THE CALLA LILY DIALOGUES

ERICA WILSON & VLADIMIR KAGAN: A Calla Lily Love Story

Arleen Solomon Rotchin5 Comments

Erica Wilson was a graduate of the Royal School of Needlework in London, who made the black chiffon dress in which she was presented to the queen. 

She would have stayed in England restoring robes and embellishing church vestments, had she not been recruited in 1954 by an American who intended to set-up a school of needlework in New York.  

She taught at the Cooper Hewitt (New York’s National Design Museum) and in her Manhattan apartment for $3.00 an hour; her mimeographed diagrams for learners became the basis for a correspondence course.  She was the Julia Childs of needlework.

At a fancy dress ball, she met furniture designer Vladimir Kagan.  Their courtship developed as she embroidered him a waistcoat and they married in Woodstock, New York in 1957.  Although that predated Woodstock’s festival, Wilson always described her and Kagan as old hippies with success and money just agreeable byproducts.

He is the son of a Russian cabinetmaker who fled the Nazis and in his 20’s made his mark as a wunderkind designer in New York.  By the late 40’s, he had opened his own shop on 57th Street.  His clients have included Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Robert Mapplethorpe, Tom Ford and Brad Pitt and Angelina.

Their rambling 10-room 4,000 square foot apartment is stuffed with his furniture and her needlework.  They bought it in 1969 for $140,000 and raised their 3 children there.

 So creative and slightly off kilter, Wilson and Kagan could be celebrated in a sequel to The Royal Tenenbaums.

Erica has written 16 books on needlework and was the host of ‘Erica’, a public television program broadcasted nationally produced by WGBH in Boston in the early 70’s.  

Her Upper East Side Madison Avenue at 63rd Street flagship store, Erica Wilson Needle Works, which closed in 2006, offered classes in a range of needle arts and sold kits she designed for needlepoint pillows.  

Erica Wilson’s Nantucket Shop is run by her daughter Vanessa Diserio

Erica Wilson’s Nantucket Shop is run by her daughter Vanessa Diserio

Husband Vladi Kagan is the acknowledged master of avant-garde furniture design.  He opened his first personal shop in New York in 1949.  In 1950 the Kagan-Dreyfus partnership began with a showroom /store on East 57th Street in New York.  His early work included furniture for the Delegate’s Cocktail Lounge at the United Nations and furniture for the ‘Monsanto House of the Future’ at Disneyland.  He is represented by Ralph Pucci International.

The long list of Kagan’s Awards and International recognition include: 

  • The Museum of Modern Art Good Design Award
  • Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Furniture Designers
  • Artist Visionary Award from the Museum of Arts and Design

There is the tricky matter of being an artist couple.  ‘We’re either adoring one another or attacking one another,’ says Erica. ‘I’m much calmer. Vladi gets into volcanic eruption.  I let it go by and take no notice, but with the drip technique I always get him to do what he doesn’t want to do on the first instance.  That’s why he so rudely calls me a mosquito.  I am the more amiable one, although I do wear an ivory bracelet designed by our daughter Jessica Cushman that reads: Le chef a toujours raison.’

‘Erica is the complete package for me,’ says Vladi.  ‘I’ve got my worst enemies and my best friend all in one person.’

‘The thing about Vladi is, he is so completely honest, he says whatever is in his mind, whether it is devastating or not and some people wonder how I can stand it,’ Erica says.  ‘I like it that way.  It’s much better than the English way of saying, Oh that’s terribly sweet, whatever it is.’

Visitors to their home are awestruck to find that much-photographed Kagan rocking chair Wilson had embroidered with owls in a tree back in the 1970’s, and are even more impressed when they sat in it, as its stitchery, in wool rug thick as string, indented their behinds.

Erica Wilson, Vladi Kagan and I were friends and neighbours in Palm Beach, Florida, for years.  They were the warmest, grooviest, most hospitable folks on the planet.  There was always a party happening in apartment #619.

Sadly, Erica had a stroke and passed away in December, 2011.  She was 83 years young.

On Wednesday, April 6, 2016,  the evening before Vladi was going to Miami to unveil his latest design, a fabulous bronze chair for Ralph Pucci, I spent a delightful hour visiting with him and his ladyfriend Betsy in #619.  We sat at the cozy Kagan kitchen table. They offered me a martini, Vladimir signed his latest coffee table book for me to bring back as a gift for my friend interior designer Rejean Gervais and we chatted while he put spices on the meat he and Betsy were having for dinner. Artichokes were simmering on the stove.

Not to overstay my welcome and intrude on their dinner, I said a bientot, wished them safe travel to Miami the following day and I left.  

Vladimir Kagan had a heart attack and passed away in the middle of the night at 3:00 a.m.