Vladimir Kagan

Furniture Designer
Vladimir Kagan Design Group

Conducted by Anne Hilker on May 9-10, 2014 at New York, New York

Vladimir Kagan, 2014. Photo: Anne Hilker.

About Vladimir Kagan, 1927-2016: Born in Worms, Germany, he said he “lived long enough to see himself become an icon.” He is known for furniture that is simple yet organically curved, a signature style known as “mid-century modern.” His work is in high demand for suites of furniture for high-end clients and appeared regularly in Architectural Digest and at art and design shows. He traveled and spoke internationally, and completed a second edition of his book, The Complete Kagan: Vladimir Kagan—A Lifetime of Avant-Garde Design (New York: Pointed Leaf Press, 2015). In this interview, Kagan discusses the life and work of Erica Wilson, his wife of nearly fifty-five years. He recounts the many highlights of her career, and describes their collaborations and family life.

Erica Wilson, c. 1973.

Erica Wilson, c. 2011. Photos courtesy of Vladimir Kagan.

About Erica Wilson, 1929-2011: After graduating from the Royal School of Needlework in London, she ventured to America for a teaching assignment that became a singular career. She was the most prominent, and most successful, needlework entrepreneur of the last half of the twentieth century. Her career spanned not just time, but technique: starting with crewelwork, she moved on to needlepoint, “crewelpoint”—crewel stitches on needlepoint canvas—knitting, and quilting, as well as their application to jewelry and clothing. Her flagship store on Madison Avenue in New York City offered her kits and painted canvases as well as needlework lessons. She appeared on WGBH television for two years and made brand alliances with designs for the Franklin Mint and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in addition to regular commissions for needlework and women’s magazines. 

Interview duration: 5 hours. Transcript length: 30 pages.

[This interview was conducted in two sessions. The first took place on May 9, 2014, and the second on May 10, 2014.]

Anne Hilker (AH): I’m with Vladimir Kagan at his New York City apartment to speak about the career of his late wife, Erica Wilson. Let’s for the record note that you are a well-known furniture designer in your own right and that your signature design style is the “mid-century modern” look. Your work appears in your own book, The Complete Kagan. You’ve told me that you and Erica lived in this particular apartment for forty-five years? 

Vladimir Kagan (VK): Yes, quite unbelievable, isn’t it?

AH: Yes. I’m really interested in getting to the early stages of Erica’s career, say up to the publication of Crewel Embroidery [Scribner’s] in 1962. That has so many formative issues there and you will be able to talk about that a little. She came to America—

VK: On the Queen Mary.

AH: So she came to America in 1954? And she went straight to to work with Mrs. Daryl [Margaret] Parshall?

VK: Yes. Mrs. Parshall had bought a house which was to become the Millbrook School of Needlework and she provided a roommate for Erica. 

AH: So Erica first lived in Millbrook and taught everyday? 

VK: She came to Millbrook essentially as the first instructor to found the Millbrook School. Erica became the first director. And so Mrs. Parshall had interviewed a number of candidates in London at the Royal School [of Needlework]. She went to London and they lined them up like in a police lineup. I always said as a joke that the reason she chose Erica was that she thought she was the least likely to be married.

AH: And she was wrong about that.

VK: Yes, about two years later she was married and living with me. But Erica took this dream of Mrs. Parshall’s and built it up. It was totally Erica’s doing. She did it by teaching crewel embroidery. Her students loved it, had never seen it, they were very ambitious; they all wanted to do chair seats. In that initial entourage [of pupils] were Mrs. Farrar Bateson, Mrs. John B. Marsh [Marsh & McClennan], Mrs. Thomas J. Watson [IBM], and Mrs. Harry T. Peters [authority on Currier & Ives].

AH: And Mrs. Watson went up to Millbrook?  

VK: I don’t know whether she came up to Millbrook, but eventually her pupils said to “come on down” from Millbrook, so once a week she would come down to Westchester, to Rye. 

AH: So that was midway between Millbrook and here. 

VK: Yes. It was a big social event. It was a white-glove butler situation and they would all fight over who would make the lunches. And so every week it would be in a different home.

Erica Wilson teaching in a New York City apartment, c. 1960. Photo © 2014, Estate of Erica Wilson Kagan. All rights reserved.

AH: So it was a group of about how many ladies? 

VK: About six ladies, maybe eight. I don’t think it was ever more than that. The [Crewel Embroidery] book will give you a lot of references.

AH: How much—was this a living wage, was this bed and board?

VK: She was paid, I don’t know how much she was making. She would—honestly I don’t know the economics of it—maybe [her Millbrook roommate] Sally Gifford will know—her name is now Sally Gifford O’Brien. She might remember that phase of it. I really could never ask her how much she was making. But she was given a car at her disposal, and when Mrs. Parshall went to California in the wintertime, she would take Erica along, at least for part of the time, so Erica remembers going across the country in a train, and she loved it. So that was really her first sort of interesting experience of doing that. Erica would also travel to Greenwich, Connecticut, and through these ladies she got to do the kneelers for the National Cathedral [Washington, DC]. And Erica’s reputation started to grow very quickly, and then the ladies from [Colonial] Williamsburg contacted Erica. I guess one of her pupils was a direct descendant of George Washington. Somehow they heard about Erica down in Williamsburg and they wrote to her and said, we haven’t got time to come to New York, would you give us some classes and lessons so that we know what to do and we can demonstrate as docents?

AH: As part of the experience at Colonial Williamsburg?

VK: Yes. So Erica had the concept of sending some simple little letters, of writing letters to the ladies with instructions. I said no, no, let’s do this thing right. And that is how we did the first Correspondence Course. 

AH: I think 1959 was the first copyright date and that was three years before the first book. 

