VLADIMIR KAGAN: MADE IN THE USA

“I am evolutionary, not revolutionary. I’ve always designed to fill a void in the lifestyle of the modern home.” ~ Vladimir Kagan

It can be said that designer Vladimir Kagan’s work eludes categorization due to its amoebic form, and eschews interpretation by its mere simplicity. His lines parallel the legato of a Paul Desmond saxophone solo, but can also embody the expression of a Baroque concerto. With an oeuvre spanning over sixty-five years, Kagan’s work, one can argue, is much closer to the art furniture of Wendell Castle than something from the Herman Miller or Knoll collection - but that is the great appeal of a Vladimir Kagan piece. Much more sensual than any modern form that preceded it, Kagan's singular design language was born out of a love of painting and sculpture. This affinity for fine art, an edacious work ethic, and master craftsman skills propelled Kagan into the stratosphere of modern design.   

His career trajectory began in the late 1940's; first while working in his father's furniture shop in New York, and then later opening his own shop on 57th Street. One commission lead to the next, and soon Kagan was designing furniture and interiors for the political, cultural, and business elite. His success continued through the decades, inventing new forms and applying new materials to his furniture designs, ambitiously writing his place in the Pantheon of contemporary furniture design.

And now, in his mid-80's, there is no sign of him slowing down. He carefully manages his family and work life, dividing his active schedule primarily between his apartment in Manhattan, his new 24,000 square foot factory and archival showroom in New Jersey, and his home on Nantucket. On top of being Vladimir Kagan the designer, Vladi, as he is affectionately known, is a loving father and grandfather, active blogger, world traveler, and so much more. He was kind enough to sit down with Haute Living to have a candid conversation about his life, his work, his writing, and the future of Vladimir Kagan Design.       

HL: Your father was a master cabinetmaker with his own shop, first in Europe and then in the U.S. The influence your father had on you as a designer is an intriguing part of your life story. Tell us about that relationship.

VK: We had a very artistic family. My father was a furniture maker, but he was also a serious art collector. Before World War II, he had two art galleries, collecting the art of Viennese and German Expressionists. Many of the major artists of the day were drifting in and out of our home, and so I was always surrounded by very creative people. The core of my creativity, however, stemmed from my father who was a major influence in my life’s work. He encouraged me in my development, and felt it was vital to learn how to draw properly. He also taught me the ingredients of furniture making. We had different handwriting, so-to-speak, but he was okay with that. I went on to study architecture, and this experience taught me to have an appreciation for structure, and to be disciplined in my craft. However, the yin yang of my life, the other side of me, wanted to be an artist, a painter, and a sculptor – and so I would do a lot of life study sketches and drawings from nature. I remember being really interested in anatomy class where I learned a lot about the way the body functions. All of this I think interplayed with how my designs evolved.


Photo by Todd Selby

HL: You were surrounded by artists in your childhood, and you lived with one for over five decades. Your late wife, Erica Wilson, was a textile artist and a very talented designer in her own right. Are Erica’s designs going to be something Vladimir Kagan Design will reproduce in the future?

VK: That would be a nice tribute to her. We actually have two brilliant archival students cataloging her designs with the hopes of it all going to a museum so that people could see her truly wonderful creations some day. Her shop on Nantucket, Erica Wilson, which my daughter Vanessa runs, has a number of Erica’s designs there.

HL: You spend a great deal of time on Nantucket. What is your history with the island, and do you work while you are there? 

VK: I’ve always had a love affair with Nantucket. I took Erica there while we were dating, and then I asked her to marry me on that island. We both fell in love with it and about a year after our first child was born, Erica was asked to teach a needlework class there during the summer, and so we said, “Why not?” We accepted a rental house sight unseen and ended up loving it. We rented it for years and made several offers on it, but the owner wasn’t interested selling. After about 10 years she said, “You guys love it so much, I’ll sell it to you.” It’s the house we’ve lived in ever since! And even though I’ve lived in the same New York City apartment for over 45 years, I feel the house on Nantucket really is more “home” than any other place.

HL: What is your Nantucket home like?

VK: Even though I design modern furniture, the home is more or less an antique, and I keep it that way – I just love it! I have one piece of my furniture there, and some outdoor furniture that I designed, but that is all. I don’t feel the need to live with my furniture. I do my creative work there, and I have a wonderful studio where I can be imaginative and inventive. My drawing table, my computer, and a great Kagan chair, that is all I need!

