The Larsen Design Archive: A Minnesota Textile Treasure
The Larsen Design Archive: A Minnesota Textile Treasure
From American Craft Inquiry: Volume 2, Issue 2
Imagine opening a brilliant designer’s treasure chest, filled with his inspiration, innovation, and ideas about process. What would you explore, given access to the mind and accomplishments of the designer? How would understanding the origin of some of the most influential textile designs of the 20th-century influence your own design decisions? With the Larsen Design Archive, you can seek those answers. The archive consists of more than 1,300 fabric samples and documents from his firm, held by a consortium of three academic and cultural organizations: the University of Minnesota Goldstein Museum of Design, the university’s Northwest Architectural Archives, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, all in the Twin Cities.1 The archive is a resource for exploring the Larsen experience and offers excellent potential for future teaching, learning, and design inspiration.
Jack Lenor Larsen was a trailblazer in American postwar modernism. He is one of the world’s leading textile designers and producers, specializing in high-end fabrics for use in interiors. Larsen’s company, Jack Lenor Larsen Inc., was known for innovative loomed fabrics, textured random-weave upholstery fabrics, grainy batiks, mohairs, tufted leather rugs, velours, printed velvets, airy cottons, and Thai silks. Through pioneering designs, Jack Lenor Larsen Inc. set the standard for superlative textiles, winning numerous textile and design industry awards. Larsen textiles have been exhibited in museums around the world, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Musée des Arts Décoratifs 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 & Albert Museum in London, and the Museum Bellerive in Zurich.2
Jack Lenor Larsen ran his successful design studio and manufacturing operation for 45 years. In 1997, the studio of Jack Lenor Larsen Inc. was purchased by the London-based Colefax Group, and the textiles are now distributed by Cowtan & Tout in the United States. Larsen was born August 6, 1927, in Seattle. He began weaving while a student of architecture at the University of Washington. He loved the immediacy of working with fiber and the creative process of weaving, and applied the aesthetics and logic of architecture to fabric design. Larsen earned his MFA in 1951 from Cranbrook Academy of Art and set up his New York studio in 1952.3 At its height, Jack Lenor Larsen Inc. had production centers and showrooms in 31 countries, and his fabrics were found in private homes and public buildings around the world.4
Larsen’s early fabrics were deliberately rustic, a natural complement to the uniformity of contemporary building materials of glass and steel. His first major commission was the design and production of draperies for New York’s Lever House, which was designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill as one of the first international-style buildings in the United States.5 A year later, his work was in such demand that he acquired his first power loom. He discovered that by running empty shuttles through the loom at intervals, he could approximate the random spacing of weft threads in handwoven cloth. These mass-produced “handwoven-look” fabrics were a significant influence on the textile market. For many people living and working in modern buildings with simplified interiors, Larsen textiles contributed vibrant color and texture with the feel of hand craftsmanship. Larsen fabrics are distinguished by the richness and variety of their colors and textures. They demonstrate Larsen’s technological resourcefulness and fascination with traditional styles and processes. Larsen traveled widely, researching the techniques and skills of weavers around the world. He modified these traditional weaving and surface design techniques for modern production methods, resulting in exciting fabrics suited to contemporary uses.6
Larsen and his firm are credited with designing and producing the first stretch upholstery, printed velvets, and fabrics for jet aircraft.7 He also developed silk fabrics that were sun-resistant and aluminum-coated polyester fabrics that prevented heat loss.8 Because these innovative products also required creative promotion, Larsen became an early adopter of corporate branding,9 expanding a single collection to include furniture, leathers, carpet, upholstery, and casement (window covering) fabrics to offer customized, harmonious interiors.10
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 yarns and used them in fabrics designed to emphasize their unique qualities.11 He studied with weavers in India, China, Thailand, Peru, Ireland, Switzerland, and Italy to learn local techniques that he incorporated in his textiles.12 To take advantage of the skill of these artisans, many of his fabrics were produced outside 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 is 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. He has 12 books to his credit and is an acknowledged expert on art fabrics. He has been president of the American Craft Council (ACC), winner of the 1996 ACC Gold Medal for Consummate Craftsmanship, and a board member for many museums and galleries. Because of his unique contribution to textiles and his innovative design business practices, the designs and inspirations in the Larsen Design Archive form an invaluable resource.
