One of the interesting things about this job is that we never really know what we are going to end up talking about with our interviewees. Dakota Jackson was a case in point because we thought we were going to be mainly talking about furniture design and ended up talking about magic—and a love of plumbing. A third-generation stage magician, Dakota spent the early part of his life as a professional magician, traveling around the country with his family, who were also entertainers.
He is something of a polymath, an accomplished musician (piano, guitar and double bass) who has designed pianos for Steinway (and once owned a piano-making factory of his own), a dancer and now a highly successful designer with a furniture factory in Queens. He became fascinated by plumbing, then building, then making furniture with hidden compartments that soon garnered famous clients like Yoko Ono and Diane von Furstenburg. He is intense and never does anything by halves, disciplined and curious, his is not a frivolous mind. When asked how he managed to acquire all these skills, he said simply ‘Most people don’t try many things.’
Before becoming a designer, you’ve were a magician, a dancer, all sorts, including a serious musician. Did you attend a conservatory or music school when you were an adolescent?
Well, I spent my childhood studying very seriously but not at a conservatory. Piano was the key instrument and then the guitar. I really wanted to be a folk singer and I wanted to be a beatnik. But I grew up in black tie, working in nightclubs … [and] everything from the Catskill Mountains to Las Vegas to society events and when I was very young, birthday parties. I sort of paid my dues at all levels as a magician. We were extraordinarily disciplined.
You mean as a family?
As a family but also in terms of what we did. To say you are a magician doesn’t just simply mean that you do magic tricks. It means that you live your life as magician. That you can never, ever not be a magician … I trained with one magician named Jack London to learn bullet catching … I trained to learn escape artistry …
What kinds of people do these things?
They’re very strange people.
What motivates them?
The portrayal of power … this is certain wonder, this kind of illusion of infinite possibility … the illusion of spontaneity … but that’s like dance too! There is also the other side of it … magicians never, ever, ever tell the truth about anything because they are trained down to their core to create a mythology about themselves. It’s curious, it’s charming, it’s wonderful but it’s very remote, it’s extraordinarily unusual—and it’s part of why I left it.
Was it empty?
No it wasn’t empty. Magicians didn’t interest me. I didn’t find them ultimately rich enough or deep enough for my own interests. I wouldn’t dare say that about my own father because my father was a very rich individual who, you know, raised a family, who had particular views, who trained me and he did something that was more important than magic, and it goes back to your original question about conservatories, which was what we did, we had to do at such a high level in order to deserve to do it. The very notion of being a performer, of being an entertainer means that you can do things the average person can’t or that you have a level of presentation that makes others, at least during that period of time do two things: one) to wish to aspire to what you do in some way and two) er … to be entertained … to lose track of time with that one anxiety that we always have when we feel something is reaching the end and that is that you never want it to end. That particular kind of training permeated everything I did …
It sounds like an oppressive childhood.
I loved it! I loved every minute of it!
So where [in your timeline] does it come, this transition from magic and music into design?
It’s actually kind of a simple transition, in a way. Or not so simple, but it seemed that way for me. I was always attracted to the life of the bohemian. And I think in a certain way that’s what my family was, we were people who made our way through being entertainers. We were both the servants of and the stars of … I wanted to be an industrialist because in the rock, paper, scissors of the world, I believed that magicians were about the portrayal of power but industrialists controlled.
That’s not very bohemian.
Industrialists came up with ideas, they were creative, they put their ideas to work. But most importantly they created jobs and they gave back to a community and obviously they also contributed to their own wealth and we can talk about benevolent industrialists and we can talk about other types, but to me as a kid, coming of age in the 60s it was really this other notion of ‘how do you build for yourself and develop a community …’ It was what you would have called in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, a progressive, socialist attitude … the whole notion of theater was about community work.
How old were you when you said ‘I’m going to make furniture’?
I met a painter and I moved in with her the next day. You know this was the 60s. And it was a loft, a raw loft. These were times when lofts were not these luxury condominiums. These were tough, tough raw spaces … and we artists, bohemians, creative people, we created our environment. So I had to build. I had to build a place.
So did you just say ‘I need to make a table’?
Well, I fell in love with plumbing first. I mean plumbing was the liberating factor. This was the lead into design, this was the lead into architecture, the lead into everything … suddenly realizing that in a loft you were kind of liberated and could say ‘I can have my kitchen sink here’ … you could literally choreograph your space. I was an expert plumber. I don’t know how I learned.
How did you learn?
I don’t know. If I was talented as a magician and a musician, I was gifted as a builder.
What was your first piece of furniture?
A crossroads piece for me was that little writing desk up there [points to a photograph on the wall] made for Yoko Ono. It was for John, it was commission for his 34th birthday. It was like a Chinese puzzle.
This is pretty sophisticated. You must have started with …
Very simple things. Not long before that, no. I could build anything. I was in awe of myself … what started to happen was that everything else fell away because I didn’t have time for anything else. By 1970 I was a kind of working ‘maker’. My father was a thaumaturgist, which meant a maker of wonders, and I wanted to be a builder of wonders. So I started putting out this word that I was an illusionist and a builder and people wanted hidden compartments and hidden spaces and objects for their collections. Art dealers started hiring me.
Are you secretive?
I know how to tell a good story. Am I secretive? I don’t think so. No, I believe in transparency.
What do you do when you get home from work?
I go home and play the piano for two hours.
What do you like to read?
I typically read books about the Middle East.
Because I like the history of storytelling. I’m of Semitic origin, I’m intrigued with [something] larger than my particular tribe, let’s call it. You can be drawn into it as Paul Bowles might have been from The Sheltering Sky, you can be drawn into it as [Naguib] Mahfouz into the life and traditions of Cairo at a particular point, you can be drawn into as Jews who were forced to leave Egypt in Out of Egypt by André Aciman. or you can be drawn into it by a very popular writer now like [Orhan] Pamuk, who writes about Turkey…
I need to read those books to flesh out the news reports …
It’s also so extreme, it’s so unforgiving, not to say that you wouldn’t find that in D.H. Lawrence or many others but that part of the world, how gains are made … I’m just drawn to that ethos.
Do you still like to dance at parties.
Me … yeah. I’m pretty good. I was honed on Studio 54
What’s your favorite disco track?
Fairy Tale [High] by Donna Summer.