March 26, 2001 12:00 PM

Dakota Jackson was already performing in nightclubs as a magician, dancer and artist when he moved from his parents’ Queens, N.Y., home to a vast 2,100-sq.-ft., $150-a-month loft in Manhattan’s flower district. “I needed a bed, a sink, a toilet—everything,” he recalls. Bare necessity led Jackson, then 20, to discover another talent: He could build things. In fact he built everything—from walls to bathroom fixtures to sofas. “I realized I had an uncanny ability to put things together.”

Uncanny and profitable. Today furniture designed by Jackson, 51, brings in $25 million a year. His works grace the houses of, among others, Michael Jordan, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jerry Seinfeld. For John Lennon, Jackson built a writing desk with secret compartments, and for designer Diane Von Furstenberg a bed with a system behind it that gives off rays of light like an aurora borealis. “The great thing about his furniture is that it’s elegant and comfortable,” says Dominique Browning, editor-in-chief of House & Garden. “It’s not a museum piece that you have to stand and admire.”

His creations can fetch $200,000, and some are indeed in museums. But his furniture also adorns the corporate offices of the Gap, Columbia Pictures and Sean “Puffy” Combs’s Bad Boy empire. “I want people to immediately be at ease,” says Jackson, who in 30 years has built some 7,000 pieces, from the interior of New York City’s famed Four Seasons Restaurant to a grand piano for Steinway & Sons’ celebration of the instrument’s 300th anniversary. “When we walked out of our first meeting, we knew he was the guy,” says Frank Mazurco, Steinway’s executive vice president. “The ideas just sprang from his head.”

Like the objects he made appear and disappear as a boy. He learned the tricks from his father, Jack Malon, a professional magician who was good enough to support his homemaker wife, Beatrice, 79, and their three kids. (The others are Lisa Malon, 53, now a fashion consultant, and Dena Malon, 45, a teacher.) “It was a strange, tough life my father led,” recalls Jackson, who adopted his stage name while a teenager in the 1960s. “But he loved it.” So did his son, who broke in professionally at a children’s party even before graduating from the Bronx High School of Science in 1967. He was also a member of a Japanese dance troupe and learned to play a half-dozen instruments from musicians he hung out with in Greenwich Village in the ’60s. “When I met Dakota, I thought he was a guitarist—he was that good,” says rock icon Lou Reed. But Jackson decided making furniture was his calling. At just 21, he started his company Dakota Jackson Inc. “In the early days I didn’t really care how uncomfortable my furniture was,” he says. “I wanted people to see what I’d done and say ‘Wow!’ ”

One who did was Yoko Ono, who in 1974 invited Jackson to the Manhattan apartment she shared with John Lennon. She wanted the young designer to build a writing desk, a special gift, for her husband. After a conversation with Ono about Eastern philosophy and art, Jackson had an artistic epiphany. “I had been doing pieces with hidden compartments and secret sections that opened up,” Jackson says. “But now I knew that there was a marriage between magic and furniture.”

The marriage endures. “To say he’s multitalented doesn’t do him justice,” says RoseLee Goldberg, who teaches art history at New York University and is Jackson’s wife of 21 years. They have two children, Zoë, 20, and Pierce, 15. “In everything he does he wants to find an exquisite beauty, and the way he does that is by doing it the best.” Jackson’s 150 employees work in a 150,000-sq.-ft. factory in Queens, but his unofficial showroom is the family’s four-story Manhattan brownstone. In their living room, for instance, there is a turquoise-and-black lacquered cabinet that Jackson designed for his then-girlfriend RoseLee, whom he met at a party in 1978. He not only wooed her with his furniture but with his music. “It’s hard to resist a guy who’s making up songs for you,” she says. With some sleight of hand, the cabinet becomes a vanity. “One day a guy came in and saw it and asked, ” ‘Is that a bar?’ ” recalls Jackson, laughing. “I thought for a minute and then said, ‘Yes, it is. Now it’s a bar.’ ” And for his next trick…

Christina Cheakalos

Bob Meadows in New York City

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