Metaphors abound when design enthusiasts and textile aficionados begin rhapsodizing about the life and work of Jack Lenor Larsen. An article in the New York Times about the textile designer began this way: “Mr. Larsen is a man of the cloth, but it’s not like that. He is possibly the most accomplished textile designer living, certainly one of the most innovative and influential in the second half of the 20th century. With the success of several thousand fabric patterns behind him—many as original as modern architecture—he has been prolific and powerful in the design community. And through the collections that his travels inspired, the middle-class home and office have become conversant with vibrant traditions everywhere—from Thailand to Kenya.”
There’s more. “The handsome Mr. Larsen’s life has also been a fabric of sorts, of acquaintance with the rich and celebrated, of social prowess and business sense that has brought him fame and fortune, taken him to six continents and led the fashionable world to his door.” And so it’s no surprise that the Goldstein Museum of Design, whose collection is larger than that of our major Minneapolis museums, turns its attention to Larsen on his 90th birthday.
Curated by Stephanie Zollinger, the exhibition Jack Lenor Larsen at 90: Transformations by a Textile Innovator opens on September 22—with Larsen in attendance! In the exhibition, nearly 70 of Larsen’s textiles will be exhibited to demonstrate his mastery of craft techniques, technological innovation, and inspiration from global design traditions.
We asked Zollinger a few questions about the show and why Larsen is such a big deal.
Why is Larsen such an important textile innovator, particularly to interior designers?
To most interior designers, Jack Lenor Larsen is best known for his loomed fabrics, textured random-weave upholstery fabrics, grainy batiks, tufted leather rugs, printed velvets, airy cottons, and Thai silks.
What have been his most notable contributions to textile techniques, color, pattern, and technologies?
In the late 1950s, Larsen was challenged to produce drapery fabric durable enough to withstand the glare of floor-to-ceiling windows used in high-rise buildings. These tall, large windows presented problems for employees who needed glare and sun control yet wanted to take advantage of the daylight. Larsen’s innovative solution was Interplay, a highly practical fabric with the open-work look of basketry. The fabric is made from the synthetic substance Saran and has no residual stretch. The Saran yarn was incorporated into a warp knit structure, and the finished cloth heat-set, so it was flexible but dimensionally stable. This fire-resistant, soil-resistant, sun- and fade-resistant textile was technologically innovative, brought visibility to the company, and advanced textile design by pushing technology in a new direction.
Another Larsen innovation was stretch upholstery fabric. Stretch fabrics such as Momentum and Firebird were made with textured Caprolan nylon and had modified two-way stretch properties that made them especially adaptable to curvilinear, free-form furniture shapes. Larsen mentioned that he “liked the brilliance of color that could be achieved with Caprolan; its lightness and toughness; its dry, toothy hand; and the forms it gives when stretched.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, Larsen introduced bold printed velvets to the field. Prior to this time period, it was almost impossible to screen-print complex patterns on traditional velvets. The dye could not penetrate the thick pile. After extensive experimentation, Larsen successfully wove cotton velvet that was luxurious to the touch and had a pile low enough to take the hand screen-print dye with no loss in color intensity. This was innovative technology that advanced textile craft. The printed velvet fabrics for which Larsen’s company was particularly famous include Primavera, Caravan, and Happiness.
Larsen also conceived what is believed to be the first diagonal stripe weave and the first upholstery fabrics ever created for jet aircraft. In addition, he created a line of double cloths, which he refers to as “visual puns” since they can be used with either side as the face of the fabric, forming positive/negative images of the same pattern.
Fascinated with the architecture and structures of so-called “primitive” cultures, Larsen began traveling in the mid-1950s. “One of the reasons I worked so much in the Third World,” Larsen said, “was because I related to craftsmen so much better that I related to industrialists.” It was from Laotian weavers, for example, that Larsen learned how to make ikat fabrics, whose distinctive patterns are achieved by a process of resist-dying that involves wrapping and dyeing the individual yarns before they are woven. As a result, Larsen developed the first-production ikat fabrics. The earliest were weft ikats woven in Thailand; later warp ikats were woven in Korea.
Larsen is known for taking a traditional weaving structure or technique from an indigenous culture and giving it a modern twist. For example, Larsen revitalized a 19th-century European technique called dévoré, a technique first used by the European embroidery manufacturers to create a lace-like, open effect. The process involves printing a caustic chemical onto a cloth that, when heated, will destroy some of the fibers but leaves both solid and transparent areas. In 1969, Larsen took advantage of this technique with his creation of Oberon. According to an Irish Awakening Collection brochure, the vigorous scroll design is influenced by the ancient Irish carvings excavated at New Grange and Knowth.
Larsen used materials and patterns from global cultures as inspiration. For example, Larsen wanted to replicate the spirit of the mirror embroidery work of northwest India and Eastern Pakistan, and he took a risk to create this in a theater curtain. Theater curtains were difficult to produce and often were not commercially successful when produced for interior designers’ projects. However, their visual appeal firmly established Larsen’s reputation. Magnum was designed as a curtain for the Phoenix Opera House. It was a magenta, machine-embroidered fabric backed with Mylar. Its development required considerable sampling to achieve the ideal tension and density for the machine embroidery to define the design; it took more than a year to produce. After considerable experimentation, a reflective polyester Mylar film was chosen as the ground cloth, which achieved Larsen’s concept of the mirror. Magnum was an immediate success and became Larsen’s signature fabric. Every designer in the country wanted a swatch in his/her studio, but little of it was ever sold. Many such unique fabrics remained in the line for 20 years and lost money, but established the Larsen reputation.
Are his designs still being produced by Colefax and Fowler?
Some of his textiles are still being produced. They are available through Cowtan and Tout (the American subsidiary of the English firm Colefax and Fowler).
Who should attend this exhibition and what do you hope they take away from it? Anyone remotely interested in design, including architects, interior designers, graphic designers, weavers and mid-century enthusiasts. In this exhibition, more than 45 years of work have been carefully curated to showcase the most powerful and impactful pieces that changed the textile industry. I hope attendees leave the exhibition with a greater appreciation and understanding of the diversity and complexity of textiles created by Jack Lenor Larsen.
Want to learn more? A free panel discussion will be held on Thursday, November 2, at 6 p.m. in 33 McNeal Hall. Ellie Karanauskas, former Vice President of Sales and National Sales Director for Jack Lenor Larsen Incorporated will be on hand to talk about Larsen’s evolution and legacy, as will Krista Stack, former Director of Design for the Larsen Design Studio, and Lori Weitzner, an independent textile designer for the company. The eminent Lotus Stack, former Textile Curator for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, will also be on the panel.
By Camille LeFevre
Photos courtesy Goldstein Museum of Design