The Minnesota Partners
The Larsen Design Archive is jointly held by two units of the University of Minnesota (UMN), and the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), the largest art museum in the state. This partnership was explicitly formed to accommodate and preserve the Larsen Archive. The university’s Goldstein Museum of Design (GMD), founded in 1976, is a comprehensive design museum (the only one of its kind in the state), with a collection of more than 34,000 objects. Approximately 650 examples of Larsen designs comprise its portion of the archive, along with the online Jack Lenor Larsen Oral History Project of interviews with more than a dozen of Larsen’s former designers, employees, and colleagues. Transcription summaries of these interviews can be found at goldstein.design.umn.edu/collection/jll and are an essential source for Larsen scholars and enthusiasts.13
The university’s Northwest Architectural Archives (NAA) is part of the Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts Unit of the UMN Library. Formed in 1970 and housed in the Elmer L. Andersen Library, the collections span almost 130 years of work by notable architects, engineers, contractors, landscape architects, and interior designers from Minnesota, western Wisconsin, northern Iowa, and the eastern Dakotas. Within this record of the built and designed environment, the Larsen Design Archive occupies approximately 400 archival boxes containing drawings, design files, and fabric samples.14 The Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) was founded in 1883 and is one of the country’s leading encyclopedic art museums, with a collection of more than 89,000 objects. Mia holds approximately 600 Larsen items, primarily larger yardages. Textiles from the Larsen Design Archive broadened the scope of Mia’s 20th-century textile collection, complementing its already substantial collection of contemporary fiber art.15
The Origin of the Larsen Design Archive
The Larsen Design Archive was begun informally as a reference for the Larsen design studio staff when they started a new project. No one recalls who started the archive or, indeed, if an actual decision was ever made about what to save. Krista Stack, director of design for the studio from 1994 to 1999, says that the archive was set up out of necessity by a few people who wanted to save textile samples of current designs for future reference, along with a paper trail of the design process. The archive included some historical textiles, design successes and failures, and manufacturing ideas. Stack and others in the studio referred to the records each time they started a new design. The idea of a deliberately assembled archive eventually spread throughout the firm. There is nothing to indicate that the archive was ever formalized with a written policy. Win Anderson, one of the company leaders, is credited with filing away the work papers of each project. She also saved 3-yard lengths of most of the patterns and their colorways, including some that were never put into production.16
The Larsen Design Archive also 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. In fact, the Larsen Design Archive is mainly product and production files, which document the process by which designs were initiated, put into production, and marketed. They include almost no information about company finances and little of the correspondence and memos exchanged between managers and departments. This may be due to the informal structure of the company and its team approach to decision-making. Because most communication was oral, recordkeeping was casual. The simple purpose of the archive was as a catalogue of design processes and a reference for future designs, rather than a comprehensive record of the firm’s activities.
When Larsen sold his company to the Colefax Group in 1997, arrangements were made to donate this valuable archive to a major northeastern research university. However, the institution declined when it discovered the scope of the archive, citing lack of storage space and Larsen’s unwillingness to donate only a select group of textiles from it. Krista Stack’s quick thinking brought the entire collection to Minnesota. In 1997, when she was the design director for the Larsen Design Studio, her mother, Lotus Stack, was Mia’s curator of textiles. The Stacks contacted GMD’s director, Lindsey Shen, and the three presented a proposal to Larsen for the entire archive to be shared jointly by the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Through the combined effort of GMD, NAA, Mia, and Cowtan & Tout, the complete archive was sent to Minnesota.
The collaborative arrangement of this donation allowed each institution to maintain the portion of the archive most related to its mission. GMD, a resource for design education, houses some of the drawings, plans, and project notes, as well as its more than 650 fabric samples. Mia added the 600 larger textiles it received to its extensive textile collection. NAA received correspondence, invoices, receipts, memos, photographs, brochures, advertising, and other printed materials describing the designs and the design process behind fabrics that were produced, including custom and individual project designs. The NAA files also include the only examples in existence of some fabrics that were never put into production.
Learning from the Larsen Design Archive
The Larsen employees and the three Minnesota partners agreed that this remarkable collection could become a versatile teaching tool for the campus and design communities. The archive is now a resource encouraging divergent thinking and critical analysis, and a pathway to a better understanding of design history and critical issues related to the textile business. It has been the starting point for research into the design process and the history of the Larsen firm through exhibitions, websites, workshops, tours, and teaching.