VK: Exactly. That is the sequence. Instead of doing the simple thing Erica wanted to do, I made her do this amazing Correspondence Course. We did it together, we did it on the dining room table, and I did all the illustrations for her. We took ads in The New Yorker magazine, little tiny ads. We got tremendous response from that. And Antiques magazine; mostly The New Yorker. The Correspondence Course we sent them included a loose-leaf binder, with all of the product on the inside, and I designed all of those. The blue binder with the white flowers is my cover. We used Appleton yarn skeins, we put the whole package together. When the pupils were finished with the course they would send the work back to Erica for criticism. She would do the critique and give them a diploma. It became so popular that we decided we had better do a second course. So we did the follow-up course. And we learned you don’t advertise two things at one time. We advertised Correspondence Courses I and II at the same time and they didn’t do any better. Advertising course I, then course II, became the sequence. 

She met along the way a very important curator of textiles at the Cooper Union in the late 1950s, Alice Beer. So Erica would teach once a week down at the Cooper Union at the museum in the textile room. And in those classes one of the people was Elizabeth Riley. Elizabeth Riley was the chief editor for Scribner’s. She suggested to Erica, why don’t you do a book? So it all kind of came in cyclical form.

AH: Fairly quickly, then?

VK: Yes, by the time she did Cooper Union she was already married to me. When Elizabeth Riley said “Erica, would you like to do a book,” we basically used the Correspondence Course as the basis for the book. Course II became a companion piece to course I. As pictures on the wall you would have course I, then course II. I have a vision that it was $49. 

AH: I want to go back to the furniture idea for just a minute because it looked to me from what I have seen from her Royal School of Needlework days that that was not necessarily emphasized there. So the inventory contains what looks like one or two chair seats that were just seats, not whole-chair embroideries, from the Royal School. But the 1962 book is full of pictures of furniture, including one where she even designed embroidery for the back of the chair. I’m wondering if she invented that, or how did that form of application come about?

VK: I think chair seats were the one thing that all her American ladies were willing to attack. Those projects ultimately turned into complete wing chairs. Mrs. Watson would do chair seats for all of her children. They were voracious needleworkers. They loved doing this. Crewel was so much quicker. That was another thing. They hadn’t done crewel. Crewel was so quick.

AH: Compared to needlepoint?

VK: Yes. This gave them results, quick results, and they loved doing it, so she was amazed at how voracious all these ladies were for making chairs. Doing the outside backs, I don’t know, that was probably from the idea that the chair backs were seen in the room.

AH: I only mention that as one example. But it is the idea of total coverage, including arms, the rim of the chair cushion, the outsides of the wings—all of that strikes me as very inventive. Is that fair to say? 

VK: Yes, yes. They didn’t mind. They loved doing it. By the way, in England, she had this very favorite student, Audrey Pleydell-Bouverie, who was very well connected and a very close friend of Winston Churchill. And Erica would go over to her house a couple times a week to teach her needlework. I remember that this customer had a parrot who coughed all the time because she was a voracious smoker. And she would drop her cigarette ashes onto the needlework, burn a hole in it, and Erica would have to stitch over the burned hole. When she started to teach in London the [Royal] School got very angry at her. She was working for the School, but the ladies wanted private lessons. She started doing lessons in her mother’s house. 

AH: This was immediately postwar, so there was more money, and more leisure time, and more demand? 

VK: Yes. So there was a very ferocious director of the school who really didn’t like Erica because of that, who ultimately became our friend. Ultimately Mrs. Hamilton [Grace Hamilton-King] wrote an introduction for Erica’s [first] book to her. One of her other very great students here was Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.  

AH: I read from the book credits that a couple of her pieces are in the Smithsonian Institution. They are very fine Asian-style work. They look like silk embroidery. 

VK: They were silk embroidery. The things that we have in our collection of that same period, probably Erica did as a demonstration for Mrs. Roosevelt. 

AH: There are two panels, I know one is from a Chinese screen—that’s the turquoise ground—I haven’t found what the other panel is yet. In any case, Erica was clearly “it” here in the embroidery world. I am wondering if there was anyone else who comes to mind.

VK: Eventually her major competition and nemesis was Elsa Williams. There was a big rivalry. Elsa Williams was very canny and became very successful. We also resented that her initials were “EW.”

AH: When did Elsa come on the scene?

VK: After Erica had published her [first] book. At the time Erica published her book Elsa wasn’t there. It was always a thorn in our side that she sold out her little company to Quaker Oats. The big industrial companies were very keen on needlework. But I’m moving way ahead. After the book—first, when the book was published, Erica did national book signing tours. And they sent her all over the country.

AH: I’d like to single out in the 1962 book the “Red Owl” that Mimi Housepian had done. It really is different from anything else in the book. That and the rocking chair. When did you and she do the rocking chair? 

VK: I designed the rocking chair about 1956, in that range. Erica stitched the [owl] rocking chair in the 1960s.

AH: And the rocking chairs in the warehouse are from that same time period?

VK: Well I’ll tell you something. The ones in the warehouse were done on printed linen designed by Jim Thompson. 

AH: The fabric with the blossoms? 

VK: Yes. So I did a big living room for a client of mine. That’s in my book. [See fabric in Troy house, Sands Point, 1966, The Complete Kagan, 158.] It gives you a time frame. We liked that printed material. Erica came up with the idea, it was her idea, in order to make life easier and give people more projects, to take printed materials and only embroider parts of them.

AH: That’s one thing I really hope to talk about at the Winterthur [Museum symposium]— 

Design and Photo © 2014, Estate of Erica Wilson Kagan. All rights reserved.

VK: She invented things. 

AH: You could finish, and you didn’t need a lot of equipment. That’s genius. So she had the idea that if you put it on print, you had less to do, and you could be satisfied more quickly?

VK: Exactly. Both of those [warehouse rocking chairs] came from the same house. Erica made them. And ultimately I ended up buying them back from [the client]. Anyhow, the owl certainly was the first departure towards bringing a traditional art into a contemporary format. Erica always wanted to do things for my furniture, but I didn’t encourage it. It was quite stupid of me because it would have been a fun extension of her work. We only did the one [owl] chair. We made one authorized copy of the [owl] rocking chair on new fabric. The upholsterer for those chairs was my resource. He worked for me as my foreman in my factory. When we closed the factory he had a house way upstate in NY and started an upholstery shop. He was a very nice resource. 

