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Vladimir Kagan designs are timeless, modern

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In creating what "now" looks like, style makers in architecture, fashion and entertainment recycle many eras from the past. Within the world of interiors, however, what passes for contemporary seems strangely stuck in just one epoch. It's only a slight exaggeration to say that no room can be considered up to the moment in 2006 unless it somehow pays homage to "Mid-century Modern." It's de rigueur to include an Eames chair, for instance, an Isamu Noguchi light fixture or an Eero Saarinen table.

Mid-century Modern refers to decor that was first created during the post-World War II boom and "Space Age." Of all the artists from this optimistic era, no one is still flying quite as high as Vladimir Kagan, the esteemed furniture designer who will deliver a guest lecture on Friday at the Hunt Valley Antiques Show. Proceeds will benefit Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland.

In a career that's spanned nearly six decades, Kagan's innovatively sculptured tables, chairs, and sofas have been heralded as icons of modernity. He's the darling of celebrities like Uma Thurman, David Bowie, Demi Moore and Tom Cruise, and featured in the permanent collections of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Manda Riggs, co-chair of the Hunt Valley show, thinks Kagan couldn't be coming to Baltimore at a better time. "In light of all the changes Baltimore is making to attract a younger population, and keep young families here, Vladimir Kagan's style is perfect. It is clean, streamlined and forward thinking. It symbolizes the life we are living."

Another admirer is designer Tom Ford, who himself knows a thing or two about forward-thinking. "Looking at Kagan's furniture, I am always slightly awed because I can't imagine them ever looking anything less than totally relevant," Ford writes in his preface to The Complete Kagan (Pointed Leaf Press, 2004, $65), a lavishly-illustrated autobiography. When he was first retooling Gucci's image in the early 1990s, Ford wanted its retail environments to have a "glamorous, luxurious, but very clean aesthetic." After deciding that a multilevel, multi-directional Kagan Omnibus sofa could anchor this style, he ordered 360 of them for all Gucci's stores worldwide.

This autobiography's subtitle, A Lifetime of Avant-Garde Design, summarizes Kagan's achievement, but raises questions as well. How, after all, can one be in the vanguard for decades? Isn't this a bit like being forever young?

Well, the fact is, at age 78, Kagan is forever young, too.

"He is so exuberant. The man doesn't stop," marvels Riggs, who first met Kagan on Nantucket, Mass., where the designer has a vacation home. "It's like the waters of Nantucket are his fountain of youth. Vladdy does more before 8 a.m. than I do all day!"

When not aboard Korduda, his Indian sailboat, Kagan lives on Manhattan's Upper East Side with his wife of nearly 50 years, Erica Wilson, the famed knitting and needlepoint expert. The couple have three children, Jessica, a jewelry designer; Vanessa, who runs Wilson's much-beloved shop on Nantucket; and Illya, a painter.

On a recent afternoon, Kagan welcomed a visitor to his magnificent courtyard building on Park Avenue, where his apartment is a rambling, chaotic affair. There's Haitian art; Indonesian and African masks; wood carvings from Mexico; and, many, many paintings, including a large Frank Stella and a quite good knock-off of Salvador Dali painted by Illya. Enormous floor-to-ceiling vitrines in the dining room are crammed with an ever-growing glass collection. Wilson's stitchery is everywhere -- pillows, samplers, even whole items of upholstery -- as are exquisite samples of Kagan's furniture.

Surveying this melange-bordering-on-mess, Kagan hoists one of his wildly overgrown eyebrows. "When decorating, people tend to be timid about color," he says. "But I always say, 'When in doubt, pick red. It goes with everything!'" He good-naturedly identifies this treasure or that, but is clearly anxious to fire up his laptop computer, where digital images are stored of his latest designs.

These pieces, which made their debut in January at the Cologne Furniture Fair, are enormous, slithering shapes that curve around circular ottomans, all upholstered in the same fabric. Their appearance simultaneously evokes 1960s "Rat Pack" Las Vegas, New York's Studio 54 discotheque in the '70s, and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kagan selected Benny Goodman's Big Band music as a soundtrack for these visuals, but hip- hop or even Frank Sinatra (another Kagan collector) would serve equally well.

