Vladimir Kanevsky had just $100 in his pocket when he immigrated to New York from the Soviet Union in 1989. He’d been working as an architect in St. Petersburg, doing some painting and sculpting as a hobby. He’d never worked with porcelain. But when he saw an ad in a ceramics store looking for an artist who could reproduce a melon in the style of an 18th-century porcelain tureen, Kanevsky accepted the challenge.
“I had only a very rough idea of what needed to be done,” he says from his production studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. “I knew I had to take porcelain clay and put it into a kiln, so I started experimenting at home using the kitchen stove.”
That first melon was for interior designer Howard Slatkin, whose shop on East 70th Street in New York City sold Kanevsky’s porcelain creations as fast as he could make them. “I always loved botany in school, and next I had the idea to do a flower,” Kanevsky says. “I like flowers because they have a logical structure to them. It’s like architecture. The inner structure of a flower is like a good building.”
“Improvement upon perfection” is how Slatkin described one of Kanevsky’s early flowers. His first attempt was a carnation, which Kanevsky says came out “very simple, almost like folk art. Then I tried a lily-of-the-valley. I couldn’t make the little bells at first; they looked like pots. And there are different stages of the blossoms opening. It’s a very difficult flower.”
But his persistence paid off. Interior designer Charlotte Moss bought that first lily-of-the-valley, and in the 20 years since, Kanevsky’s breathtakingly lifelike flowers—sold under the name Vladimir Collection—have been purchased by a Who’s Who of society’s tastemakers. Jackie Onassis bought one of his lilacs. Designer Carolyne Roehm snapped up the entire collection from a show he did for Bergdorf Goodman. “Carolyne’s book, A Passion for Flowers, was my most important source for that show,” Kanevsky recalls. “As soon as she came in, she recognized that and bought everything. So in the end it was a perfect circle.”
Martha Stewart, Tommy Hilfiger, Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, and Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis have all purchased Kanevsky’s hand-painted porcelain flowers. Philanthropist and socialite Deeda Blair, an early fan who is perennially cited as one of the world’s best dressed women—preferring Chanel—was asked in an interview with Departures magazine what she wanted in the whole wide world for herself. “I want Vladimir to make me a brooch,” she replied. Kanevsky doesn’t usually make jewelry, but he fulfilled her wish by presenting Blair with a porcelain brooch in the shape of a camellia, the signature flower of Coco Chanel.
In his studio, Kanevsky has five kilns ranging in size from a teapot to a refrigerator, and he employs four full-time assistants. He recently agreed to work with Meissen, the oldest and most prestigious porcelain factory in Europe, on some projects that will bear the Vladimir name. “Fortunately, or unfortunately, I still do almost everything myself,” he says. “I like to control things.”
“Twenty-four hours a day is not enough for him,” says Kanevsky’s wife of eight years, Edita Leviatov, also a Russian émigré, who doubles as his manager and business partner. They have a small working garden at home where they grow flowers they want to add to his collection. He takes them apart, bud by bud, leaf by leaf, and scans the pieces into his computer. “I reverse engineer them before I reconstruct them,” Kanevsky says. “I have a library of flower parts in my computer.” If there are imperfections in the real flowers—insect holes on the leaves, for example—it adds to the realism. From the scans he makes sketches, and from his sketches he sculpts the clay. Because porcelain is so fragile, he sometimes makes the stems out of hammered and painted copper.
Hyacinths, hollyhocks, camellias, and roses are his most popular designs right now, though the market is always in flux. “It’s like fashion,” he shrugs. “All of a sudden everyone wants lilacs.”
While the creations are his alone, the ideas for new flowers frequently come from his wife. “In the near future, I am asking Vladimir to make fritillaries, delphinium, dogwood, roses, and tall (about 60 inches!) branches of cherry blossoms and apple blossoms,” she says.
Kanevsky’s personal favorites are ever changing. “I like a challenge,” he says. “My wife wanted me to make a clematis, and for two years I said no. I couldn’t see it. Then suddenly, the light bulb: I tried an arrangement and fell in love with this flower!”
Scenes from Vladimir’s Studio
Note: Vladimir Kanevsky’s glorious flower sculptures will be exhibited at Washington, D.C.’s Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens April 6–September 5, 2021.
To see more of Vladimir Kanevsky’s work, visit thevladimircollection.com.
By E. M. Swift