AH: So the rocking chair preceded the owl, right? 

VK: No. The reverse. 

AH: The chair was not in a book until 1973. The red owl was in the 1962 book.

VK: I would say the owl came before the chair. The chair came purely as a commission from House and Garden magazine. Lou Gartner was the home furnishings editor and loved needlework, loved doing it himself, and asked us—

AH: Did he say what kind of furniture? 

VK: They gave us full range, and we did it. Together we decided on the rocking chair. It’s my favorite chair. And she liked that chair. And then from there she did the mural, that came as a byproduct, which I never liked. I always had it in the back room.

AH: So the Red Owl I know was published in Life magazine in 1963. I’ve looked at correspondence with Mimi where you ask for a release. My question is: had she designed it? I’m trying to find where that design came from.

Red Owl. Design and Photo © 2014, Estate of Erica Wilson Kagan. All rights reserved. Winterthur Museum 2015.0047.028.

VK: I think Mimi designed that [the artwork]. 

AH: Did Erica adapt that?  

VK: I would think that Mimi designed the drawing. And Erica taught her how to do needlework. Erica would have designed the stitching.

AH: Taken together, the Red Owl and the rocking chair—there is a very dramatic shift in design. 

VK: Yes, she was reaching younger people and she had big children’s classes, those mostly in Nantucket. The background on that is that I had been a Nantucket fan, and she had never been there, and at one point Erica and I were going on a sailing trip that fell through. We were to be met in Stratford; Erica had gone to the Shakespeare festival up there, and they couldn’t pick us up. So we had a week’s free time. I told Erica I would take her a place she had never been that she would love. She had friends up there, Martha Norris. Martha was one of her original Millbrook pupils and a wonderful gal. She was married to Frank Norris, who was a well known writer, he wrote a book called Tower in the West [Harper & Bros., 1957]. I had been to Nantucket—we had one mutual friend up there, one of her early, early pupils, Edie [then Mrs. Hampton] Lynch, now Edie Bouriez, who has followed in Erica’s footsteps. She became a major disciple of Erica’s, helped to teach with her—she became an Erica “clone.”

AH: She teaches at the Nantucket Historical Association? 

VK: Yes, at its 1800 House. Anyhow, the sequence was that Edie Lynch and her husband lived up in Nantucket, and we knew the Norrises. Erica and I rented a bicycle built for two and took ourselves out to Siasconset. And this is where I proposed to Erica to get married, on the beach.

AH: That would have been good weather, so spring or summer? 

VK: In the summer. Ultimately Frank Norris became our best man. My parents lived in Woodstock, New York at that time. That’s where we got married. We spent weekends in Woodstock. Backtracking, Frank Norris was asked to write a story for Holiday magazine about the Catskills. So we took a weekend with our friends. Father Francis, an eccentric priest, lived in the “Church on the Mount” that he built himself out of local twigs and lumber. When we said, Frank, we want you to be our best man, he said no way—that defrocked priest? So we had to find a justice of the peace in town, same day, in the morning we quickly went and got hitched—Frank wouldn’t trust the marriage by the defrocked priest!

One of Erica’s pupils from Rye was Mary Ann Beinecke who was very much into crafts and needlework. One of her missions in Nantucket was to give the women something to do after the summer season.

AH: Making needlework for sale?

VK: Yes, as a winter “cottage industry.” It was a summer teaching project [for Erica]. So we rented a house on Liberty Street, not the one I’m in now. We were all set to come up. The deal was that Edie Lynch and her husband, Hampton Lynch, had a gift shop, the only one in Nantucket, called “The Noisy Oyster.” With Edie saying that Erica could have her products in the store, and with the Beineckes wanting a school, Erica came up. Prior to that we had been keen on Martha’s Vineyard, but it would be Nantucket that became our favorite. Two weeks before we came up our rental fell through and we suddenly had no place to go. So Edie Lynch, together with her husband, found us a house to rent. We took that sight-unseen, and it’s where we live now. Erica started teaching classes and had a little shop in the library of our house. [See Nantucket Today, Winter 2008.]

AH: That’s the painted sign.

VK: Yes. Then Rosemary Barker took Erica’s place at the Millbrook School. 

AH: Erica did something I don’t think was done at that time, which was keeping her name. A lot of guys would have said—“I don’t think so.”

VK: I didn’t. I said it was fine. It had a better “ring.” We tried Wilson-Kagan, Kagan-Wilson, Erica Wilson was just better. And she never gave up her British citizenship.

AH: I found a completed, but not submitted, application for U.S. citizenship.

VK: You know why? We were misguided, told that you could not have dual citizenship, which is apparently not true. We could have done it. We really messed up on that. She loved America, but she liked being British. I encouraged it. There were times—for example in France, there were times that you didn’t want to be American.

AH: In the 1962 book, the first Scribner’s book—you said you did the stitch illustrations?

VK: I learned how to do the stitches. Erica would do rough drawings of the stitches and I would critique them. Then I became the illustrator. Erica had the concept of showing the needle going in and out of the fabric—it had never been done that way before. I was very much involved in these books to the point where my mother and father said if I spent more time on my business I would be a lot more successful.

AH: I want to get a handle on her career. Some of these things sound like partnerships between the two of you.

VK: I was really involved in Erica’s business. I ran her business. She never had a sense of her own value. 

AH: I found a drawing for “Mrs. Lawton.” It said “$8.50” at the top corner. Her book had asterisks for stitches where you needed a frame, but the book also had many stitches where you didn’t. I have in mind that the RSN students always used a fully dressed slate floor frame. One major decision she made was the elimination of the need for that floor stand.

Erica Wilson's "Fanny Frame," photo © 2014, Estate of Erica Wilson. All rights reserved.

VK: She invented the “fanny frame” [also known as a “sit-upon” frame, which holds the embroidery taut in a stable hoop at stitching height]. Being in the woodworking business, I had it fabricated. It cost me a fortune to defend and lose the patent. The thing is, instead of sticking to the fanny frame, the patent attorney threw in the floor frame, and tried to cover everything. So we lost the patent because it was too broad. Anyway, the fanny frame really was her idea. 

