Born in Chicago in 1949, Kasten spent his early years devoted to the all-American pastimes of sports and skirt chasing. So-called “creative pursuits” held little interest for him, until a fateful decision to take a stroll while vacationing with his family on Nantucket Island changed all that. “I walked into this tiny shop called Nantucket Looms and was just transfixed by the work being done. I had to believe it was something I’d done before, because it just completely resonated with me in a way nothing else had.” Kasten pulled up a chair and for the next two weeks, he studied every move made by the owner, Andy Oates, a master weaver who subscribed to the Bauhaus movement and who had studied at Black Mountain College in North Carolina with some of the greatest minds of the 20th century, including inventor/theorist Buckminster Fuller and artists Josef and Anni Albers. Kasten was entranced by the discipline that handweaving required — and the way that the simple, almost ritualistic actions masked a deep internal life. “I once spent a year weaving pure white fabric with an associate,” he recalls. “Five days a week, can you imagine?” He chuckles. “It’s disappointing when someone visits the studio and asks, ‘Is it boring?’ Is it boring to write a novel? How about practicing the same piece of music thousands of times over?”
A modern-day textile factory sacrifices internal life for speed and endless reproducibility. Glossy metal air and water-jet looms churn out product so quickly it’s impossible to tell at first glance whether it’s fabric or paper or some other base element for civilization that’s being created. Touring one is like being inside of a complex, multitentacled machine; you feel out of place. By contrast, not a lick of work is possible in Kasten’s studio without a human driving force. In the largest room, a 38-year-old weaver named Mario Aragon is winding the beam on a dobby loom that uses hydraulics for constructing larger pieces. Using hydraulics is one of the concessions that Kasten has made in order to remain in business, but there’s no mistaking the importance of the man sitting cross-legged at the foot of the loom, winding white threads that slowly unspool behind him from a raised mount as his lips move soundlessly to maintain the count. Aragon is working on a custom fabric for a client who desires an upholstered headboard and bedskirt combination that gradually darkens from white to dark green. To achieve this effect, Kasten is using an intricate layering process that he devised himself and that has now become one of his signature designs. When Aragon began working for Kasten four years ago, he knew absolutely nothing about weaving, which was exactly how Kasten preferred it. “Each project is a one-off,” he says. “Each one requires inspiration and risk. It’s easier when you’re working with someone who doesn’t have a preconceived notion on how to achieve it.”
Each piece that Kasten produces is unique. Which is exactly what caught the eye of world-renowned designer David Easton when he first met Kasten in the mid-’80s. Easton was working away in his Manhattan office when a lanky man with a hungry look in his eyes entered bearing fabric samples. This, by itself, wasn’t extraordinary: Easton’s neoclassical interiors were in heavy demand, and potential collaborators were many. But it was when he glanced down at the swatches laid out on the table that courtesy turned into curiosity. “The designs were subtle, sophisticated. Utterly original. There’s a certain game of chance, an irregularity that comes from handmade fabric. I saw it as the answer to a very specific design problem for those clients who want something special, something that doesn’t exist anywhere else in any other form.” Gradually, every interior designer of note, from Easton to Thierry Despont and Douglas Durkin, began coming to Kasten in search of those answers.
Today, despite having a workshop in Massachusetts, Kasten and his family live full time in France. Europe has become the source of more than half of Kasten’s business, resulting in a steady stream of high-profile projects — like the recently completed walls for the French Embassy in Beijing. It’s an exciting new chapter, but it’s also a commentary on the shaky future of handmade textiles in the United States. Unlike countries like Japan, where master artisans are designated Living National Treasures and supported in the interest of preserving a cultural heritage, Kasten enjoys no such guarantees.
“I sell,” he says. “I do the shopping, which helps with my French. I take the children everywhere, which, when you have three teenagers, takes up pretty much the whole day. Then I sneak off to a little workshop I’ve got.” He takes off his glasses and blinks several times, as though he were seeing things for the first time. “I’m still learning.”