Jack Lenor Larsen: Using Fabrics To Give A Space Personality

Posted: June 26, 1988

There is Jack Lenor Larsen fabric in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and in a Braniff 747 as well. He has designed affordable sheets for mass consumption and leather custom interiors for Eleanor Clay (Mrs. Edsel) Ford's Palm Beach, Fla., convertibles. This is as Larsen would have his business; beautiful designs for everyone.

"We have not yet resolved design for an egalitarian lifestyle," says Larsen, one of the country's pre-eminent fabric designers and a recent visitor to Philadelphia. "We need to make design more personal. Design and social science have to work together to gain a keener understanding of what people need."

A professional fabric designer for 37 years, Larsen has drawn from centuries of textiles, mined weaving techniques from around the world, and helped to found an American tradition in fine cloth. "My firm has fabric produced in 31 countries, and the newest of these is America," Larsen says during an interview, "but production is getting better all the time."

Yet our sense of design, he cautions, lags far behind. "The performing arts, particularly stage crafts, still remain half a century ahead of design for orchestrating mood and light. Design must captivate us and stimulate us and make us aware. It is still far too passive," he tells an audience at the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science.

"In the theater, the second act lifts us up above the first act, and the third act lifts us higher still. Most of us have stopped designing at the second act, and we need to be lifted way beyond that. We're still living in shoeboxes that are undifferentiated from one another."

To Larsen, incorporating the resident's personality and individualized needs into the home and office is the key to better design.

Fabric is a means of achieving this. "It helps bring the outside indoors, natural color into manmade structures," says Larsen, whose designs are greatly inspired by the sea, desert and gardens. "Let's celebrate color and texture and become less jaded."

He had planned to be an architect. Born in 1927 in Seattle, he enrolled at the University of Washington's architecture school, but then moved on to furniture design, went off to study fabrics in Los Angeles, and finally ended up at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. He served as co-director of the fabric design department at the Philadelphia College of Art (now part of the University of the Arts) from 1959 to 1961.

"Designing fabric seemed so much more immediate than designing buildings, so few of which ever got built. It seemed like a synthesis of architecture and weaving," says Larsen, who is tall, regal and given to dapper clothing such as his outfit of lavender shirt, tie and pocket square complementing a dove- gray suit. "Fabric is real. You can see and touch it."

In his studies, Larsen devoured fabric, finding textiles that hadn't been appreciated in years. This has made him not only an expert practitioner but also one of the nation's leading authorities on design history. He has helped

curate, direct and edit major fabric shows at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, at the San Francisco Museum of Art, and, in 1983, "Design Since 1945" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Larsen's personal archives include thousands of pieces of fabric. His favorites are the pre-Columbian designs of Peru - "the best fabrics that have ever been made" - and a few Thai silks "that one could live with for the rest of one's life."

As a designer, Larsen is prolific. "I work very quickly. I've learned to respond to gut reactions," he says with a broad smile.

In 1958, he created the first custom fabrics for the upholstery and draperies in jetliners; in 1969 he produced soft-woven geometric designs for the first 747s for Pan Am and Braniff. Today, there are thousands of Jack Lenor Larsen designs available at his 13 showrooms nationwide. His New York- based company employs a staff of 100, 11 in the design department, and grosses $25 million a year. The fabrics range in price from $15 to $150 a yard. "It isn't the price of the individual fabric that is costly, it's the total yardage," he says, pointing out that "you can design a set of dining- room chairs with the best fabric and require only two or three yards."

Yet, he acknowledges, most people are afraid of investing in good fabric and design. "The reason why most people dress better than they furnish their homes is because they dress twice a day while they furnish only once or twice in a lifetime," he says, "and then they wonder why it's so difficult."

He has a solution to this design angst. "The trick is to practice as much as possible. Try practicing with a table, playing with napkins and cloth and flowers. Try having different sets of sheets and combining them in different ways," says Larsen, who creates bed linens and towels for Martex. "I just love contrasting pillows. Pay attention to the colors of fruits and flowers. Try arranging those and adjusting your approach. Then, when it comes time for a big decision, you'll feel more comfortable."

When purchasing fabric, there is no need to dive in headfirst. "Borrow samples or buy half a yard before you invest in it heavily. It's very important to see fabric under the light you're going to be using it with," Larsen says. He recalls designing a carpet that did not meet an architect's approval until he saw it under the proper lighting.

Larsen has designed just about everything he'd like, though he longs to do more than just Mrs. Ford's Florida cars. "I would like to design an American car's interior. I think they are so poor. It's always the same old acrylic that everyone uses," he says.

The future for design looks good, he says with authority. "Finally, color has come into the office. Why, for years, did we think it was only for use in the home? In design considerations, next to light, color is the most important," he says. "It shows how we feel about our space and ourselves. Color is the stuff that pageantry and poetry is made of, the ally of romance." Larsen is happy to report that the era of cold white walls is finally over.

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