HL: There are very few modern furniture designers whose work are produced and manufactured in the United States. Haute Living likes to support American designers. What does being an American designer mean to you personally?

VK: We started our manufacturing in America in 1944, and we’ve been manufacturing in America ever since. There’s a certain pride in keeping my designs American-made. I’ve always been influenced by the needs of the modern American home, and attuned to the American way of life. Though this has inspired my designs, they are 100% universal in that America is the most global country on Earth – from the 6’6” man to the very petite, I design for everyone!

HL: You mentioned your house on Nantucket as being “antique.” What is your opinion on the market for modern design in the United States? What are your thoughts on the Chicago market for modern design?

VK: I think American taste and interest have continually grown for good quality, modern furniture design. But when I came into the picture in the 1950’s, I think less then 10% of the American market wanted modern furniture. I believe that young people today are much more into modern design and not hanging on to tradition like generations of the past. And Chicago is truly a modern city with all of its great architecture – it is always thinking. We have a lot of expectations for the city of Chicago.

HL: Your blog is about your life, your travels, and everyday trivialities. How did blogging come about?           

VK: It’s sort of a stream of conscience journal when I’m inspired to write. It takes a lot of my creative time, but it’s also a very stimulating mind exercise and it allows me to give structure to my thought process, which is very helpful when I’m designing. I have a lot of unfinished, half-stories that I have to complete, hopefully soon.


Photo by Todd Selby

HL: What are your thoughts on modern art today? I read one of your recent blog posts about the Armory Art Show in New York, and you didn’t have too many positive things to say about what you saw!

VK: Well, I did see some things I liked, too! My son, Illya, is a en plein air painter on Nantucket with a very good following and reputation. How does he describe the value of art? He says it’s “the cost of the canvas and the cost of the paint, and that is it. Art is defined in the eye of the observer.” Art today is a response to the need to be flashy, to make a statement, and the competition to be different than the next artist. If it looks like a Mondrian or a Matisse, it won’t make it into the museums. So they have to be inventive and work very hard at being different, and a lot of it is just not good. You don’t have to have millions of dollars to own good art, you just have to have a good eye.

HL: Much of your design work is considered mid-century design, though it really transcends time, periods, and styles. What was it like to be a furniture designer in the 1950’s and 1960’s?

VK: There wasn’t too much design happening during the years of the Great Depression and during World War II, so it was very exciting to be creating a new design language in a sense. Looking back, I never considered myself a mid-century designer. In the 1950’s, there was a conflagration of mass produced furniture, and when all of this was going on, I ardently stuck to the old tradition of producing and selling hand-made furniture. It was my father’s motto that I adhered to: “Ehre das Handwerk,” which means “All of the Handwork.” I designed furniture that was functional – it attests itself to a more casual lifestyle. Much of the furniture at the time was in the style of “formal boring” – and so I designed as a reaction to this. There was also an appetite by the public and by the press for something new. It was the right ingredients, the right chemistry, and the right time to do something fresh. It was very invigorating.

HL: Tell us about the future of Vladimir Kagan Design Group and its new showroom in New Jersey?

VK: Yes, we've found a remarkable home in an old mill building in New Jersey. We want to grow Vladimir Kagan Design slowly and solidly. We don’t want to explode it. Over the years I have been prolific, and so now we have an archive of over 700 designs from which we can go fishing for new introductions. But the main objective is organic growth, and with Joe (Vitagliano) as my business partner, and my son, Illya, Vladimir Kagan Design will be steered into the future by very capable hands.

HL: Any new designs in the works?

VK: I'm always thinking about new creations. I do new designs for designers, architects, and private clients, which has been an outlet for a lot of my creativity recently. But these pieces are exclusive, and the main focus is to keep the showrooms exciting. We regularly have design meetings to discuss rollout of new ideas, so we are constantly adding to the collection. Haute Living will need to keep expanding its space as there will be new Vladimir Kagan pieces in its showroom very, very soon!

HL: Vladimir, it was a pleasure speaking with you! Thank you for your time.

VK: You are very welcome!

Haute Living is truly honored to bring you the designs of Vladimir Kagan. For more information about the work of Vladimir Kagan, or to see the newly installed Vladimir Kagan furniture in-person, visit Haute Living’s showroom in Chicago, or view it here.

Interview by Jeff Smith