Real Estate / Home + Design

The Death of a Legend

Vladimir Kagan Passes Before He Can Unveil His Newest Creation — Let’s Look Back at His Legacy

BY Rebecca Sherman // 04.08.16

Legendary furniture designer Vladimir Kagan died Thursday in Palm Beach, Florida — where he was scheduled to unveil a new bronze chair for Ralph Pucci. The German-born Kagan, the son of a cabinet maker whose family immigrated to the U.S. in 1938, made a name for himself by the 1950s for his sensuous, impeccably crafted furniture for clients such as Marilyn Monroe, Gary Cooper and Xavier Cougat. Kagan was 88.

He was inducted into the Interior Designer Hall of Fame in 2009, 62 years after he started designing and producing furniture. Kagan never stopped designing and producing furniture, but after a few decades’ hiatus, his line was reintroduced to the Texas market in 2015 through David Sutherland showrooms. I interviewed Kagan last year before he traveled to Dallas and Houston to sign copies of his most recent book, Vladimir Kagan: A Lifetime of Avant Garde Design. He was a ball of fire on the phone, energetic and witty and a total charmer. He’ll be sorely missed, but his legend lives on.

Here’s another look at our April 2015 PaperCity Magazine piece on Kagan:

Note to self: Get out more. Vladimir Kagan is 88 years old, and he’d probably be chagrined to learn I thought he had retired long ago. I decide not to tell him. It’s early in the morning, and I’m expecting a phone call from New York, where Kagan has had an apartment on Park Avenue and 93rd Street for 60 years. As I’m waiting, I pull up the bio and photos his office sent me the night before. Hollywood, it seems, would not have been as glamorous without him. Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, David Lynch and Tom Cruise have all bought his swooping modern furniture at one time or another. Kagan’s ’50s-era Serpentine sofa inspired an entire genre of entertaining: Sexy with its curvaceous S-shape, the original 10-footer seats eight. Its large, armless contour begs to float in a room, grabbing the center of attention. No wonder movie stars have made it their own.

The son of Jewish immigrants who fled Nazi Germany, Kagan started out as a cabinetmaker in his 20s at his father’s furniture shop in New York in the mid-1940s. He was also a sculptor who studied architecture at night at Columbia — two passions that would ultimately influence his future work. His big break was helping design furniture for the cocktail lounges at the first United Nations building in Lake Success in 1947. In the ensuing decades, Kagan’s early linear creations gave way to more sculptural concepts — chairs and tables with swooping walnut and aluminum bases, sensuously curved sofas and sleek Lucite. The economic downturn in the ’80s shuttered Kagan’s factory and showroom, but he continued to design privately for high-profile clients, stocking their vacation homes and yachts with custom sofas, chairs and tables. In 1997, when Tom Ford filled 360 Gucci boutiques worldwide with Kagan’s achingly chic modular Omnibus sofas, the furniture designer was thrust back in the spotlight. Omnibus was reintroduced at the prestigious ICFF soon after, and the American Society of Furniture Designers bestowed him with a lifetime achievement award. But good luck trying to find his furniture to buy … Except for a handful of select showrooms in New York, Chicago and Miami, Kagan’s classic collection has remained elusive in Texas. Until now. Showroom owner David Sutherland has handpicked nine styles from Kagan’s since-reopened New Jersey factory and brought them to Dallas and Houston. The legend himself will be making personal appearances at the showrooms in April to sign copies of his newly reissued and updated book, Vladimir Kagan: A Lifetime of Avant Garde Design with an introduction by Tom Ford. 

The phone rings. Suddenly, I’m talking to one of the great creative minds of modern times. “Hello! It’s Vladimir Kagan!” His deep voice booms strong and energetic. He’s an octogenarian, yes, but geriatric, no. Kagan breaks the ice by telling me he’s been to Texas before, during a stint when he designed for American Leather after his factory closed. “I love your TexMex. The more down and dirty the better,” he says. I tell him that I’ve discovered his blog, vladimirkagan.typepad.com, where he posts frequently — not about furniture, but more personal things, such as New York architecture he likes and Christmas dinner at home in Nantucket with Woody Allen and Sun-Yi, complete with snapshots. In one post, he gives an emotional tribute to his late wife of 56 years, the embroidery artist Erica Wilson, who died in 2011.

“My wife has been a big influence on my designs,” he says, then laughs. “It was mostly negative, like don’t sit on the table, don’t sit on the back of the sofa, you’ll ruin it. So I designed a sofa with a back you could sit on. One day, she found a bone on the beach. ‘You should use this to design a sofa,’ she told me. Years later, I finally designed the sofa. She was like a mosquito buzzing until I did it.” His Bone Collection for Weiman/Preview Furniture debuted in 2003. Curious about the origins for some of the pieces that Sutherland has brought to town, I urge Kagan to divulge their backstories. Then he is off and running, and my fingers are flying on the keyboard, working hard to keep up. An artist at heart, he’s also an energetic storyteller. Here, a few excerpts from our conversation:

Besides your wife, what are your influences?
VK: I’ve always loved nature. I’ve always drawn trees — all of my chairs have that tree influence. They are so practical and engineered. A limb can be 30 feet from the trunk and withstand storms. Look at a leaf, and you learn all about construction.

Are you hands-on in your factory, making furniture still?
There’s a German saying: Honor the handiwork. My father would measure three times and cut once. I was not a patient cabinetmaker. I would cut three times and didn’t bother to measure. I know how to make everything we produce, but I have more fun doing the prototypes.

Your Serpentine sofa revolutionized rooms …
A curved shape makes more sense so that you’re not sitting like birds on a wire, lined up. People like to sit out in the open, away from the wall. A sofa should float in space, like interior landscaping.

What gave you the idea for it?
I had clients who had major art — Pollock’s, Hoffman’s — that took up full walls. I needed a sofa that could be in the middle of the room so they could see the artwork from all angles. The original Serpentine sofa had castors, so that it could spin around.

That Fettucine chair is sublime.
I designed it in 1987 in wood with different colors as a prototype for a contest for a large manufacturer. It was never manufactured — the prototype was stolen, and the company went out of business. My wife kept telling me I needed to do something with it. I finally found someone who could make it in Italy from saddle leather and steel in 1999. It’s sculpture, exquisite craftsmanship.

But you produce most of your furniture in your New Jersey factory?
Yes, to be producing quality furniture in America is a commitment on my part. We have about 30 skilled craftsmen working in the factories. From the frames to the woodwork to the upholstery, it’s all under one roof. It takes about a month to make a single sofa.

How did the Crescent desk, with its 2 1/2 inch Lucite base, come about?
The first one was made for David Horowitz, a pop music industry executive, in 1975. He had a magnificent kilim that I didn’t want to cover up. The desk appeared to float above it. All my great designs were born out of a client’s needs. I still enjoy the process, sitting down one-on-one with a client. But now I get a fairly good fee for that.

You’re German, but without a rigid Bauhaus mindset …
My father was a big devotee of the Bauhaus — his aesthetic was for linear design. When I came into the business, it’s where my influence came from. But that changed later on, and it became a more freethinking approach. But there are two elements from Bauhaus that still drive my design. The first is “Form follows function.” I concentrate on designing furniture for the human body. It’s got to be comfortable. The other Bauhaus concept is “Less is more.” With a curved sofa, it was a chance to make bigger seating and eliminate another sofa and four chairs in a room. At home, it’s a different story. I’m totally un-House Beautiful. I don’t practice what I preach. I’m more is more. I never get rid of anything or downsize. I have a strong urge to build a minimalist living environment, though.

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