In 2001, the three Minnesota partners developed concurrent exhibitions to celebrate this new resource for designers, educators, and the general public. GMD organized “Inspirations of an Innovator: Jack Lenor Larsen” (December 2, 2001 – February 3, 2002). The exhibition and accompanying catalogue, Interplay: Perspectives on the Design Legacy of Jack Lenor Larsen, showcased the materials from all three partners as a retrospective of the designer and his impact on 20th-century textile design. Curated by Stephanie Watson Zollinger, professor of interior design, the exhibition featured 45 years’ worth of drawings, plans, and fabric samples and told the complete story of the firm and its impact on fabric design, interior design, and the design process.
Mia curator of textiles Lotus Stack organized the survey exhibition “Jack Lenor Larsen: The Company and the Cloth” (December 1, 2001 – March 10, 2002) and a related online resource, Larsen: A Living Archive (artsmia.org/larsen). Mia’s exhibition traveled to the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts, and the Mingei International Museum of World Folk Art in San Diego.
In 2006, Mia opened a 113,000-square-foot wing designed by Michael Graves, which added galleries, an education center, and gathering spaces. Selections from the Larsen archive were the focus of some of the first exhibitions in the new galleries. The large yardages, presented on painting stretchers, showcased the vibrant designs as striking examples of modern art in a textile medium. In 2017, GMD presented “Jack Lenor Larsen at 90: Transformations of a Textile Innovator” (September 22, 2017 – January 8, 2018), which focused on groundbreaking areas of textile design and business practice. Stephanie Watson Zollinger selected textiles from GMD’s portion of the Larsen Archive to highlight Larsen’s mastery of craft techniques, technological innovation, and inspiration from global design traditions. The inclusion of drawings, correspondence, and production samples enhanced the narrative of the creative process.
The Larsen Design Archive has also provided a wealth of online information that designers, researchers, and students can use to explore the firm’s multifaceted legacy. Both Mia and GMD have the collection records online, many with photographs (goldstein.design.umn.edu/collection). Mia developed a website that features the story of Jack Lenor Larsen Inc. (artsmia.org/larsen). GMD worked with Zollinger to develop the Jack Lenor Larsen Oral History Project (goldstein.design.umn.edu/collection/jll).
NAA catalogued the 400 boxes it received and is seeking funding to develop a comprehensive search system for them that would detail their contents (lib.umn.edu/scrbm/naa). The eventual goal of the partnership is to link all three collections online, resulting in a searchable database that will enable researchers to identify and locate designs and their associated records.
Workshops, Tours, and Teaching
In cultivating awareness of the Larsen Design Archive as a resource, each partner has developed presentations and workshops for professional organizations and community groups. Guided tours of exhibitions and public programs have explored the impact of Larsen and his firm. During the 2017 exhibition, GMD hosted a panel discussion that featured Krista Stack and Lori Weitzner, two former Larsen designers; Ellie Karanauskas, former vice president of sales and national sales; and Lotus Stack, past Mia textile curator. Panelists discussed their experiences with the firm and what they learned from it.
As a teaching resource, the archive reflects the multifaceted character of design, encompassing the creative process, methods of production, marketing, and retail merchandising. Undergraduate students in design foundation courses have used the archive to study Larsen’s design process and concept development. Graduate students have studied the archive to gain a better understanding of the relationships between design teams and production sites, between a product and how it is marketed, and between an initial product and the licensing process. Through the archive, students learn that, while design calls for creativity and innovation, it is also a business, requiring strict control of costs, maintenance of trusting relationships with manufacturers, and persuasive publicity.
The research potential of this archive is extremely rich for design professionals, including interior and textile designers, scholars of design, art, and business history, and students of cultural transmission and retail practices. Exploring Larsen’s use of color alone would provide a unique study of cultural sources, bold decisions, and influential colorways. The archive also reveals how one textile design can form the foundation of a comprehensive interior environment that may include china, linens, and even fragrances. A study of correspondence, designer’s production materials, mill samples, and press releases reveals a nexus of relationships spanning many locations and periods. Larsen’s early practice of contracting with numerous companies (one to spin the yarn, another to dye it, and a third to weave it) influenced competitor companies to hire full-time in-house designers.
