openings at the Arts Club, but nothing was ever like that.

MMM: How did it come to be that the Louvre decided to show your work?

JLL: That is a very personal question. Not inappropriate, (pause)–just personal. I saw a great therapist for several years. One day the therapist said, “Jack, I want you to reach out and grab. “That’s the first thing I had been taught not to do–as the only child. And so, I had to lie down on my back and at first I looked like I was trying to touch a butterfly. “No, reach out with both fists and move it to you.”

We practiced that for a couple of weeks, and once I had the ability to do that, I could realize things that I really wanted but would never have dreamed of. They wouldn’t have entered my subconscious. One of the things I learned was I’d like someone to run my company. I didn’t want to do that anymore. I didn’t want to go to meetings. That was very successful–we even became profitable. I didn’t want to live alone, and that worked out eventually as well.

Knoll had had a show as a company at the Louvre (very beautifully), that the Vignellis had installed. I told our publicist in Europe who had worked with Knoll as well … I said, “I would like my own show at the Louvre.” He called them up and they said, “Well that would be wonderful!” For a while they said, “Well, maybe it should be at the new Beaubourg, although it’s not open yet. Maybe a design show should really be there.” In the end, they gave us six galleries in the Louvre. Charles Forberg installed it wonderfully well. We put even down our carpet tiles on their marble floors.

Two other things: We had a big party on the Seine–on a boat with music and dancing. That was lots of fun–we were outdoors; the weather was good. Then, we were at the house of the man who was the head of Knoll in Europe. First he had the York Palace in Tangiers, and then he had a mill house on the Seine and it was famous. I was allowed to have a dinner there for about 50, and so we invited all of the museum people to come and, little by little, I think all of them came–as it happened. I was also able to invite more and more of my American friends

Onward! Jack Lenor Larsen - Michael Merrill Design Studio
Onward! handwoven, silk and linen. Jack Lenor Larsen, 1997.

MMM: What are some of your thoughts about color?

JLL: Well, color is dessert for a designer. I’ve always – even at four years old, been fascinated with color–not usually the normal ones either. I liked olives and mustards and “strange” colors. I wanted to do two things. One was to do something that we hadn’t seen before. We did very dusty colors and I also did the New Brilliance collection, which was only popular in Paris. Back then we had enormous sales charts–12 feet high and 20 feet long on which everything in the line was pegged–where it belonged, how many transactions, how many dollars and so forth. We could put the new things onto the chart with some idea of where they would fall. There was some safety–it wasn’t just fearlessness. Very often the newer colors took off – sometimes a whole collection of them. Re-coloring an older pattern was the best thing we could do for sales. Because it was both new and familiar, people didn’t have to figure out what to do with it.

MMM: Frequently in your books you refer to yourself as a weaver. What does being a weaver mean to you?

JLL: It’s about construction. I started with architecture, which is about structure and light and shadow, and function. That’s how I see textiles. Most people think it’s about pattern. It is not.

MMM: What are some of the challenges/opportunities that you have had?

JLL: I love doing casements. Early on, when I came to New York, a wise man said he thought that a great new challenge for weavers was the new glass buildings–controlling light and breaking glare.

Primavera, Jack Lenor Larsen - Michael Merrill Design Studio
Iconic Primavera print on cotton velvet. Jack Lenor Larsen, 1959.

MMM: What advice do you have for designers selecting textiles?

JLL: Most people don’t know how to think about cost. First of all, it’s “How much fabric?” If you need 300 yards of window fabric, cost is very important. If you need dining room chair seats, where you get four out of a yard–the cost is of no consequence. If the chair costs $4000, the cost of the fabric that goes on it isn’t so important either. Whether you have a $50 or $100 per yard fabric isn’t going to change the overall price of the chair. You have to think in larger terms about the cost of fabric. People accuse me of only working for the rich. Anybody can afford my fabric on their dining room chair seats or for a wall hanging. It depends on how much they buy.

MMM: What question would you ask yourself and what would your response be?

JLL: I guess someone might ask what my favorite period was. I would honestly say I’ve never been so grown up before as now. I’m appreciative of the weather, all the sunlight we have here, and my friends. I’m having a wonderful old age, and I don’t even feel old–except when I try to climb a stair or something–I don’t do it as well. But thanks to good doctors and Medicare, I’m in great shape.

Jack Lenor Larsen was the second American artist to be honored with a one-man show at the Louvre in Paris. He was given this privilege thirty years ago. Now entering the seventh decade of his remarkable career, Jack Lenor Larsen continues to fascinate, inspire and challenge each and every one of us to become that which we most urgently aspire to be.

2 Replies to “Jack Lenor Larsen… A Conversation”

  1. What a lovely interview!!! The questions generated responses that were so informative and inspiring. Congrats on the new blog. You continue to amaze me. My best, Jill

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