Jack Lenor Larsen’s Longhouse Reserve hosts its annual silent auction benefit this weekend, honoring artist Kiki Smith.
“Weaving is so logical,” says Jack Lenor Larsen, the prominent textile designer and founder of LongHouse Reserve, his East Hampton estate. “The loom… it just takes you.” The same logic that guides Larsen as he creates patterns on a loom—his past patrons include Marilyn Monroe and the companies Knoll and Braniff International Airways—guided him to create the most interesting garden anywhere in the Hamptons, with its extraordinary variety of textures, outdoor art, and topography. LongHouse’s annual fundraising benefit, “Come Fly on Gossamer Wings,” which this year honors artist Kiki Smith, will take place here on July 18. It’s the most important event of the year for LongHouse Reserve because one third of its operating budget depends on proceeds from this auction.
Upon entering LongHouse along an avenue of Japanese cedars, one has the feeling of being transported to a future Pangaea, where continents are not so much about to drift apart as come together to share the best that each has to offer. Rounded sand dunes, sparsely planted with perfectly pruned bayberry, give the entrance to the garden a sense of genius loci, or spirit of the place, while establishing a color scheme. The wandering path guides visitors toward a bridge that leads to a rectangular gray house from which the estate takes its name. “Long Island is so flat that building massive roofs and putting the house on stilts to get some breeze was a very good idea,” says Larsen, who designed the house in the style of Ise-jing?, Japan’s foremost Shinto shrine. Of all the places Larsen has visited, Japan is his favorite. “I went there every year for many years. By now, I’ve been 39 times!” he says.
Because the eaves of the house turned out so wide, Larsen couldn’t see the moon, something he missed from Kyoto’s open skies. “The bridge at the entrance is a moon-gazing bridge,” he says. Everything at LongHouse seems to follow the Shinto principle that nature and humans are united through a spiritual essence. Below the main floor, Larsen designed a gallery that is currently filled with donated, one-of-a-kind woven pieces, ceramics, and prints in anticipation of the upcoming auction.
As with any woven cloth that starts with warps tensed on a loom, a great garden has its beginnings on a grid. In 1961, Larsen purchased 12 acres of farmland on which he built RoundHouse, three circular houses based on sub-Saharan Ndebele huts. Then 10 years later, he acquired 16 acres adjacent to RoundHouse that would become LongHouse Reserve. “The land was quite unattractive,” says Larsen, “full of second-growth trees, monster vines, and very flat.”
After clearing the land, Larsen decided its only mildly interesting feature was a few intersecting berms—terraces along irrigation canals— which he planted with Canadian hemlock seedlings, using one as a guideline for situating LongHouse. At the south end of the house, architect Charles Forberg framed the tall glass gables with forked rafters— LongHouse’s most defining aspect—giving it a shrinelike character at an American scale. The effect is amplified by the house’s reflection on an adjacent pool, where Dale Chihuly’s glass sculpture, Cobalt Reeds, twinkles in exact contrast with the yellow irises edging the pool.
All the sculptures at LongHouse Reserve are balanced by the structure and texture of the surrounding vegetation. A giant reproduction of a Buckminster Fuller design, Fly’s Eye Dome, appears from behind red pines and bamboo as if it had just landed from outer space.
Performance art is one of his great passions, so, inspired by Ireland’s ancient ring forts, Larsen, using leftover soil from excavations at another part of the garden, built a raised grassy crescent that serves as an amphitheater. In May 2014, he invited Kyoto- based artist Mariyo Yagi to create a 30-foot-high obelisk of twisted fabric, part of the National Association of Women Artists’ (NAWA) “Axis for Peace” project. During the installation, 50 people came over to twist strands of striped cloth, each representing a strand of DNA. Imposing oaks and cedars surround the amphitheater, making it appear as if a ruin in the clearing of an old forest. At the opposite end of the garden, near the house, Willem de Kooning’s mammoth bronze Reclining Figure rests in front of an endless weeping blue Atlas cedar, which has grown as wide as a theater curtain. In all, LongHouse displays 60 to 80 pieces of art—some on loan—at any given time.
“Every year there’s something new,” says Larsen. “It keeps people coming back.” And that’s not the only reason to keep visiting: Only great gardens continue to reveal new points of view. 133 Hands Creek Road, East Hampton, 604-5330