Modern Man -Fall 2014

by: Leslie Linsley

photography by: Terry Pommett

Vladimir Kagan’s house is abuzz with young people.

Two girls work on their computers completely oblivious to the activities around them. A tall blonde woman is introduced as the housekeeper, but she is clearly indispensable to the comings and goings of her boss. Two musicians from the island band Coq au Vin drop by to say hello and in the middle of all the hubbub, the man of the house reigns supreme at the kitchen table.

“I love being surrounded by beautiful women,” he says with a mischievous smile that defies his 87 years. A yellow canary sings in the corner of the room. “She’s a female,” he says. “Isn’t that amazing? Female canaries don’t usually sing.” For a minute Kagan is distracted and becomes just as enthusiastic about the bird’s talent as he is about life itself. Everything he does is approached with exuberance. He is a man at home in his own skin, comfortable with a lifetime of success.

Kagan is one of the most enduring designers of modern furniture with a career that has spanned over 60 years. The New York Times once wrote, “Vladimir Kagan is one of the most important furniture designers of the 20th century. Furniture designed by him in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s have become icons of modernity and an obligatory reference to every designer. He is the creative grandfather of a whole new generation of designers.”

Today his creations are on the cutting edge of the 21st century and his designs are sought after by a whole new generation of clients. The

Vladimir Kagan Design Group is one of America’s preeminent manufacturers of modern furniture.

“I think I am more successful today than in any other time in my career,” he says with a childish delight and almost disbelief.

Born in Germany, Kagan came to the United States as a young boy in 1936. Growing up, he says, “I wanted to be a painter or a sculptor, but then I became attracted to architecture and design and studied at Columbia University.”

But in 1947 he joined his father, a master cabinetmaker, and found success at an early age. When asked if he remembers selling his first piece, his face lights up as if it were yesterday.

“Oh yes,” he says, “I was only about 18 and I was commissioned to design the delegates’ cocktail lounges for the first United Nations Headquarters in Lake Success, N.Y. This was my first success and everything I’ve done since has set me on a course of designing out of the ordinary. I like a challenge. I like to broaden my scope with all sorts of experiences.”

For 10 years mid-career, Kagan says he worked with manufacturers selling furniture at High Point, the premier industry marketplace.

“That sort of discipline was a learning experience,” he says, “but I am more comfortable designing and manufacturing my own furniture without cost restraints.”

His company in Clifton, N.J. produces all of his designs.

“It’s new and I’m comfortable with it. I like to stay ahead of the times. I always have a head full of new ideas,” he says.

He currently has over 700 designs in his portfolio.

In 1950 Kagan opened his first shop in New York City on East 57th Street. He began designing his now famous sectional sofas, barrel chairs, rocking chairs, office furniture, ottomans and dining chairs that were sought after by such luminaries as Marilyn Monroe, Gary Cooper, Walt Disney and corporate clients like General Electric, Monsanto and General Motors. His furniture resides in the permanent collections of museums worldwide and private collections of leaders in the world of art, fashion and music, and while he doesn’t watch much television, he does have a website, Facebook page, Twitter and Instagram accounts.

“I have a nephew who keeps me up-to-date with social media,” he says. “I don’t know anything about that.”

His current project involves the design of handcrafted furniture that is being made in Paris and London at the Carpenters Workshop where he is creating a limited collection of 12 pieces cast in bronze and working with metals and wood. He is also revising his book, “The Complete Kagan,” the first complete compendium of his life and work, that includes dozens of never-before-published photographs and sketches with a preface by Tom Ford.

Kagan spends a lot of time in his sunlit kitchen that overlooks a large yard filled with plantings.

“Can you believe we’re right in the heart of downtown Nantucket?” he says, pointing to the view. “It’s less than an acre, maybe only a quarter, but you’d think you were in the country. I have all this privacy right here.”

Then he comes back to talking about cooking, another passion. “I love having parties, always lots of people filling the house. Sometimes there are as many as 25 for dinner. We cook together, chopping and preparing. I make a great chili.”

He’s also a music buff and says he loves to go to Pazzo on Friday nights to listen to the band.

Married for over 60 years to the queen of needlework, Erica Wilson, whose shop on Main Street is now owned by their daughter Vanessa, Vladi (as friends call him) says that the first year after Erica died in December 2011 was very difficult. But, although he misses her terribly, he says, “Right now I’m having a great time. I’m not restrained by having to sell my pieces the way I was when I was younger and designing for other manufacturers. I make what I like.”

He doesn’t pay much attention to design magazines and what’s “hot” in current trends, as he thinks it keeps him purer. He does admit, however, to being very much in love with changes in women’s fashion. He says he can work almost anywhere that is undisturbed and Nantucket provides enough quiet and stimulation for a creative lifestyle. Success and age have given him the freedom to create whatever he wants. And, as a designer, this is a very good place to be.

Leslie Linsley writes the “Life & Style” blog and column for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821. She is the author of hundreds of books on home design.

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