Lessons from LongHouse: Marrying Art and Design with Nature

The grounds of LongHouse in East Hampton. Dell Callum photo
The grounds of LongHouse in East Hampton. Dell Callum photo
The grounds of LongHouse in East Hampton. Dell Cullum photo

By Emily J. Weitz

For the past 25 years, textile luminary Jack Larsen has lived by beautiful example on the grounds of Round House and LongHouse in East Hampton. It started with 16 acres and a forest of oaks, beeches, and pitch pines. Now, the grounds of LongHouse are an impeccably curated wonderland that combine nature and art with the sensitivity of a great listener. And that’s what Larsen does. He listens to the world.

At 89 years old, he remains open and curious, and the board of the LongHouse Reserve aims to follow his lead. With the most visitors ever last summer (13,000), executive director Matko Tomicic finds his great challenge in maintaining the identity: the secret corners and the deep internal experience, the communing with nature and the privacy, even on an August afternoon when 300 people might be seeking the same sense of solitude.

Larsen traveled to Asia countless times, and traversed six continents in a quest for the most precious textiles and fabrics on earth. He is still a traveler, but he calls East Hampton home. The galleries and gardens, lawns and sculptures, offer a wealth of lessons gleaned from a life devoted to design.

European Hornbeams leading to the de Kooning sculpture.
European Hornbeams leading to the de Kooning sculpture.

Be an Open Bowl

One of Larsen’s favorite phrases is to “be an open bowl”. It’s an ancient Chinese proverb that he lives by, and  Tomicic thought it an appropriate first lesson of LongHouse. As we strolled past Willem deKooning’s “Reclining Figure,” we turned to face two rows of trees that seemed to stretch out endlessly before us.

“In 1995,” Tomicic said, “30 European horn beams arrived from Rockefeller Center. They would have ended up in the dumpster, so a friend suggested we take them. Then we had to figure out what to do with them.”

They decided to plant the trees, which were then relatively small, in two long rows. Fifteen on each side.

“It’s a succession in pairs,” said Tomicic, “and creates length. It looks a thousand feet long, but it’s a trick.”

But the real trick was accepting a gift when it was offered, even though they had no idea how to use it. Be an open bowl, so that the universe might fill you.

Black Mirror
Black Mirror

Elegance is Achieved by Subtraction

As LongHouse grows in reputation and prominence, more and more opportunities arise. While remaining open, it’s important not to get cluttered. Even the beautiful plantings are given enough space to breathe, and the sculptures are meticulously placed to inspire a moment’s pause in the visitor. Tomicic feels he’s learned, through his 20 years at LongHouse, that elegance is achieved not through acquiring more precious things, but sometimes by taking away, giving the precious things that are already there the space to shine.

Black Mirror is a square-shaped reflective pond, designed by Larsen, with water that shimmers black in the sun. Over the years it’s had benches beside it, and sculptures relating to it in various ways. This year, The Invisible, a bronze sculpture by Enrique Martinez Celaya of a man actually shedding tears, will be placed by the edge of the pond, and his tears will endlessly stream into the water.

The pond was surrounded by trees for many years.

“They were dying,” said Tomicic, “and we knew we had to remove them. But what to replace them with?”

We arrive at mirror pond, and a clear sweep towards the back of the property reveals that, without the trees, nothing is missing.

“You didn’t need anything there,” he said. “Sometimes less is more.”

Sand dunes at the entrance to LongHouse.
Sand dunes at the entrance to LongHouse.

Use What You Have

For all the acquisitions LongHouse has made, Larsen has also always been conscious to make the most of what is already there. When he acquired the land and started working with the grounds, he was removing a lot of dirt for plantings. Instead of carting that dirt away, Larsen decided to create a striking landscape at the entrance to the grounds: rolling dunes, a nod to the beach a few minutes down the road.

“Anybody could make dunes like this,” said Tomicic. “It’s low maintenance, and everything you place in it [or on it] becomes pronounced.”

They simply dropped the extra dirt at the site, smoothed them out into rolling dunes, and brought in enough white sand for a thin coating. A single daffodil sprouts from the sand, looking radiant. Ornamental grasses and a few carefully chosen sculptures make a statement without saying a word.

“People talk about sustainability,” said Tomicic. “Jack shaped this dirt into art instead of carting it away.”

Dale Chihuly's Blue Grass Spears.
Dale Chihuly’s Blue Glass Spears.

Color and Texture as Art

The Red Garden is the most photographed corner of LongHouse. The original inspiration was to create a study in height and perspective, as Larsen placed a series of red posts of varying sizes in the ground. Soon Japanese maples hung their vibrant leaves, and red azaleas filled in the gaps between the posts.

“Color makes a garden alive,” said Tomicic. “Here, color is used as an art object, and that’s where Jack is the master. This is the man who put into fabric what nature puts into plants.”

Tomicic is referring to a fabric that Larsen created that was red on one side and green on the other. When he made this fabric in the 1960s, it was a success celebrated in the design world.

But it’s not just about color. Effective spaces have more depth than that.

“This garden is about texture, and about 55 shades of green,” said Tomicic.

The Red Garden
The Red Garden

The Marriage of Art and Nature

Perhaps what LongHouse does most successfully is its marriage of art and nature. Boundaries between the two are constantly blurred. This gives people a deeply fulfilling experience, as if they had just gone for a long hike and attended a night at the opera at once.

One look at Dale Chihuly’s blue glass spears rising from the water, and you might think they were striking water lilies, living and breathing. But to do a double take and realize that they’re made of delicate, hand-blown glass: you realize that nature and art co-exist here effortlessly, beautifully, serenely.

“To find that perfect balance of the placement of art in nature is something we strive for here at LongHouse,” said Tomicic. “When children who visit here are content, and an artist is pleased, we feel we’ve succeseded.”