“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
I 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 –>
I 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
Vladi: No. The one difference is: a staple gun. Back then, furniture makers had a mouthful of tacks and a magnet hammer.
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.
Kagan 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.
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.
Do you want to learn more about Vladimir Kagan?
- Vladimar Kagan has written a biography — Complete Kagan: Vladimir Kagan–A Lifetime of Avant-Garde Design (*affiliate link). I ordered it — it is entrancing — review to come.
- Biography, from his company website:
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.