Research on Larsen’s impact on world textile practices could provide insight into the range of weaving techniques and the global potential for using them in textile production and design. Because he drew inspiration from world textiles, Larsen introduced Western audiences to many new traditions. After his travels in China, for example, he premiered the Great Color of China Collection. After trips to African nations, he launched several African-influenced collections.
The archive documents the work of the Larsen firm in great detail. Although the financial records and much of the operational files are missing or incomplete, the NAA collection contains the well-documented history of the origin, manufacture, and marketing of its products. Researchers can explore individual patterns, the firm’s operation and creative processes, and the role played by individual designers. Scholars of Larsen’s well-known clients, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Pan American Airlines, Braniff Airlines, Dansk, Mikasa, and Stanley Marcus, can learn about interactions between those clients and the Larsen firm.
The development of a strong brand was a Larsen skill. Researchers seeking to analyze the operational practices of a successful design business can examine branding decisions, their impact on the growth of the firm, and the rise of Larsen designs. Larsen’s innovative advertising and marketing campaigns provide a rich study in portraying textiles part of a fun, edgy lifestyle. The archive includes photographs (slides and prints) used for inspiration, drawings and sketches of initial designs, and samples of the final products. It is possible to track the progress of an individual design through these records, from concept to production. Fabric samples include designs in colorways that were produced, as well as test-lengths of colorways that were not produced, exciting one-offs that can be compared to the final versions. The data is remarkable and permit researchers to determine just how the design process worked and whether the ideas were the design team's or Larsen’s.
Textile researchers can use the collection to study a variety of weaves and the innovative production techniques of Larsen and his designers. For example, with the advent of rounded, organic-shaped furniture in the 1960s, Larsen responded by developing a stretch upholstery fabric that would conform to the shape of the new furniture in a way that earlier, stiffer upholstery fabric could not. The archive reveals changing patterns and colors from the early 1950s into the 1990s, as well as introductions or revivals of materials such as sisal and coir for casual floor coverings. It is the very complexity of this archive that allows for linkages between the disparate components that make up the process we call design.
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. What began as an informal, in-house preservation effort is now a well-preserved, accessible resource with the power to connect people and places globally and to demonstrate a relationship between an individual design and the broader social, cultural, and economic spheres. The Larsen Archive is an enduring testament to the keen foresight and extraordinary innovation of Jack Lenor Larsen.
1. Mary Abbe, “Visual art; State consortium acquires textile archives.” Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minn.), May 16, 1999. Accessed February 4, 2018. highbeam.com/ doc/1G1-62474214.html?refid=easy_hf.
2. Stephanie Watson Zollinger, 2014. “Advancing textile craft through innovation: The influence and legacy of Jack Lenor Larsen.” Craft Research 5 (1): 97-109. doi:10.1386/crre.5.1.97_1.
3. L. Salmon, “Jack Lenor Larsen in Boston.” Craft Horizons (April 1971), 4-7.
4. Jack Lenor Larsen, Jack Lenor Larsen: A Weaver’s Memoir. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998).
5. Edwin Bayrd, “Genius at the Loom.” Connoisseur (June 1982}, 125-29.
6. Zollinger, op. cit.
7. Jeffrey Simpson, “Jack Lenor Larsen: A Structural Approach to Fabric.” Architectural Digest, (April 1984), 230-232.
8. Christopher Hemphill, “Jack Lenor Larsen: Textiles That Weave A Spell.” Town and Country (March 1983), 206-13.
9. Zollinger, op. cit.
10. Zollinger, op. cit
11. Cathryn Jakobson, “A Man of Cloth.” Manhattan Inc., (November 1985), 67-69.
12. Karen Searle, “Larsen Archive in Minnesota.” Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot 30, no. 3 (Summer 1999):32-35.
13. Goldstein Museum, “About the Collection.” Accessed February 4, 2018. goldstein.design.umn.edu/collection
14. Northwest Architectural Archives, “About Our Collection.” Accessed February 4, 2018, lib.umn.edu/special
15. Minneapolis Institute of Art, “Mission and History.” Accessed February 4, 2018, new.artsmia.org/about/museum-info/mission-and-history/
16. Stack, Krista. 2009. Interview by Stephanie Zollinger, May 20. Transcript, Jack Lenor Larsen Oral History Project, Goldstein Museum of Design.