It's Vladimir Kagan, the king of bachelor-pad modern
Monica Geran -- Interior Design, 1/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
From the 1940s to the 1970s, Vladimir Kagan's reputation grew and spread globally, as did media coverage. Then, without warning, accolades declined. By the mid-'80s, mum was the word. His comeback began in the mid-'90s when one leading shelter magazine—then another, then the New York Times—published articles on the nonpareil furniture designer. High-profile jobs followed, including collaborations with Bill Sofield, for Gucci stores worldwide, and Kagan's largest single furniture commission, for the Standard hotel's lobby in downtown Los Angeles. You can't keep a good man down. We caught up with him in New York, where he lives with his wife, the namesake principal of Erica Wilson Needle Works shops. The couple's 10-room Park Avenue apartment serves as home, office, and studio for both businesses.
This room hasn't changed much since I interviewed you in 1971.
The refectory table has been replaced by a hexagonal two-leaf piece, and there are lots more paintings on the walls. Also, the fluttering finches in the 8-foot-tall cage are descendants.
How did you decide to become a furniture maker?
It began in the early 1940s, when I apprenticed at my father's workshop in New York, near the East River. He was a superb craftsman and cabinetmaker, and he taught me to love and produce fine woodwork. After graduating from the High School of Industrial Arts in 1945, I attended Columbia University, where I also took night courses in architecture. But I had no doubts about my future. In 1947, I went to work with my father.
And then what happened?
Over the next 40 or so years, coinciding with the fluctuating economy, I opened and closed three stores. The first was a retail shop run jointly with my father, who retired at age 80 to become a sculptor. In 1950, I formed a partnership with Hugo Dreyfuss, a retired businessman and textile specialist. A decade later, I bought him out and moved the shop and showroom. When the economy was on the rise in 1970, I opened not only a new showroom, in midtown, but also a factory in Long Island City. Then conditions worsened once more. Business became more of a burden, less of a pleasure. That coupled with the fact that I was considering retiring lead me to close my work sites in 1987 and establish a consultancy in my apartment, where we are to this day.
What were you doing during your apparent disappearance?
Despite our success, we encountered rough times—as did everyone in our business. Economic recessions caused people to spend less, our furniture was being knocked off, and competition generally was less than ethical. I always stuck to top-quality production, however. In about 10 years, I opened 8 showrooms, fully paid off suppliers who might otherwise have been fleeced in bankruptcy procedures, and established a network of independent craftsmen and jobbers to handle manufacturing. Obviously, I wasn't idle. And, I might add, at no time did people stop buying my furniture.
Were you ever tempted to take a break?
The temptation was strong, but I forged ahead. In the '80s, I went to High Point, North Carolina, which was a revelation. I came across a wonderful, can-do mentality and production technologies from which my furniture benefited. I found firms that to this day make, distribute, and carry my goods. As a result of my High Point contacts, I currently have 10 licensees manufacturing my designs all over the world.
Tell us about your furniture.
For the first 10 years, most of my designs were inspired by flora and fauna. This is most evident in table supports and chair bases shaped like tree branches or deer's legs, even antlers. Very organic. Later, I became intrigued by architectural treatments, as in tables with cantilevered extensions. I also make light fixtures, cabinets, and rocking chairs.
Omnibus is a squared sectional sofa that encourages multidirectional conversation. There are also solid serpentine models. Some are long enough to snake from one end of a large room to the other. All have attracted a lot of publicity since I introduced them in 1949.
Which woods do you favor?
I love all woods, but I stick to sustainable kinds such as walnut, oak, and cherry. I avoid exotic species: rosewood, zebrawood, Macassar ebony, and the like.
Has your marketing setup undergone major changes?
We've gone through the internationalization of Vladimir Kagan. I have a European collection, I'm at the fairs in Milan and Cologne, Germany, and my furniture is available in shops and showrooms everywhere.
Do you handle many interior design commissions?
I do consulting, but for hands-on jobs I prefer large corporations. I'm negotiating to do a 19-story building for an oil company in Africa, and several hotels have approached me. Last week, though, I had a rush call to design an apartment in 24 hours. I met the deadline.
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1955 Armless chair (Capricorn Collection).
1958 VK chaise.
1960 Unicorn chair.