Five Questions Salon Edition with Dr. Stephanie Zollinger
Five Questions Salon Edition with Dr. Stephanie Zollinger
Artists' archives exist to document the textual and visual stories of creative individuals whose work has influenced not only other artists, but also our cultural landscape. Here in Minneapolis, we're fortunate to have access to the archive of one of the most notable textile artists of the 20th century – Jack Lenor Larsen – through a joint collaboration of the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Dr. Stephanie Zollinger, one of the leading scholars of Larsen’s work, is responsible for organizing the Jack Lenor Larsen Oral History Project, a momentous effort to bring the archival collection to life through first-hand narration. In advance of a talk on the life and work of Larsen she will give on Wednesday, December 9 as part of the ACC Library Salon Series, we caught up with Dr. Zollinger to learn more about the preeminent designer and his archive.
To begin, why is Jack Lenor Larsen significant to the fields of craft and design? What techniques and innovations led to his recognition as one of the world’s leading textile designers?
Wow, that’s a really loaded question. In looking at the span of Larsen’s career, the idea of reinterpreting ancient concepts into modern idiom, in my opinion, has been Larsen’s most important contribution to the field of textile design. Larsen took inspirations from cultures around the world and transformed their patterns, colors, materials, and techniques into textiles that influenced and changed the textile craft and industry. He was one of the first to adapt ancient weaving and dyeing techniques to larger-scale manufacturing, turning out fabrics with complex textures, unusual patterns, rich colors and high technical qualities that were unavailable elsewhere.
Larsen’s astuteness was that he understood both the artisans’ sensibilities and market demands.
Larsen grew up and attended school in Seattle, and has spent the majority of his life living and working in New York City. Can you tell us a little about how the artist’s archives ended up in Minnesota?
When Larsen sold his company to the Colefax Group in 1997, arrangements had been made to donate the archive to a major research institution located in the northeast. When this institution heard how large the archive was and that Larsen was unwilling to donate a select group of textiles, the university had to back down. The university simply did not have enough storage space for such an extensive collection.
It was the quick thinking of Krista Stack that brought the collection to Minnesota. In 1997, when Krista was the Design Director for the Larsen Design Studio, her mother Lotus, was the textile curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). Together they contacted the director of the Goldstein Museum of Design (GMD) at the University of Minnesota. Working together, they devised and presented Jack Larsen a plan in which the entire archive would be shared jointly with the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Jack agreed and through the combined efforts of the MIA, GMD, and Colefax and Fowler, the subsidiary of Cowtan & Tout in the United States, the complete archives were sent to Minnesota.
You were responsible for organizing the Jack Lenor Larsen Oral History Project, wherein you interviewed Larsen and his former designers, employees and colleagues. Were there any stories or themes that came out of these interviews that surprised you? What is the relationship of the oral histories to objects in the Larsen archives?
I think the biggest surprise was the working climate of the studio. Everyone I interviewed talked passionately about their days with Jack Lenor Larsen Incorporated.
It was a company that truly whistled while they worked. Former staff members eagerly talked about the employee Christmas party and reminisced about staying late after work to party and to enjoy each other’s company. Laughter, they say, was nearly always heard. The sense of mission: to design, produce, and sell the most wonderful fabrics on the market (as all invariably believed), bound the employees into a tight family – all of which helped to ensure the company’s continued vitality.
The oral histories are still evolving but they directly correlate to the objects in the Larsen Archives. The goal in conducting the oral histories was intended not only to fill an existing void in the literature but to go beyond the facts – to explore motivations and influences, behind-the-scenes stories, and personal reflections. As many former Larsen employees and Larsen, himself, are retired, there is a sense of urgency to this project. Without their stories, memories, and input, an essential piece of craft history will be lost forever.
How does the Larsen collection influence today’s textile designers?
As an educational tool, the Larsen collection is influential in so many ways. For instance, a study of correspondence, designers’ production material, mill samples, and press releases uncovers a nexus of relationships spanning multiple geographic locations and time periods. Alternatively, as design is where Larsen made his greatest impact, using the collection and archive to understand the inner workings of the design studio, the nucleus and functioning of the company could be influential in understanding the successful operation of the firm.
Overall, the value of the collection is that it demonstrates design as a multifaceted activity, encompassing not only the creative process, but also innovative methods of production, marketing, and retail merchandising. Contents in the archive connect people and processes over time and place, and demonstrate the relationship of the smallest part (the individual textile) to the larger social, cultural, and economic spheres.
What can salon attendees look forward to from your talk on December 9?
I hope salon attendees look forward to learning more about Jack Lenor Larsen, one of the most prolific textile designers of the 20th century.
Presented by the American Craft Council, the Library Salon Series is a series of free public presentations exploring craft, making, and art.
This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.