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Hamptons Life

May 13, 2009 11:35 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

At Home with Jack Lenor Larsen

May 13, 2009 11:35 AM

“I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t seeking identity through a sense of place,” wrote Jack Lenor Larsen in “A Weaver’s Memoir,” his 1998 reflection on his extraordinary life and career.

For anyone who has ever visited LongHouse Reserve, Mr. Larsen’s residence set amid 16 acres of lovingly-tended public sculpture gardens in East Hampton’s Great North Woods, it’s obvious that this creative genius finally “found himself” in the Hamptons.

On a recent spring day, Mr. Larsen drove up the stately cryptomeria allée to the property’s main entrance to begin a long weekend at his beloved LongHouse. The grounds were already awash in color, with hundreds of thousands of cheery white and yellow daffodils in bloom. There was a sense of anticipation in the air as workers scurried about preparing the lawns and ornamental borders for the garden’s official opening in late April.

Carrying an assortment of provisions—baguettes and the like—Mr. Larsen slowly made his way up the steps of LongHouse, stopping to catch his breath along the way. He is 81, after all.

Mr. Larsen then did one of his favorite things: he opened the red door to his personal nirvana, sat down in the sunny glass-ceilinged conservatory with its exposed beams and walls made from stucco-and-rice-straw plaster, and smiled.

At last, he was home again.

“My inspiration for building LongHouse was the sacred 7th century Shinto shrine at Ise in Japan, which I consider the most beautiful and tranquil structure in the world,” said Mr. Larsen, who wore a Korean priest’s robe made of a patchwork quilt fabric. “It was my 30th collaboration with architect Charles Forberg, and it took five years and three contractors to complete.”

Joe Tufariello is credited as the builder of record.

Like the shrine at Ise, LongHouse was built in a large rectangular shape, based on stilts with a massive and steep overhanging gabled roof. But unlike Ise, which was built of Japanese cedar without the use of screws or nails, LongHouse was constructed of masonry, with a cost-effective and low-maintenance stucco façade and glass and tile roof.

By raising the principal rooms to the second level, Mr. Larsen said he gained vistas beyond his wildest imagination. A footbridge was constructed to reach the front door, which serves as an aesthetic transition from the second floor to the gardens. At night, the footbridge serves as a moon-gazing platform to view the sky and stars.

LongHouse, boasting 13,000 square feet and 18 spaces on four levels, has been the subject of lengthy articles in Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, Art & Antiques and other publications. Yet the gracious Mr. Larsen never gets tired of talking about this architectural gem in East Hampton—or his celebrated career which has spanned more than five decades.

A man who has literally, and figuratively, worn many hats in his lifetime (during the interview he donned a black beret), Mr. Larsen founded the design firm that bears his name in 1952 and is known around the world as an award-winning textile designer, author, collector, tireless traveler and one of the foremost connoisseurs of traditional and contemporary crafts. His designs, which epitomize the point at which modernism, craft and technology intersect, have been exhibited at the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and many other museums around the world.

Mr. Larsen has designed fabrics for the likes of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Nixon’s Air Force One and the home of once-married playwright Arthur Miller and actress Marilyn Monroe.

“You should have seen all my executives wander down to the showroom the day she showed up!,” he said.

Aside from all the notoriety, when asked how he likes to describe himself, Mr. Larsen modestly replied, “I am a weaver and a gardener. Both are slow and require much patience.”

And both require strong hands, which, to this day, he still has.

“I was always working with my hands. By five, I had already started fulfilling a lust to create spaces out of any materials that were available,” Mr. Larsen, who grew up in Washington State, the only child of parents of Danish and Norwegian descent, explained. “My father was a contractor and we moved often, from one model home to the next. I always envied classmates who could bring armloads of magnolias into school because we always had newly planted shrubs.”

Mr. Larsen began gardening in earnest when he discovered the Hamptons in the late 1950s as a summer getaway from the sweltering city heat. He rented a chauffeur’s apartment on Lily Pond Lane and toured around East Hampton on bicycle, searching for possible building sites near the ocean. But when he found 14 undeveloped and affordable acres on Hands Creek Road, he was immediately smitten with the building—and landscaping—possibilities. He bought 10 of the acres that were for sale, with the option to buy the other four.

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