Follow the Thread

a textile & costume history blog from the Design Center at Thomas Jefferson University

Remembering Jack Lenor Larsen


∼ by Ann Wilson

In December, legendary textile designer and innovator Jack Lenor Larsen passed away at the age of 93 at his home in East Hampton, NY. It would be difficult to overstate his contributions to textile design, particularly to the mid-20th century period, both in the U.S. and internationally.

Mr. Larsen’s extraordinary success was built on a marriage of traditional textile crafts and techniques with contemporary design and technical innovations. An overview of his life and work may be found in this New York Times obituary and also in this bio posted by LongHouse Reserve, the nonprofit sculpture garden and arboretum he founded in East Hampton. (photo at left by Shonna Valeska, LongHouse Reserve)

To celebrate Mr. Larsen, I’m highlighting a very interesting object from our collection. It’s a small suitcase of over 300 samples from Jack Lenor Larsen, Inc., the company he founded in 1952. The suitcase dates to 1977, but the designs within span a period from the 1950s up to 1977. Mr. Larsen was known for his innovations in printing on cotton velvet and for his batiks, as well as his wovens and his pairing of traditional and nontraditional materials. The gamut of his signature looks can be found within this small suitcase.

Here are some examples of Larsen printed cotton velvets. Clockwise from top left: Water Lillies (color: Venetian Red), wax batik; Jezebel (color: Garnet); Jezebel (color: Absinthe); Aurora (color: Wedgewood).

Larsen was a world traveler and studied the weaving, printing, and other textile techniques of various cultures. Asian cultural influences are prevalent in his designs, as evidenced by these samples that were handwoven and handprinted in Thailand.

Although known for his use of rich color, especially yellows, ochres, olive, and oranges, Larsen also appreciated neutrals. The restful palette of these wovens belies the intricacies of their weave structures. Here, wool, mohair, and rayon are combined with synthetic materials like Dacron and Rovana Saran, a monofilament fiber.

It’s impressive how over 300 samples are neatly packed into this suitcase, each with a label indicating design name, color, repeat size, fiber content, finishing techniques, and country of manufacture. By 1997, Jack Lenor Larsen, Inc. had operations in 31 countries.

I’ve found myself more captivated by this collection of Larsen samples after having seen his textiles in Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterwork Fallingwater in Mill Run, PA. I had the good fortune to visit Fallingwater with my family in the summer of 2019. Our tour guide pointed out that the upholstery on the sofas and foot stools was designed by Larsen. The home’s owner, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., used solid color wovens from Larsen’s Doria collection as a backdrop to pillows and throws from around the world. Ikats, ponchos, and furs were draped across the furniture and steel stair rails. I captured the main living area with these photos.

Mr. Larsen’s friends and colleagues at LongHouse Reserve posted this tribute to him when he passed. Up to his final day, he was in the midst of launching a new line of fabric and making plans for programming at LongHouse, which is open to visitors for garden tours and arts programming. Lucky for us, he established a foundation to ensure the future of LongHouse. I see a road trip in my future.

Special Collections Technician, Textile & Costume Collection, Thomas Jefferson University

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