An interview with Vladimir Kagan – Classic Kagan furniture designs being handcrafted again

“Mid century was very original, very meaningful….
There was a revolution in design coming out of the depression and war years.
It was anything goes….There was such variety of designs. Mid century has a lot to offer.” — Vladimir Kagan

vladimir kagan classic furniturevladimir kaganI am easily star struck, but I must admit: I was at my most star struck ever when I received an email straight from Vladimir Kagan himself – design royalty! Two days later, we were on the telephone chatting happily about his career, his classic and new designs, the challenge of living “less is more”, his wonderful blog — and what it was like the be working in the midst of the mid century design boom. Big interview with VLADIMIR KAGAN! — follows –>

classic kagan freeform sofa

Classic Kagan. Photo courtesy LuxProductions.

erica-wilsonI had reached out to Mr. Kagan because I follow his blog — a *must read* –  and I saw that his design classics are being reproduced again for sale. I contacted his studio in New York asking for an interview, and I think I sealed the deal because I know Mr. Kagan’s daughter (via email) from writing so much about the late Erica Wilson. She is one of my all-time idols: The 1970s “Queen of Stitchery” — and Kagan’s wife of 54 years.

Mr. Kagan was absolutely delightful. I want to sit and drink coffee with him for hours and hours talking about it all. Like so many other genius mid century designers, he came to the U.S. in 1938, fleeing the persecution of the Nazi Party. He quickly launched his design career – you’ll hear more in our interview, below – and his talents were immediately recognized. He has been designing valuable furniture ever since. Today, he mostly works on personal commi$$ions – often, complete interiors full of one-of-a-kind furniture.

Following is our interview, pretty much verbatim, edited just a tad for readability:

vladimir kagan chair

An early Kagan sculptural rocker. Photo is copyright LuxProductions and is used here with permission

Pam:  Why are you now reintroducing some of your classic pieces?

Vladi:  Because the market is there — and I think the market is somewhat being led by what the auction houses get for the [vintage] product. At this state of the game I can make my classic designs competitively vis-à-vis the auction house prices, reproducing them the same way as we made them 50 years ago.

I would like to do a new collection of “wild and crazy 21st century designs”, and do more designs on a one-on-one basis, but my showrooms and fans throughout the country love the things that are very identifiable as Kagan, especially from the 50s and 60s.

vladimir kagan 1946

The very first dining chairs from Vladimir Kagan — 1946. These remain in the family (click photo for link). Photo used with permission from LuxProductions.

Pam: Can you tell me more about that… what does “classic Kagan” mean?

Vladi: There has always been a ying and yang in my designs. Half are ‘sculptural’ and very ‘Kaganesque’, the other half have been very ‘architectural’ and not Kaganesque. I did architectural before sculptural. In the 40s, my designs were much more linear [photo above, used courtesy LuxProductions]. But in a way, I have always come back to the sculpture.

kagan dining table

Detail of a dining table — original 1958 design now available again

Pam: Mr. Kagan pointed me to recent auction for some of his earlier architecture pieces in a Wright Auctions catalog. These, he said, exemplified ‘early Kagan.’

Vladi:  In the early 50s, I began creating more sculptural designs. I had always looked at nature and when I wanted to be an artist, drew trees. In high school I learned about anatomy and loved drawing the human body from skeletal to muscle formation to the full body. I was interested in comforts and how the body worked… the body as a piece of sculpture and my furniture is sculpture to hold the body. So, I created a vessel to hold the anatomy of a human being. I did ergonomic designs 20 or 30 thirty years before it became popular.

I liked the limb of a tree as sculpture, the anatomy of a leaf… these design ideas were also very prevalent in my 50s designs.

After 10 years of playing in that medium, I reached a point where I couldn’t take functional and my organic forms any further without reverting to Baroque Victorian or Art Nouveau… I reached a point where I had to find a new handwriting. In the 60s and 70s my designs reverted to a strong architectural statement. In the 80s I went back to softer lines and more elaborate designs. At the end of 80s, I wanted to retire and I closed my showrooms and workshop. But I couldn’t sit still and do nothing, so I flirted with production furniture and worked in High Point… for Directional, Preview, and American Leather. It was an interesting opportunity to learn about mass production and how the commercial side of the furniture industry functioned. But by and large, my designs were too advanced for this market. It was not the right direction for my creativity.

kagan sketch

Every once in a while on his blog, Mr. Kagan treats us to a little sketch. Click on the drawing to get to the story. :)

Pam: Why do you think we are seeing such a revival of mid century design today?

