Designer Vladimir Kagan died yesterday at age 88 in Palm Beach, Florida, leaving behind a legacy of iconic work in addition to memories of his warm personality and passion for design. The legendary designer and furniture maker was married to the late embroidery designer Erica Wilson, with whom he had three children.
Kagan was the son of a Russian cabinetmaker who left Germany at the start of World War II. Kagan began his career at his father's New York workshop, and went on to earn a degree in architecture at Columbia University before returning to his father's practice. “I was not well suited to being a good cabinetmaker. I was too impatient, impulsive. My father always said to me, ‘Vladi, measure three times and cut once.’ And I would cut three times without bothering to measure... But I was damn good at conceptual ideas," Kagan told the Financial Times in 2013.
Early work included commissioned cocktail furniture for a temporary United Nations headquarters, and early clients included Marilyn Monroe and Gary Cooper. (More recently, Kagan's work has appeared in the homes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.) Kagan opened his own store on the Upper East Side in 1948, creating modern furniture; two years later, he partnered with artist-designer Hugo Dreyfuss to create the firm Kagan-Dreyfuss Inc. Though he formally retired in 1988, as Wallpaper reports, in 1998, certain of his designs were relaunched at ICFF, leading to a career rebirth that hasn't let up since.
"Vladimir Kagan, ‘Vladi,’ was a pioneer of modern design and the contemporary decorative arts," Ashlee Harrison, director of Carpenters Workshop Gallery tells EAL. "He was a dear friend, mentor and muse to me. He taught me not to be afraid of living. I will treasure forever our conversations from design to boyfriends, to making the perfect dry martini. He always made me laugh, and he taught me to never settle for less. I will miss him terribly."
Sketch of Kagan's Clarissa Sofa
Designer Amy Lau worked with Kagan. She recalls, "Vladi was so expressive and so passionate about such a wide range of things. One of his great inspirations was nature and the outdoors, studying trees and the way things grow. He 'liked the limb of a tree as sculpture, the anatomy of a leaf.' When you look at his work, you can really see nature’s influence: sturdy at the heart like a trunk, with slender offshoots akin to branches. Vladi also loved ship modeling, and enjoyed carving hulls of ships. He was such an incredible artist. I would sit down with him in Nantucket and we'd talk and he'd just draw, and draw, and draw. He was so funny with his caricatures. We had great fun riding around Nantucket in his Model T, looking at architecture."
Kagan's work was just last night exhibited at Ralph Pucci International in Miami. Kagan's friend and collaborator Ralph Pucci tells EAL, "Vladimir lived a life we all dreamed of. It was filled with family, friends, success, accolades and excitement. We presented his newest masterpiece, the Gabriella Bronze chair, last night. To thinkthat he was still creating fresh and new work at the age of 88 is an incredible testament to his talent and love of design. He had a storybook ending." Jim Druckman of the NYDC concurs: "He was a genius, but that never seemed to affect his warmth or friendliness. He was really one of the 'good guys.'"
"How did Vladi inspire my work?" asks Lau. "He was unbridled, his work was so out of the box. He didn't care what anyone else thought, he just did the work he loved. Vladi took furniture away from the walls and made it less rigid, floating organically shaped sofas in the middle of a room so 'we don’t all have to sit like birds on a telephone wire facing in one direction.' He called placing pieces in a space 'interior landscaping.' Vladi was never static, always embracing new technology. Each 10 years of his work is so different. He went from carved wood, to metal, to Lucite to recently using cast bronze and a 3-D printer. Basically taking all of the best elements from different periods and artistically reimagining pieces in the most amazing way."
Kagan, who kept up an insightful and witty blog, is now being remembered by the online design community: Designer-writer Yvette Craddoc, for one, tweeted, "Mr. #VladimirKagan, we will miss your vivacious energy, exquisite #furniture, #design aesthetic + beautiful soul." Kagan's work is also memorialized in the recently released book Vladimir Kagan: A Lifetime of Avant-Garde Design, a monograph by Pointed Leaf Press, which also includes reflections from friends Tom Ford and the late Zaha Hadid.