One late afternoon early this year—about a week after First Lady Michelle Obama was photographed at her husband’s second swearing-in ceremony in a custom ultramarine shift dress and matching cardigan—Reed Krakoff, the designer of that svelte ensemble, sat down to chat. The topic at hand, however, was not the fashion press’s admiration of his own creations, but rather his admiration for the designers represented in his world-class collection of furniture, decorative objects, and art.
With his French-born wife, interior designer Delphine Krakoff, and without an art adviser, Krakoff has transformed properties in New York, the Hamptons, Palm Beach, and Paris into remarkable homes that sinuously layer American Arts & Crafts and French Art Deco with some of the most sought-after names in cutting-edge contemporary design.
As the multitasking president and executive creative director of the $5 billion Coach empire, as well as head of an eponymously titled women’s fashion line with boutiques on Madison Avenue and in Las Vegas and Short Hills, New Jersey, Krakoff would be expected to have an eye. That fact is confirmed as soon as you cross the threshold of his Upper East Side town house, where three woolly white sheep by François-Xavier Lalanne mill about the foyer, watched over by a matching pair of Diego Giacometti armchairs and a Lockheed Lounge chaise by Marc Newson.
But to hear Krakoff tell it, it all started with his love of books. Sure enough, further progress inside reveals a long table displaying a number of select art and design tomes, including a well-thumbed Jean Dubuffet monograph and a vintage copy of Nouveaux intérieurs français. (That’s before you even get near the library, the nerve center of the house, with its spectacular Jean Prouvé rolling ladder and a Marc Du Plantier library table.) According to James Zemaitis, senior vice president of business development and head of 20th-century design at Sotheby’s New York, each of Krakoff’s homes is anchored by books, “and his library is better than ours every time. He puts as much effort into the purchase of rare books on decorative arts as he does into objects. They’re completely integrated.”
Sitting on a pristine Jean Royère Polar Bear sofa in his high-ceilinged drawing room, where metals magnate I. Townsend Burden once held court, Krakoff, 49, casually dressed in blue jeans and an open-collared shirt, recalled the roots of his obsessions. His father was in publishing and his mother was a decorator, “so growing up with the family I did, books were part of my life, and it has always been an overarching thing,” he explains. Their home was “typical” late-1960s Connecticut, “with a reproduction Barcelona table and a Florence Knoll sofa in cobalt Naugahyde, along with zebra-skin rugs and that mix of chrome and glass.” He studied economics and art history at Tufts University, followed by fashion design at Parsons, which eventually led to a senior position in design and merchandising at Polo Ralph Lauren. During that period Krakoff started buying what he calls “real design”: a Gustav Stickley armchair for $100, “little pieces of Tiffany desk sets and things like that,” he recalls.
Some of those early purchases were made at the now shuttered Tepper Galleries auction house in Manhattan, a place thick with dealers intent on snapping up gems for resale, plus a few eagle-eyed design buffs. “There were some amazing things coming through Tepper,” says Krakoff, “but it wasn’t a market like it is today, when someone would say, ‘I bought this at auction’ as if it were a seal of approval.”
Buyers had to know their stuff, and it proved a fruitful realm for the self-professed autodidact.
“I was always interested in understanding why people made what they made at the time. My focus in design really logically grew out of that. Whether it was fashion or photography or interiors or architecture, it was always the same thing, to understand process,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s always about decision making.” He repeats this like a personal mantra, then adds, “I love understanding why people made the choices they made.” That’s why he doesn’t call himself a collector. “It’s more like a study,” he muses. “It’s as much about history as it is about collecting something.”
Krakoff’s possessions tell something of his own personal history. Early on, while working at Ralph Lauren, Krakoff concentrated on American Arts & Crafts—mission furniture, Teco pottery. As head of sportswear at Tommy Hilfiger in the mid 1990s, he moved on to midcentury French modern. “My office at Hilfiger was all Prouvé, and that was a long time ago,” well before prices spiked for Prouvé in the 2000s, he notes.
Since then, Krakoff’s taste has expanded, as my view from the Royère sofa confirmed. A set of armchairs and a beautiful parchment-covered side table by Jean-Michel Frank bordered a rare and fabulous leopard rug designed by Arnaud-Albert Rateau for Lanvin Couture with its distinctive label intact. A large Adolph Gottlieb painting dominated by a red bull’s-eye commanded one wall, within communicating distance of Alexander Calder’s mobile Two Black Discs and Six Others, circa 1971, that floated gracefully over the grand room, almost close enough to touch a spectacular pair of Alberto Giacometti patinated bronze floor lamps and Louise Nevelson’s wall-size found-wood assemblage Luminous Voyage/Mirror Image, 1969–77. With the exceptionally large carved-wood Alexandre Noll bowl, the gray Joseph Beuys felt suit hanging on the wall like a painting, and the spectacular Joris Laarman Bone chair in resin from 2006, it was the kind of cross-generational amalgam that defies easy classification.
