The Arts
June 21-27, 2006

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Warp 'N' Weave: Prototypical Larsen fabric, here titled 'Cumulus,' is made of Saran wrap and polyethylene filaments that are woven, heated and shrunk.

The Collector

Jack Lenor Larsen and the fabric of life

By Gretchen Giles

Everything human-made must first be designed, yet most of us give little thought to the shape of the morning's coffee mug, the sheer of the office window's curtains or the nub of the car's upholstery. Still, the shape, sheer and nub of each of those items was carefully considered before manufacture and, in many cases, was drawn from extensive training, deep knowledge of other cultures and, sure, the craft of weaving.

Certainly that would be true if designer Jack Lenor Larsen were involved.

As with everyday designs, Larsen's name may not be readily familiar. But he created the first fabric used in jet airliners, the first print velvet fabric sturdy enough to wrap around couches and chairs, and the first stretch upholstery for the home. Working with architects, Larsen created the fabrics for 1953's Lever House, the first postwar highrise erected in Manhattan. Furthermore, his is one of two design houses to ever have exhibited at the Louvre.

A renowned landscape and interior designer long based on the East Coast, Larsen's East Hampton home is open to the public during the summer, featuring special meditation sessions, sunset tours, musical programs and sculptural exhibitions curated by such as playwright Edward Albee.

Speaking to the Smithsonian about his life in a 2004 interview, Larsen talks about weaving mink into fabric for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and having them refuse to pay; remembers his friendship with avant-garde composer John Cage; tells of cracking his ribs in the 1940s, when it was cheaper to recuperate by reading novels on a Carmel beach than to pay the doctor to be bandaged up; and recounts how he came to his unusual craft.

A weaver with a passion for the craft, Larsen intended to become an architect. But architects rarely make anything actual. As Larsen relates with a laugh, "It was working with my hands. I'd done crafts in Boy Scout camp, and braided and worked with all those materials--made things, and this was creative play. I just fell into it . . ."

Like all great lives, Larsen's has been a tumble into a lot of things. With an eye informed by the extensive travel needed to build up his eponymous design company, Larsen created textile design outposts in remote areas where the indigenous craft would eventually be translated to New York elegance. Affected by what he saw and purchased on his travels, Larsen's passion for collecting objects is almost as famous as his passion for creating.

Some of his collection and his creations come to Sonoma June 24-Aug. 20 in the form of a new exhibit at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, "Jack Lenor Larsen: Creator and Collector." This Sonoma Valley show, the final stop of a five-museum tour that's been all over the country, matches Larsen's inspiration with his resulting work.

Remaining hale and involved, Larsen comes to Sonoma to inaugurate the exhibition, giving a lecture on his work and his passion on June 23. And unlike most museum exhibitions, this one has a "Please Touch" area, so that the designer's inventive fabrics can be felt. Sonoma Valley Museum of Art exhibit designer Stan Abercrombie says that by looking at this small swathe of collection and creation Larsen serves up, one gets an "awareness of how many possibilities there are that most of us have not thought of."

Abercrombie pauses. "It's a collection of quite exotic wonders, really."

'Jack Lenor Larsen: Creator and Collector' opens with a public presentation on Friday, June 23. Reception precedes from 4pm to 6:30pm at the museum. At 7pm at the Lodge at Sonoma, Larsen lectures on his work and passions. SVMA, 551 Broadway, Sonoma. The Lodge, 1325 Broadway. $20-$25; reservations necessary. 707.939.7862.

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