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Vladimir Kagan’s Famous Furniture Lives On Thanks to Longtime Protégé Chris Eitel

Forever Forward Thinking

BY // 06.24.24

Vladimir Kagan’s earliest works — a table and chair he designed for his parents’ house in 1947 —  were relaunched this April, eight years to the month after his death in 2016 at age 88. The First Table and Chair’s thin, flared legs evoke the wide-legged stance of a fawn or foal, elements that influenced Kagan’s designs for decades. Versions of these pieces were sold at the first Kagan store in New York City and phased out in 1950.

These archetypes of Kagan’s early avant-garde designs are among the many reissues to come out of Vladimir Kagan Design Group — now part of the Holly Hunt portfolio — and something that Chris Eitel, Kagan’s longtime protégé and the company’s director of design and production, felt was important. “I wanted to let the past inform where the company was going before trying my own new designs,” he says.

Vladimir Kagan
The Vladimir Kagan-inspired Big Picture sofa from The Forward Collection, launched 2022.

The Forward Collection, launched in 2022, is his first step in moving the brand onward with pieces that embody both Kagan’s design ethos and his own concepts. The collection feels as fresh as it does familiar. At first glance, the Big Picture Sofa’s double-crescent form appears to nest, but it actually cantilevers from the back, a feat of engineering that would have delighted Kagan, who was known for his mastery of ergonomics and sculptural approach to furniture. And Eitel’s curved Lucite Bienenstock coffee table has an inset with a floating storage box that defies logic. “Those aspects are what Vladi would call a magical moment in design,” he says.

Vladimir Kagan
Early portrait of Vladimir Kagan.

An icon of mid-century design, Kagan’s glamorous and impeccably handcrafted furniture has always attracted a celebrity clientele, from Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol to Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie, and hotelier André Balazs. Kagan’s Serpentine sofa, which was an instant hit in 1950, is perhaps his best-known piece.

Chris Eitel, 35, was a student at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when he began interning with Kagan in 2013. After graduation, he became Kagan’s design assistant. “Vladi always said ‘yes’ to everything — he was open to new ideas, and I was able to incorporate things like 3D printing into the design process,” he says. “But at the end of the day, these were his designs, and I was a facilitator — he trained me to interpret his vision.”

The tutelage extended beyond furniture to what Eitel describes as an education in lifestyle. “Coming from a small farm town in Missouri was different than the high society of Nantucket and Palm Beach,” says Eitel, who often stayed at Kagan’s houses there. “He showed me what that level of luxury was because you do have to understand it if you’re designing for it,” he says. Kagan was generous with his time and a patient teacher, Eitel remembers, but he could also be demanding and stubborn. “There were times when we argued about a design and then didn’t talk for a couple days. Later, we made up over a martini, and I have fond memories of things like that.”

Vladimir Kagan
The First Chair and Table in the Kagan Showroom on East 65th Street in NYC, 1948.

Kagan’s death was unexpected, Chris Eitel says, “but I think we all thought he’d live forever. It was really tough for me.” In the months that followed, Eitel transitioned into his current role, initially overseeing the development of the Classic Collection and Kagan’s limited-edition collections for Ralph Pucci and Carpenters Workshop Gallery. Holly Hunt purchased Vladimir Kagan Design Group some six months later, imbuing the company with the kind of support and stability it needed to grow. Eitel has since been researching Kagan’s extensive archive of furniture designs and sketches.

“We’ve already got a number of other reintroductions in the works that we plan to bring to the market,” he says. “I’m also working on new limited-edition designs of my own, similar to the limited editions I was doing early on with him.” There’s a wealth of material ready to be explored. “Whatever we do will always have ties to the brand and to Vladi himself,” Eitel says.

Vladimir Kagan, at Holly Hunt in Dallas (1025 N. Stemmons Freeway, Suite 590) and Houston (5120 Woodway Drive, Atrium 1, Suite 155) or at hollyhunt.com.

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