Vladimir Kagan

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In honor of one of the most enjoyable designers we have had the pleasure of interviewing, we’re re-running our HOUSE piece on the furniture designer, Vladimir Kagan who passed away in Palm Beach last Thursday at the age of 88. When we met him, he was vital, funny and honest. Despite having to walk with two canes, he hadn’t slowed. He still had a sheaf of drawings of his latest designs to show us. Indeed on the day he died, he was in Palm Beach to attend a cocktail party given by his dealer to celebrate the newly-designed “Gabriella” chair.

You’ve seen Vladimir Kagan’s furniture even if you didn’t know that he designed it because it’s been knocked off by just about everyone. “I’m not flattered,” he says. He was such good company! Perhaps one of the most significant furniture designers of our time, he is best known for his sinuous sculpting of wood, his sectional furniture—the first sectional furniture—as well as the wonderful curved and much-copied “Serpentine” sofa. His furniture is the very best of mid-century modern, but he’s not following the trend. He created it.

Click to order Vladimir Kagan: A Lifetime of Avant-Garde Design.

As an 11-year-old boy, he came to the US from Germany together with his family who were escaping Nazi power. He went on to study sculpture and began working with his father, a Russian cabinetmaker before setting out to become a designer in his own right. As with most successful careers, he suffered plenty of setbacks and in the ornate 1980s, his sleek furniture fell out of favor … it’s not out of favor now. As it became clear that his furniture was beautifully suited to the uncluttered modern aesthetic, he was championed by architects and designers including, Zaha Hadidand Tom Ford, both of whom have contributed to his new book, Vladimir Kagan: A Lifetime of Avant-Garde Design (Pointed Leaf Press).

We very much enjoyed reading your book …

The new one? The one with the red cover. Oh, you’ve done your diligence!

Oh yes, we thought it was really interesting. We loved the part about your childhood.

That’s what my publisher liked. I kind of cringe at it really … what I love about the book, frankly, is that it has a lot of sketches. That’s my forte: drawing. I visualize very well. I talk through a pencil … I also do cartoons and I’ve done about 250 blogs. I love my blogs. I wanted to do a book of blogs but [my publisher] said, “I’m not sure we could sell that … but I’ll give you a chapter.”

The front entrance hall of Vladimir Kagan’s rambling, upper Park Avenue apartment is filled with a mix of antiques and art, some inherited, some collected over the years.
A collection of canes and umbrellas stands next to a heavily carved chest displaying ceramic busts that are the early work of Vladmir’s son, Illya Kagan.
The unusual ceramic candelabra was brought back from a trip to Mexico.
An assortment of oil paintings surrounds the double doors leading to the dining room.

A view into the hallway leading to the library and bedroom from the main entrance hall.
A geometric-patterned wallpaper is a bold background for group of etchings in the bedroom hallway.

So when you discovered blogging did you know straight away that this was something you wanted to do?

I never used to write at all. Never wrote a letter. But when I started losing my ability to do athletic things—I was distance runner and I was a skier—and then [blogging] just sort of happened. I even hate the word ‘blog’. Over the weekend I went to the Whitney and that’s my next blog.

What did you think of it?

I think, for the first time, I’ve seen a museum architecture where the architect isn’t building a monument to himself. I call it a “warehouse for art.” It’s great until you get to the fourth floor and then it’s full of crap—you know the installation stuff, the sex-driven mania, the [Theaster] Gates thing …

In the library: Vladimir’s convertible sofa from the mid-1950s and a glass-mosaic coffee table. The needlepoint pillows were made by Vladimir’s wife, the late Erica Wilson. The library steps from the 1970s were a popular Kagan design.
A cast-aluminum and leather footstool was inspired by bridge design.
A curio cabinet, which belonged to Vladimir’s father, Illi Kagan, is filled with miniatures from Erica’s life in Scotland, England and Bermuda, as well as pieces from Vladimir’s childhood.

Small sculptures by Illi Kagan are arranged atop a library cabinet. The shelf above the cabinets is lined with awards given to Vladimir over the years for outstanding and innovative furniture design.

Which artists are you drawn to?

Well, I like recognizable art. I like Franz Hausman; I love Frank Stella.

I liked one part of your book where you say that after your work had been re-discovered, in the ’90s, I guess, there was someone who wrote a piece entitled something like “Vladimir Kagan is still alive.”

Yes, the sub-headline was “He never went away.” I kept doing what I did. I’ll give you a little background. In the beginning I was very much influenced by architecture and construction. My father was a Bauhaus devotee. He was a cabinetmaker and he liked straight lines. Around the mid-late ’40s [my work] started to become a little bit more liquid. I used to love to draw trees. I’m really in love with trees. If I have any given love affair, I’m a tree hugger. The tree is so beautifully engineered to withstand any weather.

And so these organic shapes began to appear in your work later on the ’50s?

Yes all the stuff in here is from the ’50s. There was the realization that a chair is really a vessel to the hold the body so I started ergonomic[s] way before it ever became a buzzword. But I can barely sit in my own furniture because it’s always too low. Also, in the last century we’ve all grown six inches taller.

Looking into the green living room.
Vladimir’s colorful hanging fixture assembled out of three double-cone shaped elements hangs over his “Tri-symmetric” travertine-and-walnut table.

The late 1960s “Omnibus,” a multi-leveled sectional seating system, anchors the living room. The oversized graphic multiple is by Frank Stella.

