Jack Lenor Larsen is not someone to sit back with his feet up on his desk, head cradled in his hands, and tell you about the good old days. The designer, builder, collector, and gardener would rather talk about the pergola he recently finished or the shrub he just pruned, the book he is writing, or his plans for the future.
LongHouse Reserve’s jubilee anniversary celebration is not, therefore, about Mr. Larsen’s memories, but his unflagging energy and creative spark, even at 89 years of age, which make it a dynamic and magical place.
“My favorite moments are usually the present,” he said, smiling, during a recent conversation at his house.
According to Matko Tomicic, the executive director of LongHouse and a longtime associate of Mr. Larsen’s, “Jack has 16 new ideas every morning. Unless I tell him ‘Jack, this is not doable,’ he wants to try them all.”
Mr. Larsen agreed. Since he was a schoolboy thinking up projects for the weekend, he said he has stayed awake at night plotting what to do next.
His history with the area is long and deep, having been a regular weekend guest of Bertha Schafer in Amagansett back in 1952. He quickly fell in with a group of artists he knew from New York City, who included Alfonso Ossorio, Jackson Pollock, and Willem and Elaine de Kooning.
“The designer-artist distinction was less of a difference than it is now. They weren’t really famous yet and happy to have someone sympathetic around,” he said. He went on to rent a chauffeur’s apartment on Lily Pond Lane in the late 1950s, and in 1962 built Round House, based on shelters he had seen in western Africa, on Hand’s Creek Road.
Mr. Larsen bought the first parcels abutting Round House, where LongHouse is now perched, with the intent of protecting his privacy and property from future adjoining development. Gradually, however, the itch to build and improve upon his first residential experiment became overwhelming.
Inspiration came from Linda and Stanley Marcus’s use of open space in their Santa Fe adobe house and the proportions of Ise, a seventh century Japanese Shinto shrine.
At first, Mr. Larsen thought the generous expanses of wall the Marcuses used to display their art collection was wasted. A child of the Depression, he had “always played it compactly‚” when designing and decorating. Eventually, he realized he liked the luxury of “wasted space.”
He moved into LongHouse Reserve on Memorial Day weekend in 1991, the same day it opened to the public. The new 16,500-square-foot house was both an outgrowth and partial rejection of Round House’s efficient use of space. Elevating the living areas gave them sweeping views of the property.
“I made this house in midlife and knew what I needed,” he said of the long open plan that ends in a wide veranda on one end and an open area that functions as his private bed, bath, dressing, and sitting room on the other. There is a loft work space above the living area and galleries and offices are below, at ground level.
Round House was sold to build LongHouse, but while the previous property had been easy to work with in both gardening and building, the new site was not. It took several years to clear the land, which was choked by vines, scrub, and fallen trees, for a series of garden rooms.
Mr. Larsen worked with his longtime collaborator Charles Forberg in designing the house. “It took longer and cost more than I intended, but I appreciate it more all the time.” The project benefited from their shared vision as well as their sense of economy and thrift. Suppliers sympathetic to what he was trying to accomplish donated materials, such as roof and floor tiles, or sold them at cost. One of Mr. Larsen’s favorite sayings is “be an open bowl so that some opportunity may fall in. It’s how we could afford to build so much. We had help from our friends.”
Many of the property’s mature trees came from early cuttings. Alfonso Ossorio had told him “ ‘each year the trees will become more noble,’ and they have.” The elevated path and garden off the house’s footbridge was formed by soil displaced and cleared from other parts of the property. Excess soil was also used to form the dunes near the entrance and various berms throughout the site. “If you dig a hole, you get a hill, free! I love doing two things at once.”
“Learning From LongHouse” is the title of the book Mr. Larsen is working on now. He said the house and property teaches visitors “to be less conformist, to consider alternatives. You don’t have to do it like your parents did it. What are the options, what is more fun?”
Mr. Larsen admitted that he had made a lot of mistakes over the years. “It’s not all bad though. It gives me a chance to try something else, and I learn more from my mistakes.”
One of those mistakes was planting 300 rose bushes at Round House. “It was so much fuss to spray and prune them. After three years, I just got rid of them. I realized I didn’t need fancy roses.”
While those associated with LongHouse are excited to mark its 25 years, Mr. Larsen said he finds it more interesting to celebrate what is ahead. This includes expanding programs and parking and plans for opening the residence to the public as a design museum once he is gone. “There’s some conflict now on whether this is my private hideaway or a public space.” LongHouse will have more public hours in the future and that, he said, “will be a big change.”
The house is also a receptacle for Mr. Larsen’s vast collections of ceramics, textiles, furniture, and other elements of design, which will one day be on view. There is a significant collection of Wharton Esherick pieces, which include an arch, a rare painted bench, a music stand, and Cubist-style mirror. Also integrated into the decor are an Anni Albers rug, Edward Wormley sofa and table, and Dale Chihuly glass pieces. This doesn’t take into account 40 different sets of dinnerware, napery, and flatware.
Mr. Larsen is adamant that those in charge after he is gone not freeze the site in the present moment. “That happens with enterprises and it’s a kind of death.” Future custodians should be “opportunistic and not conform to the past.” The one thing that no one has figured out is “who is going to dream up the big ideas when I’m not around.” But he is not too concerned.
“I’ll let the future take care of itself.”