Kagan also offers a sneak peek at an apartment house he's designing in Manhattan -- it's his first building -- which resembles ocean waves rolling into each other. "It is organic, it has flow," he muses. "I am a very yin-yang type of guy. Actually no, because in yin-yang, the pieces neatly fit together. What's that psychological term when you swing back and forth between opposites?

"Bipolar?" his visitor guesses.

"Yes! My designs are bipolar! I like straight, architectural lines, but another part of me loves natural, sensuous shapes. I try to marry those two together."

Functional sculpture

Vladimir Kagan was born in 1927, in Worms, Germany, the son of a Russian cabinetmaker. His happy childhood ended with the rise of Nazism, and in 1936, Kagan's family immigrated to the United States. Eventually, they ended up in New York City, where Kagan studied at the High School of Industrial Arts and, later, Columbia University where he took courses in architecture and engineering.

Greatly influenced by the Bauhaus movement and ideas that "form follows function" and "less is more," Kagan worked side-by-side with his father throughout the late 1940s and '50s. It was not unusual for him to proceed from a sketch to a full-sized model to a finished piece of furniture in a matter of weeks. During this time, he created signature shapes such as the Barrel chair, Serpentine sofa, TV cabinets with sliding tambour fronts and coffee tables with ceramic-tiled tops.

An early commission in 1947 to design delegates' cocktail lounges for the first United Nations headquarters in Lake Success, N.Y., gained him valuable publicity. This led to lucrative corporate work with such companies as General Electric, Monsanto and Walt Disney. "Clients like these, in the 1960s, were looking into where the future was going," he recalls. "They really brought me along with them."

What Kagan's best known for today, says David Park Curry, senior curator of decorative arts, American painting and sculpture at the BMA, is forms "like boomerangs and curves. There's also an Asian undercurrent, which is a constantly feeding stream in the design world."

"You must give his pieces some time to reach your sensibility," Park Curry continues. A Kagan lamp owned by the museum, for instance, "is a very simple object. It doesn't have fancy carving or lots of color. What makes it beautiful is that it's subtle."

Kagan also challenged a time-honored belief that the most comfortable method of furniture construction was inner-spring seats, with loose, down-filled cushions on top. Starting in the 1950s, he experimented with newly invented rubber products that enabled him to build comfort into tight seat and back upholstery.

"More than any other furniture designer, a Kagan is a work of functional sculpture. It stands on its own, preening, demanding your attention," says Suzanne Levin Lapides, who teaches interior design at Maryland Institute College of Art. "Kagan combines technology with textiles that can stretch in all directions. Forget fluffing pillows. A Kagan sofa looks like it's never been sat in."

Over a barrel

Though Kagan acknowledges he's benefited from the enduring vogue for Mid-century Modern -- his pieces are selling better today than ever, he brags -- he sees seismic shifts coming. A dwindling supply of fossil fuels, he predicts, will alter the petrochemical industry, which, in turn, affects everything from molded furniture to microfiber textiles.

"Look at all the plastic pieces as designed, say, by Philippe Starck. This is supposed to be an inexpensive solution for high design furniture. But by 2020, or 2050, plastic will no longer be inexpensive. Even now, the price of foam rubber went up 42 percent after Hurricane Katrina," he says. "As petrochemicals become prohibitively expensive, we'll have to go back to wood, linen, cotton, and what a nice world we will live in!"

Kagan grins, seemingly content to envision a future that may no longer contain his furniture. On a roll, his reverie carries him to his "very traditional" cedar-shingled cottage in Nantucket, where Wilson and he go as often as possible. There, he says, they have lots of antiques and even -- gasp! -- furniture with down cushions.

"I love down! I am old enough, you see," he concludes with a chuckle, "that I no longer have to practice what I preach."

...................... For more information about Vladimir Kagan, visit his Web site, vladimirkagan.com.

VLADIMIR KAGAN

Occupation: Furniture designer; CEO, Vladimir Kagan Design Group

Age: 78

Education: Columbia University, 1944-47

Family: Wife Erica Wilson; children Jessica, Vanessa, Illya

KAGAN TO SPEAK AT ANTIQUES SHOW

The 36th Annual Hunt Valley Antiques Show will take place at the Holiday Inn Select in Timonium. Open to the public: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 26. Show admission $12.

Vladimir Kagan will speak from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Friday. Tickets are $50 per person, which includes a light breakfast at 9:30 a.m., and a day pass to the Antiques Show. Proceeds benefit Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland.

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