In the 1950s, Jack Lenor Larsen’s global approach to weaving and textile design redefined the American impression of fabrics. By nurturing craft traditions, he introduced techniques, such as ikat and batik, to the general market while crediting its ethnographic sources. Larsen’s vision for weaving, textile design and manufacturing added a level of avant-garde diversity to the otherwise average landscape of fabrics for everyday use.
Larsen applied the same passion and dedication to his work as a gardener and gallery owner with the LongHouse Reserve, which serves as his home, an exhibition environment, and public garden in East Hampton. The fifteen-acre carefully plotted forest contributes to the art and craft surrounding it, whether it be a Buckminster Fuller concept sculpture or a life-sized Yoko Ono concrete chess board and pieces, creating a world of exploration and whimsy.
Larsen bought the long-abandoned plot of 19th century farmland in 1975 after building Round House on the property next door. After revitalizing the natural landscape, he began construction on the house in 1986, “being up on stilts is the idea, and since it’s so flat you get more of a view and breeze.” Throughout the interior of the home is a fantastical assemblage of objects both new and old. “I always built places because my father was a builder, but this is more fanciful than I dreamt up then,” Larsen muses. He will be turning 88 next week and is still heavily involved in the daily decisions of his “living laboratory.” Point to any object on the property and he will give you a full history of the piece and its maker — quite impressive considering the space is constantly in flux as fresh work comes in and changes rooms with frequency.
The LongHouse Reserve will be hosting an exhibition of Richard Kenvin’s ‘Surf Craft’ that opens this Friday, July 31, 2015 and chronicles the evolution of surfboard design featuring American craftspeople of wave-riding boards. Tickets can be purchasedhere.
This interview was conducted on July 6th at the LongHouse Reserve.
Chelsea Burcz: How did you end up out in East Hampton?
Jack Lenor Larsen: I came to New York in 1951 [from the Northwest] and was given a top floor studio, that’s when I had my first Eastern summer. It was so hot, so a client brought me to Amagansett a few times that summer. She was an art dealer so they hosted all these artists at their parties; I then rented a chauffer’s apartment on Lily Pond Lane, that was pretty nice. At that point I went to Maine every summer, but I began to think I could take regular weekends. So I found twelve acres of perfect land here in East Hampton. I also had said as a boy that I would go to Africa and see where all those wonderful houses were made. I did, and when I came back and I built Round House in the early sixties and started gardening seriously.
Then I bought this land [LongHouse] and I decided a to build a larger house to use it as a demonstration on how to live beyond convention. I’m still at it.
CB: Was there anything about the natural environment that made you choose this area in particular?
JL: Well, my question was whether to go up river where it’s hilly or by the sea, and then I realized I could be inland from the shore where I could afford a large acreage. It was sort of a combination of the two. Also, winter living and gardening is better here than at the beach which has more fog and a later spring. That was the practical idea.
CB: I want to talk about you being a collector of things… Surfers are very much collectors of objects, surfboards. Was collecting something you’ve always been drawn to?
JL: I became a gardener at age 2 ½ and I began to collect seedling trees. I never bought anything, but I collected all kinds of things when I was young. I then had a design professor who had been to Asia a number of times before the war. Her house was full of the most remarkable pieces with all sorts of devices for serving, we students were very much impressed. She said, “Well if you buy one beautiful thing every year, you’ll soon have some beautiful things to live with.” And I thought, well, if you did it every week or month it would go faster. [Laughs] I started collecting in college, I was willing to go without lunches to have a little bit of money to squander.
I’ve worked in 60 countries. I’m in Europe every year, I used be there many times a year because I worked there so much. I’ve always traveled.
CB: Is Japan a place where you draw inspiration from?
JL: The Northwest feels very close to Japan and far from Europe. So I was a Japanophile before I even went. And now, the modernity of Japan fascinates me, it used to be old Japan. Now, Tokyo is the most modern city in the world. They had cell phones twenty years before we had them. And it started off with their wanting to catch up with the West, but in many ways they’ve passed us. Partly it is due to the problem of having such a large population — how do you cope with that? The other thing about Japan I liked was that their gardens in winter are just as beautiful as in summer. They focus on form and texture and evergreens rather than flowers. So that appealed to me to have a year-round garden, if I was going be here year-round. We work very hard at that. It’s beautiful here in the winter. I’m doing a new book on all that. It will be my eleventh, called “Learning from LongHouse” — I built LongHouse to share and show ideas and this book will explain it more literally.
CB: When you first opened LongHouse did you imagine it would continue on for so long?
JL: I wasn’t going to start up the foundation until I died. I originally was leaving it to a foundation. I was convinced to by some friends and to start it early on — that was a good idea. This whole floor here will eventually become galleries, down by the guest rooms and such. We are working hard to enhance the collection in design and craft making and ethnography, not flat art like everyone else collects.
CB: You are known for weaving, which is something very artistic and also is very functional and practical.
JL: Well, I design furnishing fabrics, which are totally functional, and I am a weaver. Some people think of fabrics as prints and patterns, but I think of the structure; it’s less two dimensional. One reason we work in certain areas of the world particularly is because you can get handspun yarns and handcraft techniques.
Our design studio is now in Paris and what they’re doing is totally different than what I ever did. It’s interesting and new. The possibility for handcraft, even in more remote places, is less and less available. In Thailand, for instance, the young people don’t want to be silk weavers, they want to do something else. India once had 20 million handweavers but that’s gone down quite a lot. Some of them were actually human machines with no reason for what they were doing by hand, but things are changing.
CB: Are you interested in preserving any of the techniques you’ve learned over the years?
JL: Yes, particularly handspun yarns, I renewed certain techniques in order to have them here.
CB: Do you still find time to weave?
JL: I do not. And I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I’m curating and lecturing and writing, I’m working on three books. I’m working faster than I ever have; there’s a point where you realize you won’t be doing it much longer so you better get it done now. We planted 50,000 new plants this year; I’m speeding up the completion of the garden.
One of the things we’re more and more aware of, is that elegance usually derives from subtraction! We’re brought up to believe, “If I just had one more thing it would be beautiful.” Usually, it’s what you remove that makes it beautiful. The feeling that our awe of more 21 rooms in a home, just so people are impressed — still today! They think that’s remarkable, and usually that has nothing to do with anything beautiful. That I keep re-experiencing. Simplicity is more and more rare. As people can afford more, they don’t value less.
[Richard Kenvin and Jack Lenor Larsen making craft connections at the LongHouse Reserve, May 2015.]
[Surf Craft at the LongHouse Reserve. Photo by Michelle Bossuot]
[Terry Hendricks Pluto Platter install for Surf Craft at the LongHouse Reserve. Photo by Richard Kenvin]