Textile Maestro; Jack Lenor Larsen Weaves His Way From Airline Seats to Silk

When he sits at his desk and talks about what he does, his interest in his work is evident. But when he is in the workroom, dragging a visitor from one worktable to the next, his love of work is unmistakable.

Jack Lenor Larsen, one of the world's leading fabric designers, practically leaps from one fabric to the next, so eager is he to explain its structure, its color, its history, its importance.

This crowded loft on East 11th Street, with swatches tucked here and there and works-in-progress around every partition, is home to Larsen Carpet, Larsen Furniture, Larsen Leather, and Larsen Textiles, the most diversified fabric firm its founder knows of, with production centers in 31 countries and 31 showrooms in 16.

He stops at one table, where two designers are working on replicating a 100 -year-old Chinese design, then rushes on to the next, where another is mulling over nuances of color.

He pauses to admire one of the newest Larsen carpets, "Fantasy," a whole treeful of leaves and buds sprawled across this sample in colors that crackle with both autumn and spring.

And then he wheels around one last precarious tower of shelves crammed with the flotsam and jetsam of weaving, back to his office.

Jack Lenor Larsen, who fell into weaving and then fabric design via a materials study course in architecture school, now has works in the permanent collections of 13 museums. He has written five books on fabric, and a sixth is in preparation.

He currently has a one-man show at the Louvre, a 30-year retrospective; he's only the second living American to be so honored.

Larsen's fabrics range from the sheerest of sheer to air-line seat-tough, some in colors that barely sigh, some that shout.

He is the acknowledged expert on art fabrics, works where the line between the fine and "decorative" arts becomes the thinnest. His two books on the subject, "Beyond Craft: The Art Fabric" and "The Art Fabric: Mainstream" (both with Mildred Constantine. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold), not only chronicle the history of art fabrics but also explain the reasons for their existence, reasons which form the basis of Larsen's enduring passion for fiber:

"People relate to fiber more inherently than perhaps any other material," he says, settling into his office, itself a microcosm of his work, carpeted and upholstered with his fabrics. "The world that we were born into is fiber, and what distinguishes this planet from all others is its fiber, the trees and grasses, our native habitat."

In "Mainstream," he muses about why the art fabric -and fabric in general -came to such prominence recently: "Why are we now ready to enjoy the sensualities of fabrics in all of its myriad forms? Are we seeking relief from the austerity of standardized interiors or from the hard-surfaced, unrelieved facades of our topless buildings?"

To Larsen, the biggest challenge in furnishings is to "give a sense of roots and identity," which supersedes "the old notions of expressions of taste."

"Modern spaces have no character within themselves," he says. "Even worse is that they're alike, one to another, curiously, from Harlem to Park Avenue -eightfoot foot ceilings, one wall of windows, shoebox -and they're alike from Tokyo to Johannesburg. There is no regional variation in this mass construction."

Underneath, his own office is an off-white shoebox, but instead it is ablaze with a wall of yarn in every color imagined and unimagined. Plants dangle from the arched skylight, the old, many-paned type found in topfloor lofts such as this one, and shelves full of pottery clutter one corner. Opposite his desk are huge display racks of fabrics.

"These undifferentiated spaces are an insult to our sense of individuality and specialness, our uniqueness," he continues, pressing his fingertips together with a precision and care indigenous to weavers.

"The boom in fabric wall coverings of all descriptions is not accident or fashion. It's the best way to provide some shade and shadow and broken color and relief to the walls. A treat for the eye and the hand and often for the ear as well."

The treat for the eye is obvious after one glance at his fabrics. For the hand?

"It's an exercise for our poor fingers that tend to forget about the pleasures of touch."

For the ear?

"We go to a new breed of restaurants that has hard everywherem and we are bombarded with reverberations. Fabric is the most useful acoustical material."

He sees the emphasis in furnishings going toward the "surroundings," the wall and ceiling and floor rather than the objects in the room, which enlarges the role of fabric.

"We now control climate and sound within space," he writes in the catalog for his retrospective at the Louvre. "Why not as readily the visual elements? It is time for projected color and pattern to come into its own."

Art fabrics, he says, are moving away from the gigantic works (such as those found in the lobbies of buildings) toward a smaller scale.

"The trend is more collectors and private clients, more residential use," he says. The smaller scale of these wall hangings makes them affordable. "Few people could afford the novel, but most could afford the short poem."

Wall fabrics will become ever more important, he believes, as more and more people struggle to transform shoe boxes into their homes.

One of his current projects is designing vinyl wallcoverings, unusual for Larsen since he prefers to work with natural fibers. He says tactfully, "To make that pleasurable, either for us or the user, is a challenge." Larsen and his associate designers are striving to realize "the potential of that material" rather than merely imitate woven fabrics.

He has said it many times: "I most enjoy doing what I don't know how to do."

He also didn't know how to "do" ceramics when he undertook a project for Dansk, a three-part set of dishes. The first one, a porcelain pattern called "Bamboo," will be available next year. The set of dishes, and the Sunday dishes (as he calls them) all work together "as a wardrobe." The pattern is exquisitely textured, bamboo ridged in a wide band around the edges, the pure white plates rimmed with a deep red.

"Setting the table -the theater potential of that -is much more important than the cooking," he says, fetching a piece of "Bamboo" from the corner shelf for closer inspection. He demonstrates how snugly the cup fits into the well of the smallest plate (notm a saucer), delighted with this detail.

He seems to oversee most of the details on most of the projects, leaving the business bothers to a professional administrator.

"I don't go to meetings. I don't get minutes. He runs things very well. And I stay in the studio, and only do that. That's all I'm allowed to do, and I've learned to enjoy the privilege."

He designs full time -"more than full time" -these days, in collaboration with his design chiefs. But this man, whose name is reverently whispered by weavers, doesn't spend much time weaving.

"I have to ask myself what this means. I think that I'm a composer rather than a player these days, even an orchestrator, and I have woven so much that usually I can write the score without going to the piano."

In fact, the only loom in sight in this work area adjacent to his office is a tiny one used for weaving samples. It is threaded with silvery blue silk, which of course Larsen stops to examine when he is near it.

Sometimes, he says, he runs into problems when he can't explain what he wants:

"We're having that experience now in Thailand where we're starting to do very complex weaving in what's been a very simple weaving culture." The Thai weavers don't understand his written instructions, "so we have to weave it for them, they unravel it, and then they understand."

He blithely mixes metaphors talking about designing.

"I like to know all the limitations," he says. "Eventually it's like a corral -it creates the design." He makes a circle with his arms in front of his body, demonstrating how the factors of color, use, material, etc., become the fenceposts of the corral. Then, once the corral is made, he considers his options.

"It's like a bridge hand. You have some lovely cards, hopefully, and you have some losers which must be finessed."

When he set about designing fabric for airline seats, for example, he had to consider not only the airline's aesthetic desires but the practical matters of fireproofing, soil resistance, and weight limitations.

"It's first defining, the refining."

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