AH: So she already by the 1962 book had developed ways of teaching in living rooms that meant you did not need Royal School training?

VK: She was adamant about using a frame. She wanted them to use two hands.This was very fast, by keeping the embroidery tight. Then it becomes a drum. Optimally you would have a floor frame at home and a fanny frame for travel. We also manufactured floor frames. Erica thought it was a very nice decorative touch, a lovely feeling to have it around.

AH: That’s brilliant. It also worked with needlepoint.

VK: Yes, she loved to do needlepoint on stretchers also. It was only on the larger projects that she used square frames.

Let’s take a break.

[End of May 9, 2014 session] 

[Start of May 10, 2014 session] 

AH: We’re continuing with Vladimir Kagan on May 10. He is enjoying some brunch. We will continue chatting about Erica.

You see, this time I brought the big book [The Embroidery Book, Scribner’s, 1973] with me, and what I’d like to do is lead up to the next decade leading up to the publication of The Embroidery Book, the decade between Crewel Embroidery and The Embroidery Book. This was published by Scribner’s in 1973. I understand that both books broke a lot of records for Scribner’s. Do you remember how many copies were sold?

VK: I always remember the first book [Crewel Embroidery] sold a million copies. That was sort of her pride and joy. That was sort of the benchmark of a bestseller.  

AH: This book in comparison?

VK: This book [The Embroidery Book] became a bible. It became very important. It was published in German; in Germany it was called Das grosse Stickbuch [Hörnemann Verlag, Bonn-Röttgenn, 1977] [The Big Stitch Book]. And we also had an English edition.

AH: Published in two languages—

VK: A success for Scribner’s. We also had an English edition.

AH: Do you remember how well that sold? The main feature seems to have been its enduring value as a reference book. I remember that at this time she was writing an encyclopedia of everything.

VK: That was what it was intended to be. She really wanted to put her RSN education in a book. Technically, a lot of the samples come from the Royal School period; and she used the “Elizabethan Lady” design for every one of the samplers [that introduce each chapter].

AH: The only technique I didn’t see done at the RSN in the book for the “Elizabethan Lady” was stumpwork.

VK: Well, she did all those samplers after the RSN. Except let me say that the whitework sampler she did at the Royal School. The others she did later. I think she created them for the book. I think the blackwork one is new, the needlepoint for sure, and stumpwork for sure.

Erica Wilson’s blackwork Elizabethan Lady. Design and photo © 2014, Estate of Erica Wilson Kagan. All rights reserved.

AH:  Stumpwork is not in here. Crewelwork, needlework, and blackwork are in here, in addition to whitework.

VK: The only foundation she used from the Royal School was the whitework “Elizabethan Lady.”

AH:  Just to pause on whitework for a minute, so many of the things she collected during this time—was she collecting all during this time?

VK: She liked it, yes.

AH: She collected lots and lots of whitework, but she didn’t issue it in her kits, except for some lace-type counted canvas and cross-stitch kits.

VK: She loved whitework. It was never really a “popular sport.” 

AH: And you needed clean hands.

VK: It was more of a passion for her. She thought it was the purest form of embroidery. Whitework is more like crewel. This is what she loved.

AH: It’s crewel and some hardanger stitches, right? The whitework piece in the bedroom—you stitched that?

VK: The whitework. That’s me. I did that. That was my claim to fame. I did it because Erica had an assignment—I think she did greeting cards for Gibson. 

AH: Right, and wrapping paper. In this decade, 1962-72, is really what I call—you’ll correct, me, but it seems to me that is when she developed this contemporary style into kits. I don’t know if there were kits— 

VK: Let me tell you. The kits came right as a byproduct of the first book. I think Elizabeth Riley [of Scribner’s] said, “You ought to have kits to go along with the book.”

AH: When it launches?

VK: To go along with the book. So in the early sixties we signed up with Columbia-Minerva for a very lucrative contract. I can’t get that kind of advance even today for my work.

AH: I don’t know if you remember and/or if you want to tell me but do you remember—

VK: It was a $100,000 minimum guarantee. 

AH: In 1962. Wow.

VK: But she blew that money on staff. She had to have ladies sitting there day and night to stitch models. We didn’t really get a big studio thing going until we moved to 59th Street. That was about 1972.

AH: That was the Madison Avenue store?

VK: No, the studio was in my showroom, the Kagan showroom. I gave her a couple of the back rooms for her offices. We converted one of the bathrooms into a darkroom. We had our own—not a Xerox—Photostat, which is a huge camera thing. There was no other way of getting copies. We could have had the work sent out. Rather than sending out for it all the time, we just installed our own equipment. 

AH: All of that must have been an immense investment.

VK: Yes, it was a lot of money at the time. But it was a convenient thing to do. We didn’t break up my 59th Street office until 1986 or 1987. It was a good fifteen-year period that she worked there. 

AH: And if she worked there during that fifteen-year period, it was during that period of time that she also had the Madison Avenue store? 

VK: She did a lot of work for magazines. McCall’s Needlework magazine was one of her major clients, gave her commissions to do special projects. The name of the editor at McCall’s was Alice Winchester. But the publisher was a man by the name of Herb Bijur. Gosh, I’m so happy I’m recalling these names.

AH: So am I. 

VK: When McCall’s Needlework closed down, when he retired, he said I want to run your business for you. So he became a major factor. I’ll tell you what happened.

AH: Do you remember what year?

VK: We’re going back into the sixties. We had—I had at that time three floors of a loft building on East End Avenue. That’s the building that burned down, okay? I had my showroom on the second floor and somehow I gave Erica at least a part of a floor, I think it was on my showroom floor, the second floor, where she did her needlework, and she had her offices there, and she did major assignments, the kneelers, the ladies would do the stitching but she would do the blocking and prepping them for mounting.

AH: You see that’s—she took the work out of it. Normally you would be blocking yourself, and pricking and pouncing yourself—

VK: We did all of that in that location. The ladies would come up—East End Avenue was a very elegant location—East End and 81st—we had a side entrance, one floor up—the ladies came regularly, for classes and to buy things—it was Erica’s retail shop. 