Vladi: Mid century was very original, very meaningful, having just emerged from a dreadful World War and a dismal recession before that. There was a revolution in design coming out of the depression and war years. It was anything goes – and some of it was good and memorable and some of it, forgettable. There was such variety of designs. Mid century has a lot to offer.

The 80s, on the other hand, was based on boredom. They did Memphis. This was a big media event — great for the eye and collectible today — but not functional.

Mid century is very livable, and also fitted to small homes. Today we’re dealing with a lot of spaces that are small.

My things that I did in the 50s fit into the 21st century house like a hand in a glove. Today we have a lot of windows and less wall space…. My furniture is sculptural and is free standing.

vladimir kagan classics collection

A sampling of chairs in the Classics collection. Click on the link to see/order the catalog.

Pam: What would you consider the “Essential Kagan”?

Vladi: My series of chairs — reclining chairs, pull up chairs, rocking and contoured chairs. They had a sculptural frame that supported the slings – in that series there are five or six elements, using the same design aesthetics. Those chairs are very iconic Kagan.

My sculptural sofas – serpentine… freeform — [are also iconic Kagan.] These were a breakaway from three seats with down cushions – although I love three seats with down cushions. My designs were influenced by the Bauhaus philosophy, “less is more” – I was raised on this. If you have a bigger piece of furniture, you need less seating elsewhere. The serpentine sofa seats eight people.

Pam: Do you live “less is more” in your own home? (I knew the answer because I had seen the photos of Kagan and Wilson’s New York City apartment on The Selby.)

Vladi laughs: Less is more. Except in my own home. Do as I say, not as I do.

Pam: So why did you end up with more is more?

Vladi: I wish I could be less is more. I have a yearning to move and start over. You end up with more is more because you like things. Erica and I traveled a lot, and we collected…. We have always acquired never eliminated. To create a clean space is a wonderful thing. I admire it and help create it for my clients. Unfortunately, emotionally I can not down-scale!

vladimir kagan furniture

Click the photo to read Mr. Kagan’s blog post about this “quartet of new introductions (and more) — The Ondine Wing Chair, Boomerang Mosaic Tile Coffee Table, Swan Sofa and the Cygnet Floor Lamp – all originally designed in the 50’s … his exhibit at Ralph Pucci’s showroom in Los Angeles with Jeff Quinn’s impressive mural in the background.”

Pam: How are you choosing which classic Kagan designs to bring back to market today?

Vladi:  I have a privately published Archive book for my company use only; no one has access to this except my own team. There are more than 700 designs in there that I have gathered and assembled over the years. And they still keep coming up. (Two or three more showed up in a recent Rago Auction.) With this vast inventory of designs I review it with my showroom and sales people and make yearly selections.

vladimir kagan ondine chairPam: What kind of upholstery are you using for the revivals?

Vladi: There is a big tendency today to go back to natural materials… wool and cotton. I have a hand weaver in Nantucket — She weaves textiles for me in the same style as we created 50 and 60 years ago. Do you know the one big difference in our furniture construction today versus back then?

kagan sculptura dining chairPam: I will guess… the wood used for frames.

Vladi:  No. The one difference is: a staple gun. Back then, furniture makers had a mouthful of tacks and a magnet hammer.

kagan rocker

Pam: Do you make your revival designs this old way?

Vladi: Hell no, we use staple guns. The only people who go to that degree [of using tacks] are the people doing counterfeits. I’ll do it if client asks. [But using a staple gun is] the only shortcut available when you are doing all hand tied springs and classic upholstery techniques. Our is still all hand made.

vladimir kagan sculptured coffee tableKagan explains that most of his furniture is made from walnut – then and now. He may occasionally specify cherry, and says, “I love oak.” However, he no longer uses any exotic woods that are endangered; some vintage pieces used rosewood veneers. And, he says there is one more modification, this one reflecting the realities of an aging population: “I don’t make my seating as low as I used to– I can’t get out of them.”

Pam: What inspires you today?

Vladi: When I have a one-on-one relationship with a client.

kagan serpentine sofa

Milan 2012

He explains that most of his work today is “totally away from the mass market” – engaging with individual clients and their architects on commissions to do “unique original works” customized to their unique space planning needs. “I do not like looking at other people’s designs, I don’t want to be influenced.”

Pam: What was it like, working and designing as part of the post-World-War-II design boom?

Vladi: I was incredibly young in those days and had very good breaks, good opportunities that opened up doors. My father was a cabinet maker, so I could be way ahead of anybody else – I had this laboratory – I could make a sketch one day, take it into the workshop, and have quick turnaround [on seeing a design as a finished piece of furniture]. Other designers had to wait six months. It was still exciting for me through the late 80s, when I closed my company. I thought I was retiring, Instead, I was elected president of the New York chapter of the ASID (American society of Interior Designers) then I went to High Point, where a whole new set of rules applied; price and market driven. Today, Most of my design work is reactive to a specific functional need. That’s perhaps why my classic designs are surviving today with the same buoyancy – because they meet the same basic needs.

