Vladimir Kagan (1927-2016)
With a design language poised between the architectural and the sculptural, Vladimir Kagan was a mid-century furniture designer whose creations are prized for their comfort and utility as much as for their aesthetic quality.
Vladimir Kagan was born in Worms on the Rhine, Germany in 1927 to a Jewish family. Facing the rising tide of Nazism, Kagan immigrated to France with his mother and sister in 1937. The family ultimately joined Illi Kagan, Vladimir’s father, in the United States in 1938. Kagan took architecture courses at Columbia University, but did not graduate. Rather, in 1947 he went to work for his father, a master cabinetmaker, and began his formal training in furniture design.
In 1947, Kagan took on his first major commission, the Delegate’s Cocktail Lounges for the United Nations Headquarter in Lake Success, New York. By 1948, he had opened his first independent shop, located in New York City. He partnered with Hugo Dreyfuss in 1950, forming Kagan-Dreyfuss. His clients included the great personalities of the art, theater and music worlds, including Marilyn Monroe and Gary Cooper.
Kagan believed that modernism need not equate with austerity. His work fused the elegant simplicity of Danish Modern masters Finn Juhl and Hans Wegner with the organic shapes of Isamu Noguchi; his goal was to provide furniture that was suitable for everyday living and the needs of the human body. His best work, like the 1947 Barrel Chair, the 1949 Serpentine Sofa or the 1952 Floating Sofa, are characterized by exaggerated serpentine curves and seductive swivel shapes which infuse each piece with a sensual, animate quality.
By the 1980s Kagan’s style had gone out of vogue. He retired, but the respite was brief. In the mid-90’s couturier Tom Ford, director of Gucci from 1994-2004, stipulated that a Kagan Omnibus Sofa be placed in all Gucci stores. André Balazs installed Kagan furniture in his Standard Hotels. In 1999, Kagan licensed his designs to domestic and international manufacturers. He debuted one of his final designs at his dealer’s showroom the night before he died in April 2016.
Kagan’s work earned him numerous awards including Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Brooklyn Museum, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and the American Society of Furniture Designers. He was also inducted into the Interior Design Hall of Fame in 2009. His designs can be found in numerous important museum collections, both in the United States and abroad. These collections include the Cooper Hewitt, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Vitra Design Museum, and Die Neue Samlung.
The market for Kagan’s designs remains very strong and notable collectors today include Brad Pitt, Demi Moore, Uma Thurman, and Tom Cruise. At auction, Kagan’s work continues to demand consistently high prices and regularly sells at or above auction estimates.