AH: So that started when the first book came out?

VK: Yes, approximately. Somewhere around that time.

AH: I know from Vanessa [Kagan Diserio] that Jessica [Kagan Cushman] spent some time in London with her grandmother.

VK: We farmed Jessica out—she was in kindergarten, she must have been four or five. Her grandmother took her over on the Queen Elizabeth. She went to a little Catholic nursery school in The Boltons [Kensington]. She had a great time there. One year. We would come over and visit. I don’t know how we could do that to our only child, but we did. She probably still regrets that she was farmed out, but it was a wonderful time for her. In the East End Avenue location, Erica did interesting things. She did one magnificent advertising thing—

AH: Was that Alexandra de Markoff?

VK: Yes.

Advertisement for Alexandra de Markoff in needlework.

AH: Good, because I wanted to ask you about that. How early was that? I found the Ad Age article—how did that come about?

VK: The art director knew of Erica, or had met Erica, maybe knew of her somehow, he thought it would be great if she the ad was in needlework, so Erica did it in goldwork. Are there pictures of the ad?

AH: In Ad Age, yes. Here, we don’t have any models. 

VK: They probably owned the models.

AH: We have different versions of them. We have three different drawings, one where the Princess looked stern, one where she looked happy—

VK: Isn’t that amazing. That was a lovely commission. Franklin Mint—those are fun projects—I don’t think they made a lot of money. They came to her. You’ve seen what she has done. She loved doing that. She also did a collection of bed linens for Belk. They were fabrics. And then the wallpaper collection. Wallpapers for General Tire. She loved doing that and always enjoyed talking about that. She always said, “When they came to see me I thought they wanted me to design a tire.” And a lovely profile in Life magazine.  

AH: I haven’t found it yet. There are a ton of papers in the warehouse.

VK: That was all in loose-leaf binders.

AH: We have [her column] “Needleplay” in loose-leaf binders. I haven’t looked everywhere. There are a lot of things I need to go through. 

VK: We kept very good records of all of those PR things. Just as an amazing story, when we had the fire in my factory—Erica had become friendly with Mayor Lindsay—she did needlework pillows for Gracie Mansion—he came by and said “I hope you are well insured”—it was a five-alarm fire. [See The Complete Kagan, 142.]

AH: How did the pillows come about? I thought I saw that Mrs. Lindsay was one of her pupils.

VK: I don’t know how the pillows [for Mrs. Lindsay] came about. Erica was not very cozy with the Embroiderer’s Guild [of America]. They were not fond of her—they were jealous of Erica’s success. [But] when the EGA had their first major exhibit, in the Union Carbide building on Park Avenue, I designed the most wonderful exhibit for them. A whole floor, a block long. I was very helpful to the EGA.

AH: And they weren’t—

VK: The little ladies who ran these things couldn’t stand another star.

AH: What year was that exhibition?

VK: There was publicity. I made a labyrinth walkthrough exhibit that was really very pretty. I created huge banners, three-story banners, that hung in the building windows fronting on Park Avenue. Thirty-foot high ceilings. Each banner was one of the stitch patterns that I did for Erica for the book. It must have happened after the book.

AH: For the book—we’re talking about 1962?

VK: Yes. I remember those banners. It was a really nicely done show. They were paper. We don’t have them unless Union Carbide has an archive that kept them.

AH: It must have gotten a lot of attention.

VK: Oh, it did. Good press, everything. What were we leading up to? I wanted to tell you that at one point, while we were still at East End Avenue, Herb Bijur came to work for Erica. When the factory burned down, he said, “you have to have a retail store.” That is when we moved the store to 717 Madison Avenue. We were there a good twenty or thirty years.

AH: I know it got press when it closed.

VK: [The store] was a big deal. That was Herb Bijur moving us in that direction.

AH: I know one thing Linda [Eaton] would like me to talk me about is profit—that’s in her [symposium] title. For Winterthur. It’s not so much dollars as was it meaningful? Did it help?

VK: Let me tell you more about stores. From Madison Avenue we got ambitious and we opened a store in Southampton. Then we decided we ought to have one in East Hampton. So we had two stores. 

AH: In addition to Nantucket?

VK: Yes. So the store in the Hamptons was run by two ladies who became very dear friends of ours. It became unprofitable and we closed it down.

AH: Do you remember what that time frame was? Five years?

VK: A good five years. At Jobs Lane, Southampton, the next-door store became available. We broke through and made it a double store. That’s when we got our first lesson in business: double the space doesn’t mean double the business. [laughter] We did the same thing in Nantucket. We had it on one side, and when twenty years later the other store became available, we broke through and made it a double store. It is a double store now. But until we added the fashion aspect to it, it was not a money-making “double the profit” thing.

AH: Overall her business was not just sustainable but profitable?

VK: Oh yes. Let me say this. Let me give you a little history of the needlework industry. When Erica was designing kits, needlework was on the ground floor of every department store. In Bloomingdales, it was right on the ground floor. So it was that period of time that Erica made the personal appearances in all the department stores.

AH: So that was right after the first book?

VK: That’s right. We had the greatest difficulty getting the needlework buyer to cooperate with the book buyer and to bring kits next to the book. They wouldn’t do that. We had a terrible time getting them to cooperate. We almost made it a condition that it had to happen. I traveled with her; I presume maybe that was the time we left Jessica in London. Erica’s group tours came later—these were her personal tours. Erica went all over the country, sometimes I went with her, sometimes she went on her own, she claimed she had slept in every hotel bed in America. Literally, she went to the Northern [Michigan] Peninsula—she went to every nook and cranny where needlework was a popular sport.

AH: What brought needlework to the ground floor? When you started, it was being carried?

VK: On the ground floor, it was the main thing—

AH: What was there when she entered the market? 

VK: Other kits. The whole sewing, the notion world—yarns, the whole home furnishing, kind of do-it-yourself—the issue is that needlework was a major factor in the stores. As a result, every store was given samplers. 