***

Wow.  Thank you, Vladimir Kagan, for taking the time to talk with us here and for letting me grab lots of photos from your company website and from your blog, which I love. Thanks also to LuxProductions for permission to use several photos. Another admission: I did this interview well before the recent holidays. But I was kind of paralyzed at getting it published. I wanted to make sure lots of folks saw it, and traffic in the fourth quarter slows on the blog. I also wanted to make sure I got it all right! It is so wonderful to have a designer of Mr. Kagan’s calibre on the blog.

Vladimir Kagan is presently in Europe, where he is introducing more classic designs in Paris at Maison & Objet, the premier European showcase for interior designers and architects.


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Do you want to learn more about Vladimir Kagan?

Vladimir Kagan is one of our most enduring designers of modern furniture with a career that has spanned over sixty years. He started designing in 1946 and by the early fifties, his innovative sculptured designs created a new look in American furniture. Today, his sparkling creations are on the cutting edge of the 21st century. His designs are spearheading creative designs for hotels, furniture, textiles and home furnishings. The New York Times says: “Vladimir Kagan is one of the most important furniture designers of the 20th century. Furniture designed by him in the forties, fifties and sixties have become icons of Modernity and an obligatory reference to every designer. He is the creative grandfather of a whole new generation of designers.”

Born in Worms on the Rhine, Germany in 1927, Vladimir Kagan came to the United States in 1938. His earliest focus was on painting and sculpture but in his formative years he became exceedingly attracted to architecture and design. He studied Architecture at Columbia University and in 1947 joined his father, Illi Kagan, a master cabinetmaker, to work in his woodworking shop and learn furniture making from the ground up.

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Comments

  1. linda h says

    Wow!
    I am very impressed! I have also been looking at a lot of Erica Wilson crewel kits on eBay lately. I think the people at Atomic Ranch magazine should read your blog today.

  2. Jay says

    What a surprise for a Monday Morning! What a coup for the RR site. I have no doubt that your praise for his wife endeared you to him. I have a set of glass top tables on walnut legs I thought might have been Kagan but have since learned through a picture in AR magazine that they are Pearsall. I did not realize he had a blog. Thanks for this Monday morning treat!

  3. Michael says

    Wow! Kudos on scoring such a great interview, Pam!

    I have a vintage Kagan coffee table in my living room– it’s the showpiece of the space. I’d love to get some chairs for the dining room. I wonder if the reissue pieces will be available through any Canadian retailers.

    One of your best features ever!

  4. Cher says

    Great story Pam. It is always wonderful to have the story behind what inspired the cool and streamline vintage furniture we all love to collect. So glad he is going to bring back some of those wonderful designs. Interesting that he studied the anatomy of the body and brought that into his designs, Most of the designs are not only great to look at but comfortable to sit in too! Thanks again for sharing this great story.

  5. John Steinmeyer says

    Classic design, and classic designers, always endure. Thanks Pam, and Mr. Kagan, for this insightful article.

  6. tammyCA says

    Cool that you got an interview. There are probably very few original MC designers still living.
    Ha, the staple gun! I took an upholstery class and that pneumatic staple gun was the scariest thing, but necessary. There was one gal who was using tacks but that was because she was using delicate silk and the staples would’ve been to harsh…that was one frustrating class for many of us.

    p.s. I think Vladi meant “yin and yang” as the other means something not nice:
    http://fly.cc.fer.hr/~shlede/ying/yang.html

  7. Alice says

    Pam – what a treasured interview! How fabulous of Mr. Kagan to be so generous of his thoughts, time and inspirations and lucky us that you spend so much time bringing quality to this blog. Mr. Kagan AND YOU are jewels!

    • Gerry says

      Great interview! I am going to pour over his blog now! I knew of his name but not much else. I’m old (63) and did my share of Erica Wilson stitchery in the “old” days but I don’t remember ever seeing his furniture.
      Beautiful lines. Thanks so much Pam.

  8. Annie B. says

    Just plain WOW. I’m so happy that you had the incredible opportunity to interview such a design icon. Great interview, too, Pam. Thank you so much.

  9. Janice says

    Thanks for the lesson Pam. I’ve heard of Kagan furniture but to me it was just another designer of mid century modern furniture. Now I feel like I know him a little better and if I’m ever lucky enough to come across a Kagan piece, I’ll appreciate it just a little bit more.

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