The following is a guest post written by Professor Stephanie Zollinger (Interior Design), creator of the Jack Lenor Larsen Oral History Project.
The College of Design is saddened by the passing of Jack Lenor Larsen (1927-2020). Larsen died peacefully on the evening of December 22, 2020, of natural causes in East Hampton, New York at his home, LongHouse Reserve.
Jack Lenor Larsen was a trailblazer in American postwar modernism. He was one of the world’s leading textile designers and producers, specializing in high-end fabrics for use in interiors. Larsen and his firm are credited with designing and producing the first stretch upholstery, printed velvets, and fabrics for jet aircraft. He also developed silk fabrics that were sun-resistant and aluminum-coated polyester fabrics that prevented heat loss. Because these innovative products also required creative promotion, Larsen became an early adopter of corporate branding, expanding a collection to include furniture, leathers, carpet, upholstery, and casement (window covering) fabrics to offer customized, harmonious interiors.
According to Larsen, the greatest loss to the textile industry during the Industrial Revolution was handspun yarns, with their individual characteristics. During his career, Larsen located sources for handspun yarn and used them in fabrics designed to emphasize their unique qualities. He studied with weavers in India, China, Thailand, Peru, Ireland, Switzerland, and Italy to learn local techniques that he incorporated in his textiles. To take advantage of the skill of these artisans, many of his fabrics were produced outside of the United States. Larsen’s impact on contemporary textiles has been profound. His lasting contribution is the reinterpretation of ancient concepts into modern idiom. He was a reservoir of technical cultural, and historic fabric design knowledge, and his career as a lecturer, teacher, and scholar kept pace with his business career. Larsen has 12 books to his credit and his textiles have been exhibited in museums around the world, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Musèe des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. They are in museum collections such as those of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Museum Bellerive in Zurich.
In 1997, the studio of Jack Lenor Larsen Incorporated was purchased by the English firm Colefax and Fowler, and the Larsen firm’s archive, covering 45 years of trendsetting innovation, was donated to the University of Minnesota (Elmer L. Andersen Library and Goldstein Museum of Design) and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
The Larsen Design Archive contains written and visual documentation of the firm’s activities, decisions, successes, and failures, from its founding in 1952 until its sale in 1997. More than a paper trail of the business activities of Jack Lenor Larsen and his employees, the archive contains well over 25,000 records of more than 1,300 textile designs, ranging in size from 3 or 4 square inches to 9-foot lengths. These records include drawings and sketches of the designs, notes by designers, correspondence with the clients who ordered the designs, and communication with the mills that wove the fabrics. The records also include invoices, customer receipts, and finished-product photographs taken in the showrooms of the Larsen Design Studios or in situ in clients’ buildings. Overall, the Larsen Design Archive is mainly a product and production files, which document the process by which designs were initiated, put into production, and marketed.
Artists’ and designers’ archives exist to document the textual and visual stories of creative individuals whose work has influenced not only other artists but our cultural landscape. Through the collaboration of the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, we’re fortunate to have access to the archive of Jack Lenor Larsen, one of the most notable textile designers of the 20th century. The Larsen Archive is an enduring testament to the keen foresight and extraordinary innovation of Jack Lenor Larsen.
For more on Jack Lenor Larsen, visit the Online Jack Lenor Larsen Oral History site.
- Zollinger, S., & Mayson, L. (2018). The Larsen design archive: A Minnesota textile treasure. American Craft Inquiry, 2(2), 70-79.
- Zollinger, S. (2014). Advancing textile craft through innovation: Influences of Jack Lenor Larsen. Craft Research, 5(1), 97-109.