AH: Models?

VK: Models of finished kits. They had to buy them.

AH: The stores?

VK: Yes, they got them as a result of a commitment to buying the kits. I wasn’t at the marketing end of it. The making of models was a major factor in the needlework business. And that was done in Haiti. So what happened was that Erica would have to go down to Haiti, to the factories. They had these huge barn structures—when they burned, there was terrible chaos. The men and women worked together, men on one side, women on the other. She had 2,000 people working for her on her kits down there.

AH: So that was 1962, into the seventies—

VK: I don’t think she went down at the very beginning. We then would go down regularly to Haiti.

AH: Were there people you could—was that an established practice?

VK: There were people at Columbia-Minerva whose job was to liaison with the factory [in Haiti].

C-M in New York was at 26th Street—Madison Square Park. Erica would go down carrying Illya [Kagan] in a basket and nurse him down there as she was working with them. She had to spend a lot of time with the people there interpreting her designs. I remember one day there was a complete New York City blackout and she had to walk home, not with Illya that time—it was a long walk—we lived then seventeen floors up at 95th and Park Avenue.

AH: How long did she spend in Haiti at a time?

VK: Probably about a week.

AH: She would go down by herself?

VK: Yes or with some of the men. The entire kit business was run by men. Because the buyers were women.

AH: Why not women? What’s the thinking?

VK: It was men’s business. The partner at C-M was a manufacturer of zippers and yarn. They all got into this thing through the yarn business. It was always a men’s business. The salesmen were men, Erica always traveled with the salesmen around the country, the salesmen escorted her.

AH: That strikes me now, okay. But fifty years ago? She had to be pretty brave.

VK: Yes.

AH: My mother would have said, you can’t do that, you’re a married woman, what will people think?

VK: I’m sure. But she was a liberated woman. It never was an issue for me or for her. Haiti—I would go down with her. Haiti was a very safe country under Papa Doc [Duvalier]. He was brutal to people who opposed him. We would go to carnivale—as a white person you never felt unsafe. Papa Doc was brutal. Then America started stirring up the dirt, America had to democratize it. That’s when Haiti became unsafe. A pure byproduct of American do-gooder attitudes. There were assassinations, murders, God knows what. If you minded your business, and you stayed in business, things were good.

There was an economy that functioned. One of the people we met, we visited him, we became very good friends, and during the turmoil he was one of the people who was assassinated. Just to give you an updated history, we went back to Haiti at the invitation of the Clinton administration. Erica flew down in Air Force One. She was the only woman on that mission. It was a commerce good-will mission to generate business for Haiti. My friend Carl Landegger had organized [a trip for] Erica to go down—

AH: Do you know what year that was?

VK: This is almost current history. At that time we were visiting my mother in Palm Beach. So in order for Erica to fly down on Air Force One with the business people—

By the way, Carl set up a recycling plant in Haiti. It turned out to be a total failure, because there was nothing to recycle! There was no waste.

AH: A major cultural difference.

VK: Yes, he always was terrific, but that’s coincidental.

AH: One thing I want to make sure I cover before either of us gets too tired is her designs and how they really changed in that ten years. They really did become different from the Royal School.

VK: You would have people who were the leaders, and they would make other leaders. It was a like a giant Ponzi scheme.

AH: Except people made money.

VK: Yes, it was not a cheating thing! But the evolution of design—she would have meetings with Harry Kittner and they would have executive staff in charge of design. She had these meetings. Obviously, to appeal, there were two features: make it simple, make it cheap. And sell a lot. [laughter.] Erica would use twenty or thirty colors—people said let’s use fewer colors. These are not the products that made C-M popular, but it changed her perspective on the design world. So as the result of that—she also had always retained her private clients for whom she did the exotic, exquisite pieces. But she also catered to a mass audience.

AH: I’m trying to think of an example of what a simplified C-M kit would have been—what was most popular?

VK: Birds and flowers, different variations on owls, mother, “Home Is Where the Heart Is,” words always remained popular, so she did a lot of designs with wraparound words, it was the byproduct of input from clients, buyers, the salespeople guiding, saying “we need this.” It was a collaborative effort which Erica turned into designs. 

AH: She obviously tapped into—whatever appealed to the market then, she got it. It was not necessarily British.

VK: It was a very American kind of thing. It became an American art. So that’s how the designs loosened up. She always liked lots of wool. She never gave up crewel. The kits were lovely. And today when you get on eBay and you have an old C-M kit, they’re very attractive. Erica loved Beatrix Potter. 

AH: There are many credits in the books to Beatrix Potter.

VK: We got the official license from Beatrix Potter to use her designs.

AH: Was she still alive? Or was it from her estate?

VK: Her estate.

AH: But you didn’t need to pay a ton of royalties necessarily then?

VK: It was nominal.

AH: Timmie Willie had to have been very popular, Hunca Munca—

VK: Ah, they were wonderful!

AH: Yes but they were very simple. I stitched one of Hunca Munca holding balloons. That was not many colors.

VK: The owner of C-M was Harry Kittner. He was a darling Jewish gentleman, vey polite. “Erica darling, let’s go to the St. George and have lunch.” There was never a business meeting without lunch at the St. George. It’s probably now again a boutique hotel. It was in the twenties, an elegant hotel. Harry Kittner was the catalyst for C-M. Eventually they sold that business to the Caron yarn company.

AH: As in The Caron Collection.

VK: Down the pike they started one of those club things—

AH: The Creative Needlework Society?

VK: Yes. Erica was the major domo for the society, the spokesperson. It was like Tupperware—

AH: You would have it in your home and invite friends.

VK: She really listened to the market and had to produce within a price range you could sell. The industry started to fall apart when the department stores started to use accountants to determine what happens. They would say, “hey man, that needlework department is not paying its way.” As a result they put cosmetics on the ground floor. And that was the beginning of the end of the kit industry. There was still a very strong period of time—Elsa Williams was strong competition, there was C-M, there was Creative Expressions—C-M was sold to John Caron. John Caron’s nephew, who was working with John, bought Dimensions—they became competitive to each other. The industry became cheaper and cheaper and went into Michaels and other low-end stores and they had to be cheap cheap cheap, and it was no more fun for Erica to work in that creative environment, and that’s when we got together with the Met Museum—

AH: That rejuvenated her métier

VK: By then she was in needlepoint. The crewelwork business kind of tanked, and the needlepoint business picked up.

