Vladimir Kagan's pioneering furniture designs, coveted by Tom Ford and David Lynch, are the talk of the town – again.
Vladimir Kagan's pioneering designs of past decades are reaching record prices – and leading to new commissions for the furniture maestro.
Skilled at drawing since adolescence, Vladimir Kagan (b.1927) studied sculpture and architecture before taking up his father's trade as a cabinetmaker in the early 1940s. Training with expert craftsmen at his family's New York City furniture factory, Kagan's imagination broke free. His fascination with what he describes as "nature's engineering" – such as the gentle curve of a woman's back or the elegant arch of a tree branch – inspired the sinuous lines and ergonomic shapes that are the cornerstone of his groundbreaking aesthetic.
His sensual free-form furniture became the talk of the town after he designed the cocktail lounge seating for the first United Nations headquarters in Lake Success, New York, in 1947. Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Gary Cooper were amongst his early A-list fans. Today, 21st-century tastemakers such as fashion designer Tom Ford, filmmaker David Lynch and gallery owner Barbara Gladstone covet his elegant, timeless designs. Earlier this year Kagan's Serpentine Sofa (1952) was sold for a record $192,000 at Christie's. At almost 80, Kagan's imagination hasn't slowed one beat. He continues to create customized, handcrafted furniture for his exclusive clientele, while launching mid-range collections for manufacturers in Spain, Italy and France. The architect-turned-designer's current commission is his ultimate dream come true. He's just set to work on a ten-story apartment complex design in NYC's SoHo that is meant to resemble, quite appropriately, a 'flower amongst the weeds'.
What is your definition of luxury?
Sensuous perfection that is in the psyche of the beholder.
If luxury were an object, what would it be?
An eiderdown blanket; a smashing classic car, like an Aston Martin; a sailboat with ample accommodation and automated function as I am too old to pull on all of the ropes.
If luxury were a person, who would it be?
A sybarite; Tom Ford; the metrosexuals of today.
If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
When we can have total peace on earth... a good night's uninterrupted sleep!
If luxury were a place, where would it be?
An Aman hotel in the Tropics.
Where did your fascination for what you describe as "nature's engineering" come from and how has it evolved over time?
My earliest ambition was to be a sculptor, so I started to look at nature, especially trees which were my favorite things. I studied human, animal and natural shapes. But I didn't become a sculptor, I became a furniture maker, and I adapted the philosophy of human anatomy and natural architecture into my designs. To me a chair is a vessel in which a human body reposes and all designs are focused on that relationship.
What inspires you to add strong architectural and linear features as well?
It's the Ying and Yang in me. I always believe that opposites attract. On one side I like natural shapes and on the other I am trained as an architect and I love construction and engineering. I need the curves in the cubes.
How do you realize your designs?
When I design a piece of furniture I begin by drawing. It is a very important part of my creativity to be able to visualize what the end product will look like. I make miniature models of my designs so that I can study how they will appear from all directions. When I design a chair I always look over the back, because, just like a woman's body, the back view is as exclusive as the front. That is the secret to my success – the designs are three dimensional, sculpted, and look as good from the front as they do from the back, all that's missing are the bosoms!
How did your early collectors influence your design philosophy?
In the Fifties my clients were largely people who collected modern paintings by artists such as Hans Hoffman and Jackson Pollack. They had these huge wall-to-wall paintings and no room for furniture. So I had to create walls for the artwork and move the furniture into the inner space so that you could look at the artwork. It created a whole new philosophy of design. I consider it to be 20th century living as opposed to 19th century living, when, in contrast, paintings were confined to small frames. My clients have always stimulated my creativity because I had to come up with interesting solutions to interesting problems. They accepted my creativity as part of the artistic environment in which they wanted to live.
Do your current clients often request that you repeat models from your past work?
Many of my pieces from the Fifties have become iconic. You know that one of my sofas sold at Christie's for $192,000? It was the highest price ever paid for a contemporary piece of furniture at auction. It's a marvelous piece. Fortunately, I hung onto snippets of the fabric and I am working with a weaver to reproduce the pattern. We will then do a 50-piece limited edition series of the sofa exactly how it was done with the original fabric. So, to answer your question: everybody wants the same thing – the work that I did in the Fifties – but what I enjoy is when I can break away and do something different.
Your designs have been lauded by leading figures in fashion, such as Tom Ford. Is he behind the current revival of your work?
Tom Ford was introduced to me through his architect, William Sofield. Bill brought Tom to my apartment and he fell in love with my Omnibus sofa and said he wanted it for his house in Santa Fe. So that was the first time that Tom and I worked together. When he began thinking about remodeling the Gucci stores he thought of the same sofa, and we developed a range of Omnibus sofa variations for the stores. Now we have them in 360 Gucci stores around the world. That was a very good boost. Magazines started doing stories about how Kagan was alive and well. I think that's what got the ball running.
Why did you begin producing commercial designs?
Almost 20 years ago, in 1987 I closed my factory and showroom and I planned to retire, but in the Nineties there was such a great demand for my furniture and then the manufacturers came to me. Now I wear two hats: designing very exclusive custom furniture as well as commercial furniture for manufacturers. It's a different orientation but I approach the work as if I were a fashion designer doing both couture and ready to wear. It allows more people to have access to my designs, while I continue doing magnificent, exclusive projects such as the apartment I am designing for Barbara Gladstone in the Richard Meier building on Hudson River as well as customized furniture to fit an oval-shaped living room in a NYC apartment.
You studied architecture and many of your designs have a distinct architectural sensibility. In your fantasies, what would a Kagan building look like?
Funny you should ask! One of the most wonderful things recently happened. A client who fell in love with my furniture asked if I'd be interested in designing a 10-story building in SoHo in New York. I've always wanted to design a building and this is a wonderful opportunity. It is meant to resemble a 'flower among the weeds.' While I can't fully describe what will emerge out of it, I can say it will embrace amorphous designs, green technology, and will be a fun and new approach to city living.
Are there any new technologies that interest you creatively?
I'm still working with what I consider 19th-century technologies. I have not had the opportunity to work with the new materials that some designers are getting involved in now. I don't have Kartell as a client. I would love to do something in plastic or in fiberglass because my shapes would lend themselves exquisitely to these new materials.
There are more and more art institutions acquiring furniture designs and mounting retrospective design exhibitions. Does design equal art in your opinion?
It is another art form that is now being amalgamated into a visual appreciation. The scope of "what is art" has been so broadened that design can easily fit into this niche.
Which of your designs are you the most personally attached to?
I feel that my best design from my sculptural period in the Fifties and Sixties was my Contour Sculpted Rocking Chair because it expressed all of the 'less is more' simplicity. It's tactile, you can touch it, and can visually embrace it. There are many others that I love, but the rocking chair represents me best; however, having said that, I most love the designs that come out of my head today because they are for the future.
Who are some of your design icons?
Hans Wegner and Arne Jacobsen, for their tremendous aesthetic in simplifying complex ideas; Gaudi for his bold departure from 19th-century convention and for creating a path for me to follow in organic forms; Luis Barragan, a Mexican architect, for his elegant stylized architectural synthesis and use of bold colors.