I think we were expecting a very “designed minimalism” in your home but …

It takes 45 years to develop truly … now … what’s the term? Shabby gentility. It takes a long time to get to that point. [calls to Jeff] Be sure to get pictures of the wallpaper coming off in my library! Nothing has changed in 45 years although I changed the walls 25 years ago. We were collecting all this Haitian art and a friend of mine who did walls [came here] … and so we said like this funny and sexy and funky. This is not at all what “Kagan” stands for. So I’m of the school, “Do as I say, not do as I do.” I’m a minimalist in theory but really I’m a “more is more” person.

Well, perhaps the best way to be a minimalist is to be one only in theory!

But I’m tidy—see the German in me very tidy—I’m half German, half Russian, and I guess the Russian is helter-skelter.

Another view of the living room.
A harpsichord stands behind a leather covered, multi-position reclining chair designed in the 1950s.
Paintings bought back from Haiti in the 1970s and African sculpture share space with mid-century furniture and lighting.

One of several floor lamps illuminates the sprawling living room space.

But it’s a home, not a statement. And anyway, to produce minimalist design doesn’t take a minimalist mind—it takes a maximalist mind.

That’s right! Thank you! I like that. Use that as a quote! I like it.

It must give you some satisfaction to know that Marilyn Monroe slept in a bed that you designed.

Nah … that’s more bullshit than it’s satisfaction.

But Tom Ford is a very big proponent of your furniture.

Yes, he became a friend … and whatshername … Zaha Hadid wrote a magnificent introduction.

The late Erica Wilson’s vivid embroidery covers a rocking chair designed in the mid-1950s.
A collection of painted creatures from Oaxaca, Mexico fills the living room fireplace mantel.
A couple of canaries occupy the 10-foot-tall birdcage.

So all of the stuff in this room is a blend of your own taste and your wife’s taste—what was your wife like? [Erica Wilson, Vladimir’s late wife, was sometimes called the “Julia Child” of needlework for her role in bringing about a resurgence of interest in the craft]

Erica? She was a pistol. She was tall and beautiful and blonde and lots of fun. She was very British and she had absolutely no sense of business. And I followed very close behind without very much sense of business. She had immense talent and she had a huge following. Through her television shows she became a popular figure and her book Crewel Embroidery sold a million copies.

You talked about your father having a strong aesthetic sense—how much were you influenced by him?

My father never tried to direct me. That’s why I was able to develop a totally different vocabulary in design from what he was doing. He ran my factory for 40 years until he retired. He was the man I relied on to work with the craftsman and it was a blessing. It fortified my work because I had someone so capable.

Looking into the bedroom hallway. A carved wooden bust by Illi Kagan fill a corner of the front entrance hall.
A mahogany grandfather clock stands in between the doorway to the kitchen and bedroom hallway.
Vladimir’s daughter, Vanessa, her husband Matthew Diserio, and three children moved back into the family apartment a few years ago. In contrast to the main living spaces, Vanessa refreshed the walls of her living quarters in a simple white paint.
The Diserio family room is furnished with the “Serpentine” sofa and a glass-top coffee table that Vladimir designed to match the contours of the sofa.
Vanessa and Matthew’s bedroom. A “Barrel” chair and love seat face out to stunning East River views.

What is hard about accomplishing a design with which you are satisfied?

I tell you, I’m working on something now … I’ve graduated from making furniture to making art furniture. It’s going to be cast in bronze and it will be no longer furniture.

I have the difficulty of making my sculptural pieces into more sculptural forms, pure sculpture. I’ve been working on a chair for Ralph Pucci now that has taken me almost a year. Every time I come back to it, I want to modify it.

It seems to me that the trouble with your furniture design is that people just don’t realize that this was all so new—that you are the originator of modular furniture—they’ve become so used to seeing these designs.

Oh, I’ve been so knocked off!

Yeah, you’re the granddaddy of knock-offs!

And you know something? I’m not flattered. I hate it.

A bold geometric patterned paper is a stark contrast to Vanessa’s all-white section of the family apartment.
Family photos from several generations, including a portrait of Illi Kagan, line the walls of the bedroom hallway.

Vanessa holds the family’s newest addition, Max.
Toby, the senior member of the house gives Jeff a resigned look.

You’re supposed to say, “I’m flattered.”

Yes, that is the standard response. I also hate it when people buy my things at auction and I don’t make a penny out of it. 1stDibs is not my best friend. They’re eating the bread off my table.

Talking of which, do you still like creamed herring … you see we have read your book!

Yes, you’ve done a wonderful job. This interview is totally superfluous. I do love creamed herring. I go to Fairway and I love German herring salad. What goes best with herring? Vodka!

Vladimir’s bedroom, like much of the apartment, reflects his and his late wife, Erica Wilson’s eclectic taste. The focus of the room is a pink-velvet covered “Erica Chaise,” named after his beloved wife, Erica.

That’s a very northern European meal.

I love that. I don’t like vegetables. They’re a sort of punishment. I really don’t like gussied-up food.

I like something you said: “No amount of careful planning can replace dumb luck.”

That really is true. That’s the story of my life. I’ve been very lucky. I mean I have had tragedy—my factory burned down. I had a perfect opportunity to say, “If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t.” When the shit hits the fan, as it does from time to time, I said it was it was time to quit. I was being embezzled … there was a really bad recession and all of my showrooms were going bankrupt … everything was going wrong. I’ve gone through that drama several times and each time I crawl back.

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