AH: It did go in a cycle, it seemed like.

VK: In our store we had a full time [canvas] painter who worked for us who did custom painting, which was very profitable. But what happened to the needlework industry—I think the worst thing for the industry was when women went into the work place. Because when the kids were young, women had been at home. When women started to come into the workplace, they didn’t have any time to do the needlework. So it became very secondary. The business dropped off, and you’d get people coming up for $5 of yarn, or 50 cents worth of needles. There were always the elderly ladies, the wealthy women who were the customers, but that was not enough to sustain our business. 

I remember we were always making kits. When my factory burned down and we moved out to Queens, I gave Erica space to manufacture her kits. We had Lillian Ellis, she is now in her eighties and alive—we didn’t pay insurance for people, but Lillian worked for us for twenty-five years—I am still paying her personal insurance out of my personal income because I can’t pay it out of the Erica Wilson company. Lillian Ellis should be talked to because she’s history. And Hela Chiazzo. Hela left when we closed the store—Hela was hated and loved. She was a tiger. She was very devoted to Erica. She did her best. Darling Lillian in the factory had two other employees, one of them Ferdinand [“Ferdie”], who has since died, who worked for me in my factory.

AH: I talked to Vanessa about Hela a little bit.

VK: When she loved you it was wonderful. If she didn’t like you it was awful. Every Easter she sends me Godiva [chocolates]. She is awfully sweet.

AH: I think we should stop for now.


So we’re continuing now on May 10.

VK: So Erica always undervalued herself and what she did, and I’m afraid I have the same illness. I never have gotten paid for what I’ve done in relationship to the value of what I give. I’m a little getting over that now. Erica always sold herself too cheaply.

AH: There could have been many factors. She seemed always to have a self-effacing personality—

VK: Yes—

AH: Or part of it was being a woman, who knows?

VK: It was just not being attuned to the real world. She always thought eggs were 33 cents and a carton of milk was 80 cents. We never mentally picked up the inflation factor of what we were selling. She was selling it much cheaper than the things we ended up buying. The fact of the matter is that things remained profitable. The Madison Avenue store really started to become a liability, really because people weren’t doing needlework.

AH: There was some correspondence about Jamaica where there was an early project—

VK: Let me tell you about Jamaica. Do you have Jamaica?

AH: I have the correspondence.

VK: Let’s go back then a little bit. Erica gets a telephone call from the State Dept.“Would you be interested in going to Jamaica to teach needlework for the U.S. AID [United States Agency for International Development] program?” This was under the auspices of Eddie Seaga, who ultimately became prime minister. At that time he had a ministry of culture or something like that. The mission was to try to teach local women craft. We had another call from the state department, “would you know somebody in the furniture business, because we need somebody with the AID program down there to work with the local woodworking shops”—we thought, what an extraordinary coincidence—only now do I realize it was a con job of the government to induce us to go as a couple. It was legitimate because I worked with the minister of industry [the Honorable Robert Lightbourne of the Jamaican Industrial Development Corporation]. We had a lovely time down there, a creative time. Erica had a good time, I did a lot of things with the industry down there, we made wonderful friends. We lived there for two months, we took Jessica out of school to come with us.

AH: I think the correspondence is dated 1965.

VK: All right. I also have it in my book, I actually have some reference to [the trip] in The Complete Kagan. [See pp. 141-142.] But that was just a phase of industry. We never could use any of the products from there. They didn’t have the capability that the Haitians had.

AH: It seemed from the correspondence that it was a good try but that the lag times were too long and they couldn’t make the budget work.

VK: Yes, it dissipated. So then we were always making our own little product kits for the store. And along the way, I don’t know how, but we hooked up with the Metropolitan Museum. That was a very successful marriage. She was doing great things for them in needlepoint. They had a very good mail order business and their store. Years later they hired a new marketing director who said “we don’t want needlework in the catalog.” They took it out of the catalog. 

AH: That would have been the end of the nineties?

VK: Probably.

AH: The related book [Erica Wilson’s Needlepoint: Adapted from Objects in the Collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Harry N. Abrams, 1995)] had to have been very successful?

 VK: Yes. That needlepoint book was a beautiful book.

AH: And also most of the pictures were taken in the apartment, weren’t they?

VK: It was wonderful—we used all of my antiques—we made it look very antique-y. Down the pike, when the Met dropped needlepoint, it was the kiss of death. We were manufacturing kits under the supervision of Lillian Ellis, a wonderful woman. In the usual Kagan-Wilson way we did not supervise. What we didn’t know was that when there was not enough work for her team, she would make inventory, helter skelter. She needed to keep the guys employed.

AH: When there was no need—? That explains all the extra kit materials in your New Jersey warehouse. When would that have been?

VK: We never supervised it. We actually didn’t know it until we closed the operation down.

AH: That would have been when?

VK: When I moved from East Long Island City to Paterson, New Jersey. 

AH: That was your first warehouse in New Jersey?

VK: Yes. Going backwards—we’ve been here about two years in [Clifton], so about seven or eight years ago. So now comes the horror story of the thing. We had no place to manufacture. And we were feeding kits—we had some aspects of the wholesale business still going, we had the store in Nantucket, I think we had closed NY by then or it was close to closing. We started to look for people to manufacture the kits. We were told of a company in Baltimore. They were called “fulfillment houses.” They were the fabricators. So we took all of our inventory from the factory and moved it down to Baltimore. The guy—I don’t know whether he ever produced anything—but after a short period of time he said I can’t make kits for you. This took weeks of packing up, moving it down there, showing them what to do. From there, we didn’t know what to do. There was an outfit in Pennsylvania, Reading, called Dimensions. He was the nephew of John Caron. A lot of the people that left Columbia-Minerva moved there. They became the only manufacturer of American needlework. Columbia-Minerva had long ago closed up; Caron was in the rug yarn business; that’s where the money came from. As the industry faded away, it disappeared.

