The Final Bow of Vladimir Kagan

A titan of American design left us earlier this year, leaving behind a trail of daring pieces and warmed hearts. Here, Suzanne Slesin recounts his life and the just-released body of work that was among his last.

Courtesy of the archive of Vladimir Kagan Design Group
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Some losses in the design world are felt more deeply than others. Vladimir Kagan, who passed away in April, was one of the 20th century’s preeminent furniture designers. Based in New York his entire working life, Kagan helped define the postwar aesthetic of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, introducing curvaceous, space-age lines and pairing that look with a handcrafted authenticity that is respected to this day. Chances are, if you’ve never knowingly sat on one of his pieces, you’ve probably seen, or even purchased, something directly inspired by him.

But his loss wasn’t shattering only because of his accomplishments. His legendary warmth and openness touched generations of designers, architects, journalists (including me, who had known him since the ’80s), and others in the American design community. After a dip in popularity in the first half of the ’80s, his work experienced a resurgence. To many young talents and other industry compatriots, Kagan became known as a generous mentor (and charming flirt) who would regale you with stories about how things used to be, when design was just called “the furniture business.” Even in his 80s, Kagan was an indefatigable traveler, known for dropping into major international exhibitions, most of which showed his current work. Afterward, he’d enthusiastically blog about everything he saw, sometimes including his own doodles, which were akin to New Yorker cartoons.

His latest and possibly last body of work, unveiled in September at a show called “Annecy” (after his granddaughter) at the hot-to-trot Carpenters Workshop Gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York, once again engages in the graceful balancing act between functionality and sculpture.

Kagan, born in 1927 in Worms, Germany, would have turned 89 this year. Given his humble beginnings, his adult life was a miraculous success. In 1938 he escaped from the Nazis with his parents and his sister, settling in New York. He started working at his father’s cabinet shop, on East 44th Street and First Avenue, in 1946, after graduating high school.

Influenced by the rectilinear forms of the Bauhaus and by the folk-art pieces his maternal grandfather had sold in his shop in Munich, Kagan initiated the table, seating, and lighting designs that would occupy him for the rest of his life. Through the years, there were special commissions that hinted at Kagan’s hands-on approach and his excitement for designing for celebrities, as well as his later work for starchitects and interior designers: a bedroom set for Marilyn Monroe in 1951; Chemstrand’s Room for Total Living for Monsanto Chemicals in 1963; seating for Gucci boutiques in the ’90s; a large grouping of sofas for the Standard Hotel Downtown in Los Angeles in 2002; and his recent plexiglass chairs for gallerist Ralph Pucci.

The 6990 Cantilevered Glass Top desk, 1969. For more of Kagan's work, see our slideshow »

These days, those now-vintage pieces fetch five figures at auction. Whenever one sold, Kagan would say to anyone brandishing a catalog of his pieces, “Can you believe those prices? I could never afford to have them back!” Most were neither numbered nor in special editions, as is de rigueur today. The occasional dining and executive-boardroom tables, upholstered seating, cabinets, and standing lamps were the bread and butter of the company he founded in New York in 1948, with the more experimental pieces coming in the ’70s and ’80s.

Unsurprisingly, Julien Lombrail, a cofounder of Carpenters Workshop Gallery—which specializes in forward-thinking contemporary design and also has locations in London and Paris—had long wanted Kagan to be part of his stable of talent. His roster, known well to the industry, includes Wendell Castle, Rick Owens, and Maarten Baas. Lombrail and Kagan first met in Miami in 2013, and then reconnected in Paris the following year. Lombrail quickly introduced Kagan to the Carpenters Workshop’s actual workshop, in nearby Roissy. “Vladimir was very moved,” Lombrail, 38, recalls. “I told him it was my dream since I was very young to have every skill necessary to do an artist’s project under one roof.” Handicraft had been a leitmotif of Kagan’s designs through the decades, encompassing his father’s sculpted table bases, his own early coffee tables inlaid with artist-made tiles, and, of course, the sensuous forms of his soon-to-become-iconic Serpentine sofa. Kagan’s mastery of materials was always evident in the way he molded them into miniature prototypes. In the past decade, his ambitious, one-off commissions gave his work a grandeur that set them apart from his earlier designs.

Lombrail’s directive to Kagan, “Do the project you always wanted to do but couldn’t because of various boundaries,” sealed the deal. Kagan drew more than 100 sketches. “The creative sessions made me feel like I was family in two seconds,” Lombrail says.

It was simply Kagan’s way. And his bond with his wife, Erica Wilson, who pursued her own career as an expert in needlepoint and was the author of countless books, played a crucial part in his work. She was her husband’s adviser and all-around champion. They shared everything from sailing to skiing, and a life filled with the activities and the careers of their three children: Jessica, a jewelry designer; Vanessa, who runs her late mother’s needlework shop in Nantucket, Massachusetts; and Illya, an artist.

No wonder Lombrail’s offer of working in a way that went back to his early days thrilled Kagan. But translating the old-school sketches into three-dimensional computer molds and bringing them up to real scale didn’t work out. “It was just too much computer,” Lombrail explains. So he chose a different tack: “I had Vladimir do the prototypes by hand and sculpt the shapes out of foam by hand. Maybe that was completely backward, but that was his genius.” The result of the Carpenters Workshop collaboration is six pieces that Lombrail describes as “absolute masterpieces”: a sofa with a table and, in prototype, a console, a bronze-and-wood desk, a floor lamp, and a table lamp.

Lombrail, who opened the New York location last November, notes Kagan’s creative endurance. “If successful young designers tend to copy themselves, here it’s different,” he says. “You can tell it’s all Vladimir but completely new and timeless.” While four of the new pieces will be produced in editions of eight, with four artist’s proofs, the sofa and table, considered the masterworks of the collection, will be made in an edition of 88: “Two of the symbols of infinity, and reflecting Vladimir’s age,” notes Lombrail. “We are so proud that we were able to work with him.”

“Annecy” is on view through October 29 at Carpenters Workshop Gallery, 693 Fifth Ave., New York; 267-337-2354; Vladimir Kagan: A Lifetime of Avant-Garde Design (from Slesin’s Pointed Leaf Press) is available now;

For more of Kagan's work, see our slideshow »