Vladimir Kagan (1927–2016)

Vladimir Kagan. Photo: John Walsh.

PUCK IS DEAD. That was my reaction when I heard of the passing of Vladimir Kagan at the age of eighty-eight. I only met him late in his life, by which time he had an unmistakable sparkle of celebrity. But even when he was young, I imagine that he resembled Shakespeare’s “shrewd and knavish sprite” pretty well. Like the elfin upstager of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kagan stood somewhat outside the mainstream of his profession (that is, furniture design), a good place to be if you want to provide a little light relief. Though he was initially influenced by the Bauhaus, he never adopted its rigorous functionalism. Nor did he push the envelope of technology, like Ray and Charles Eames, or rethink fundamental engineering issues, like Eero Saarinen, or conceive a new vocabulary of symbolic form, like Ettore Sottsass. His achievement was simpler—and, for many people, more alluring.

Kagan sweetened modernism up, dispensing curves like spoonfuls of sugar. Plenty of other designers, from Alvar Aalto to Eva Zeisel, helped make avant garde style palatable by giving it more sensuous lines. But none were as keen to make their work touchable, beckoning to the hand as well as the eye. In Kagan’s furniture the lines are always taut, and the upholstery is always pleasingly plump. Let’s go ahead and say it: His furniture is sexy. He was the master of that slightly louche manner of design which has become iconic in recent years thanks to the TV show Mad Men, which is cited constantly in discussions of Kagan’s work. Clichéd it may be, but the reference is apt, particularly when you come to think of what “sexy” meant in the midcentury moment. Kagan developed his aesthetic in a pre-Feminist age—the age of Jane Russell, padded bustiers, and va-va-voom—and more or less adhered to that look for the rest of his career. The world of Don Draper doesn’t seem all that remote when you read the New York Times obituary of the designer, in which hotelier André Balazs remarks of his Kagan-designed office chair: “I think that with good furniture, if it doesn’t at some point make you want to make love on it, it’s missing something.”

Yet if Kagan’s conception of sensuality was relatively self-evident, his means of achieving it definitely were not. When he sat down at the drawing board—he never did migrate to the computer—magic happened. Try making an outline sketch of one of his pieces yourself, and you’ll see how expertly he marshaled his compositions. The typical Kagan design has a single point of tension. From this vertex springs a set of sinuous lines: broad cushions curving from the narrow end of an asymmetrical sofa; a gazelle-like chair, leaping forward from tapered hind legs; the undercarriage of a table splaying out from its nether angle. At the convergence point, all is tautness, energy, and snap. Otherwise the lines in the object are relaxed—which is exactly what Kagan wanted his clients to be.

Kagan’s desire to set the world at ease was also embodied by his blog, which he began in 2009 when he was already an octogenarian. He wrote often and unaffectedly, in a style that combined old-world charm with New York kvetch. Reading it is a lot like chatting with him. Alongside perceptive and generous discussions of his fellow designers, such as Zaha Hadid, Santiago Calatrava, Studio Job, and Wendell Castle, he delved into his travels to see London’s contemporary architecture (thumbs down) and Paris in the snow (thumbs up), his experiences driving a Model T (thumbs up), unauthorized knockoffs of his own work (thumbs down of course, but also the objects of his genuine curiosity), and bagels and chopped liver (thumbs way up). One my favorite entries is his very last, which is devoted to maintaining the pleasures of eating in an age of anxiety about weight loss: “Lunch. Don’t neglect this.” Words to live by.

A final point to make about Kagan’s work is that it has always been superlatively crafted. He apprenticed as a boy in the Fifty-Seventh Street woodshop of his father, who had moved the family from Worms, Germany, when Kagan was young. The experience instilled in him a lifelong respect for the skills of the artisan, and he continued to oversee the manufacture of his pieces with the family firm for many years. After a period of relative quiet in the 1980s and ‘90s, he enjoyed a renaissance via collaboration with the design impresario Ralph Pucci. It so happens that on the day that Kagan died, a new chair called the Gabriella was unveiled at Pucci’s New York showroom. Curvy (of course) with a bronze frame and upholstered seat, the chair recalled his classic designs but also suggested the new directions he might have pursued, had even more years of energetic productivity been left to him.

When Kagan’s wife Erica Wilson, a leading embroiderer, died in 2011, the designer posted a moving tribute on his blog. “The little joys, the good things she did uncomplainingly and selflessly are daily missed,” he wrote. “Everything is a little more curtailed–less enjoyable.” Much the same can be said about the loss of this delightful man. I began this remembrance by calling him our Puck, but if I were going to inscribe a monument for Kagan, who so beautifully combined visual and material intelligence, I would select these words of Hamlet’s: “O, ’tis most sweet / when in one line two crafts directly meet.”

Glenn Adamson is an independent curator and writer based in Brooklyn.