AH: Or farmed out to other countries? 

VK: Yes. So we went to Dimensions and they couldn’t have been nicer. Lovely people. We trucked everything over there. They already knew how to make kits. We had the templates and everything and it seemed like a very good outgoing resource. We were there maybe for a year, year and a half, and they decided to close up the American division and move everything to China. There we were, stuck again. No products coming out, and we couldn’t fulfill our orders. All of this raw material, kits, all of the instructions, sitting there. So we had over the years been on a friendly basis with the owner of Elsa Williams’ company, Johnson Creative [JCA]. They are out in Townsend, Massachusetts. So I contacted him—you know, we were arch-enemies for years and years—but bedfellows change. He said, “Yes, I’d love to do your kits for you.”

AH: He had the Elsa Williams line?

VK: Yes. He also had Paternayan yarn. We took everything again into trucks and moved it out to Townsend. Then Erica and I spent days showing them how our kits were—how to do things—we had to do conversions from Brown Sheep yarn—it was a little more commercial but of the same quality as Paternayan—

AH: The early kits, the Correspondence Course, were Appleton?

VK: Yes, that became too expensive, to use full skeins of Appleton. So we set up Johnson’s Creative with our materials and they started to make our kits for us. Lovely, nice relationship. The guy got pancreatic cancer and couldn’t make them. We kept after him—“When can we get kits from you”—no response—

AH: You would have started with him when?

VK: Not long ago. He died. Not only did he die, but he owed the bank millions of dollars. The bank took over the real estate. They locked up the whole thing. One of the employees said, if you send a truck, we’ll get all of your things and move them out. They are now in a warehouse in Warham, Massachusetts [near Cape Cod] and we have never gone to see them. It’s a horrible, horrible sad story. It’s very sad, like a death, given how much as we wanted to continue doing something. It’s a lot of inventory and we don’t know what to do. There is a very nice potential, a lot of the raw materials, and no way to make them.

AH: So you need someone to do the packaging?

VK: Well, the supplies will run out, you need somebody to manage it. That is really bringing you right up to now.

AH: If you had to say, was it the whole operation—it had to be worth doing?

VK: It was wonderful to do. I can’t give you numbers but we lived nicely. There was a time when my business was tanking and Erica Wilson Inc. paid for everything. That was back in the eighties when I had to close up my shop.

AH: You were at the corner of 57th and Madison?

VK: No, not at 57th and Madison. We moved up to East End Avenue, then to 58th Street, in the Fine Arts building. There was a period of time that we were having a very difficult time and the EW business was really quite profitable. So she supported my business and I supported her business. Did we become millionaires? No.

AH: How did she get the energy to do this? What was her day like?

VK: She worked a lot at night. She was always on the floor. No space was sacred. Let me tell you this: [Matt and Vanessa Diserio’s] bedroom was my office and the television room was Erica’s office. So this was where she had everything. That was her place. So a few years ago, Erica said, you guys need to move, why don’t you move into our place? That is when we moved the offices from here to Paterson and opened up the space for Matt and Vanessa and their three children to move in. Then the only reaction was that every time we went out to the factory, Erica would grovel through all the boxes that we saved and rescued and moved there, and she would find treasures and bring them back here and up to Nantucket.

AH: That explains why things are dispersed, it’s that she brought things back, not took things out.

VK: So that was the end of it. That catches you right up to the present.

AH: Yes it does. Do you have a particular sense among books, kits, seminars, tours, of one thing that stood out or was the best?

VK: We did the tours.

AH: What would you say of all those categories, or was it just simply the mix of her production, that brought in relatively more than another? Does something stick out as the most popular kit or the most popular book? 

VK: She loved doing special designs for her clients.

AH: Did she continue commissions?

VK: Yes, yes. Those were the highlights of her creative period. She loved doing modern designs and was also dying to do needlework for my furniture. We have those contemporary designs that should have been chairs. She really liked going into the abstract aspect of things. Actually we took her designs and adapted them for textiles for American Leather. We were playing around with computer graphics for American Leather. Her last major effort was designing a chair that she desperately wanted to make, a metal rocking chair. I never encouraged her to do it because it looked so much like a Thonet chair. She enjoyed that. She was probably doing needlework when she died.

AH: She must have been stitching all the time? 

VK: Yes.

AH: We have at least fifty things she was doing when she died.

VK: Interesting, isn’t it? 

AH: Why did she say yes, to WGBH, for example? For her to have a television series as early as that was—why did she say yes to that?

VK: She said yes—she would never say no. And the television series really came about—I guess someone introduced her to WGBH—and Julia Child’s producer came down and did a test—and it became a fait accompli. The television series cost us a lot of money. When you have a cooking show, you have a chicken, raw, half finished, and cooked. When you do a needlework show you have to have all of those stages in needlework.

AH: I found her production notes. She had extensive notes about props, their exact state of completion—

VK: She loved that. I guess like me she loved the challenge—those shows were live. There were no retakes.

AH: I have not seen them.

VK: She liked a challenge, I loved a challenge. You have to see the shows—she is gorgeous on the show. She’s pretty, she’s lively, she is entertaining. You’ve picked up on some of those extra things that she did. The tour thing—that was my idea. It was the late sixties. We decided on needlework tours and we did two trips to China. One of them we sent Edie Lynch on because Erica was pregnant, likely with Illya [b. 1969]. That gives you a time frame. The next one, she and I did.

AH: That was fairly early in China’s opening? You were never afraid, you were just curious.

VK: Yes, that was kind of fun. The needlework tours we picked up with friends, sold them through the New Yorker magazine ads. Then after the tours we did cruises on the Holland America line. I’m sure there are complete brochures still available [in her archives] for that. Cruises were fun because we did them as a vacation thing for the kids. And I think we’re up to date.

AH: I think that’s a lot. I may have some holes to fill. But in the meantime, thank you so much.

[End of interview]