“It’s totally intuitive,” Krakoff says. “I don’t have any goal to have a certain type of collection. Looking for something, finding it, learning about it, and living with it are all equally important to me. To be honest, I enjoy the process.” He winces at the thought of using an adviser: “Never, never! The whole point is enjoying it, [and yet] I do understand how some people who don’t have the interest or the time might use one.”
He says that he and Delphine “do everything together, everything. We never collect anything we don’t both love.” He adds, “My wife and I, we never stop loving one area that we like. We just continue to patch things together. There are great things from every period, and for me that’s what makes it interesting. Whether it’s Tiffany lamps or Marc Newson or George Nakashima or Calder, it has to appeal to you.” The Krakoffs have a similarly handpicked group of sources for these finds; they do regular business with such dealers as Dominique Lévy; Arne Glimcher at Pace Gallery; Barbara Krakow, of Boston; David Gill, in London; and blue-chip design emporia Kreo, Chastel-Marechal, and Vallois, in Paris.
Among those designers who hold enduring appeal for Krakoff is Frank, the brilliant yet tragic Art Deco designer who jumped to his death from a New York office building in 1941 and whose work is a keystone of the Krakoff residence.
“He’s still the most copied designer, and still the most relevant,” the collector says. “I think his is the only work I feel that way about. It really lives and looks modern more than 70 years later. He’s the one I keep going back to.” Krakoff describes the thrill of poking around a forlorn antiques shop in Paris with Delphine, discovering a pair of unidentified Frank armchairs there, and triumphantly stuffing their finds into the back of a taxi.
Such pieces, he says, are emblematic of “that moment when there was this holistic approach to design and decorative arts, when Frank was doing his cabinetry, Christian Bérard was doing carpets, and Giacometti was doing lighting— incredible! It would have been interesting to see and to understand that. I don’t know why it’s never happened again.” After pausing for a moment, Krakoff sums up his design gestalt: “Design for me is a real way of studying a way of life and a way of integrating it into my world.”
But the collection is not mired in nostalgia for the past. In fact, the Krakoffs have increasingly focused on contemporary designers, such as Ron Arad, Mattia Bonetti, the Bouroullec brothers, Newson, Martin Szekely, and Laarman, from whom he recently commissioned a unique two-piece black marble table, as well as a light installation for the couple’s new home in Paris. Krakoff “definitely likes beautiful things with character,” wrote Laarman in a recent e-mail exchange. “But when you look closer, there will be more to it than meets the eye. It’s never just the aesthetics.”
The couple caught Laarman ahead of the curve, introduced by New York dealer Marc Benda as the designer was preparing for his first exhibition at the Friedman Benda gallery, in Chelsea, in 2010. “[Reed] told me he hadn’t been that excited about a design show in a long time,” adds Laarman. “My guess is he owns more of my work than anyone else right now. For an artist it’s great when such collectors follow and support you long-term.”
“I’ve always liked the idea of collecting the work of my own time,” Krakoff says, “and not only get to know the people and understand why they made what they did, but collect the first generation of the work. When you’re collecting Deco and Prouvé, you’re a few generations down the path; the best, most important stuff is not really available—and you certainly don’t have a dialogue with the people who created it. So a bunch of years ago I decided I really wanted to collect contemporary work in addition to other things.”
As an ornate, circa-1989 André Debreuil table clock perched on a rock crystal base marks the advancing hour, Krakoff ruminates on the scope and elusive profile of his collection. “There’s definitely a similarity to almost everything I collect— an interplay of organic and architectural elements,” he says. He and Delphine constantly practice that sophisticated mix; they have already collaborated on at least eight homes they’ve designed and inhabited in the U.S. and France.
Although Zemaitis hesitates in raising the analogy, he says, “Reed would hate to be compared to someone who is riffing off Yves Saint Laurent, but if you look at great interiors—Jacques Doucet in the 1910s, YSL in the 1960s and ’70s—Reedhas come the closest I’ve ever seen to capturing that aura. Every work you look at is a museum quality masterwork.”
Like Saint Laurent, Krakoff’s passion for contemporary design and the philosophy behind each piece help feed his own growth as a fashion designer. “What’s most incredible to me,” he says, “is that people like Joris and Marc and Ron Arad are able to take contemporary culture and craftsmanship and engineering and science and bring them all together. And it’s quite amazing to watch.”
This article appears in the April 2013 issue of Art+Auction.