New York furniture designer Dakota Jackson began his professional career by making "magic boxes." The son of a couple who performed as stage magicians, Jackson carried over the art of the skilled illusionist into his early "magic boxes"--constructions filled with secret compartments and mysteriously moving sections.
Jackson's designs entranced several high-profile trend-setters, including Yoko Ono and Diane Von Furstenberg. Soon the former magician with a philosophy degree from Columbia University found himself the darling of Manhattan's chic set. His custom-made desks, chairs and coffee tables graced Park Avenue living rooms and Greenwich Village lofts.
Now Jackson is making his move on Los Angeles. His first exhibit in the Pacific Design Center's Randolph and Hein showroom is timed to coincide with the annual West-week event today through Friday , which attracts designers and clients from all over the United States in addition to some from other countries.
"Furniture design has its own intrinsic illusion," Jackson said, "which may be described as 'the illusion of function.' Just as a magician reveals some of his tricks and leaves others unexplained, so my designs keep part of themselves forever secret, even though the desk or chair is always a functional object meant for working at or sitting on."
A businessman as well as a designer and magician, Jackson manufactures and markets his own line. His Long Island City-based factory is geared up to launch the KE-ZU collection, Jackson's first foray into the mass-produced contract furniture market. The KE-ZU line is a gamble he has backed with an investment of his money close to $1 million.
"The American consumer is unsophisticated, compared to Italy or Japan," he said. "There's a very limited market for high style, custom-designed furniture in the U.S., despite the seeming frenzy of in-terest in the glossy magazines. People will read about elegance, but they'll seldom live with it. The only way for an original designer to expand his clientele is to try and make a bridge into the contract field."
KE-ZU is a Japanese version of "kazoo--the kind of comb-and-tissue-paper musical instrument played by Huck Finn," the philosophical Jackson explained. "I've appropriated a very American word and transformed it into a culturally ambiguous conundrum, a verbal puzzle that springs apart in the mind yet never quite reveals its secret resonance."
The magical pieces crafted by the 39-year-old designer are as tensely sleek as the man himself. Described by one writer as "an intellectual Clint Eastwood," Jackson has devised a range of furniture that veers from the sexy to the sentimental, from the clever to the almost cartoonish.
Like a Revving Ferrari
The sexy KE-ZU chaise in black leather looks as ready for flight as a revving Ferrari. The fat New Classics armoire in honey-yellow bird's-eye maple and ripe red cherrywood seems ample and cozy enough to house an elegant yuppie. The T-Bird desk is a constructivist sculpture rigged with black lacquer and steel tension rods and cables. The Revolving cocktail table features several sliding plate-glass planes that could play havoc with the hors d'oeuvres.
The prices are impressive too. A simple red leather KE-ZU dining table chair goes for $1,200. The coffee table costs $4,000. The desk or the armoire can put a dent as deep as $35,000 in your pocketbook.
"For me the essential fineness of a design is in the idea, not the object itself," Jackson said. "It's like minimalist painting or sculpture, which influenced me strongly in the early 1970s. In minimalism, the object is pared down to its basic meaning by stripping away all the excrescence of decoration--those elements that do not contribute to the pure idea."
Jackson explained that he translated this approach into furniture design, not by making furniture as art but by a process of simplification. From that basic simplicity, he built up an elegance that allows for idiosyncrasy.
"After all, a designer must have a signature," he said with a smile. "If you buy designer jeans, say, you're not only buying the pants, you're also buying into the designer's supposedly glamorous life style."
The designer life style is the angle of Jackson's attack on the Los Angeles market, which he describes as "decidedly naive, even by American standards. Southern California furniture design has its few maverick originals, such as Frank Gehry and his cardboard couches. But most of the stuff out here is either crude or kitschy."
Gazing around the high-end kitsch of the Randolph and Hein showroom display that hosts his designs, Jackson acknowledges the collection's "solemn and sometimes hilarious but always expensive bad taste. But this sells here," he said. "Sells like crazy in Beverly Hills and Bel-Air."
Jackson's designs differ from the Randolph and Hein collection in another radical aspect--they demand response. "My pieces have to be answered to," he said. "They don't just sit there like dumb objects, they talk to you, they demand a dialogue. Maybe that's why people often find them a bit overwhelming."
Lawrence Grow, in his book "Modern Design," wrote of Jackson's dramatic Arc Bed: "The subtle dynamics are absorbing. A magnificent arcing headboard stretches more than 12 feet across to embrace not only a king-sized mattress but two cantilevered night tables. The tables and the footboard of the bed are gently curved as well."
Grow noted of Jackson's T-Bird desk that "transplanting the sharp angles of a Thunderbird to a desk is a risky operation." The New Classics armoire "displays immense columns, arcs and marble crown caps."
Adopted Name at 5
Married, with two young children, Jackson adopted the "magic name" Dakota when he was 5 and working as an assistant to his parents' stage show. In his early 20s, when he started working professionally as a magician, he used the name to give himself some "aura of mystery."
"I was born and will always be a showman magician at heart," he said. "The magic powers I presented as a stage illusionist are of the same order I employ as a designer of furniture. The magic is in the illusion that a desk, say, is more than merely an ensemble of exotic woods and leathers. It is also an act of secrecy and meaning that can never--and should never--be fully explained."