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Kagan charmed the audience with his love for furniture design, a seemingly bottomless creative well, and his overall joie de vivre.
The Furniture Society gave its 2009 Award of Distinction to Vladimir Kagan, who started in the 1940s making modern wooden furniture but increasingly moved into designing furniture for production. Though my own little shop is a world away from the big factories he uses, I learned a lot from him about the process of design.
Trained in sculpture and architecture, Kagan began his career in furniture design in his own small woodworking shop, where he built furniture influenced by the Bauhaus movement and the Danish Modern style. Bauhaus furniture had a lot of straight, thin lines, but Kagan brought in the sculpted curves from his fine arts training. One thing he didn’t change was the Bauhaus mandate that form follow function. He said that his goal was to make “vessels to hold the human body,” which is very apparent in his soft, sculpted upholstered sofas and chairs, among other pieces.
That experience in his woodworking shop informed his approach to joinery and design, even when designing for industry. Many his designs started as wood pieces he made for clients, and then shifted to metal for production. And he used his woodworking shop to build prototypes. Where wood was impractical, especially for his more blocky, upholstered pieces, he often used clay, using as much as a few hundred pounds for one full-size model, padding it on a bit at a time. The point is that he went to great lengths to refine a design before he started in the final piece.
Also, he never lost his connection to real people: “I always designed pieces for a client not the showroom. Then it became part of my collection.”
His furniture became more architectural in the 60s, completely rectilinear. I was amazed that he could work successfully in so many styles. Check out some of his licensed designs at his own Web site.
Not too long ago, he said, Angelina Jolie called and asked his office if they had any furniture for a child’s room. Kagan didn’t know who she was, but when he got home his kids quickly set him straight. He gave her his cell number, and she called when the Kagans were in the car on their way to Nantucket. She said that Brad (one name, like Madonna or Cher) was a big fan of Vladimir’s furniture, and was wondering if he had any pieces for kids. When the Kagans reached Nantucket, they rented the recent movie “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” to introduce their dad to the power couple.
Kagan asked the factory if they could quickly build a Baby Rock Star (his rocker for kids) for Angelina Jolie. They obliged, of course. “Everybody does cartwheels when they hear they are working for a movie star,” he said, drawing a big laugh from the room.
Kagan began his career in a small workshop, making '50s modern furniture.
Throughout his career, despite making his name designing for mass production, each of Kagan's designs began as a one-off for a specific client, and often made in wood.
It was only then that his pieces became designs for production. Wood to metal-and-glass was a typical evolution.
Like many good designers, Kagan looked everywhere for ideas. His daughter handed him this fragment of bone from a Nantucket beach and challenged him to design a sofa like it.
That bone became this full-size Styrofoam prototype. Kagan made full-size models to refine most of his designs, using whatever material that made sense.
And that protype became this sofa, typical of Kagan's sculpted, fully upholstered seating pieces.
This illustrious designer was just as comfortable making architectural modern pieces, like these sofas and tables. I especially like how the tables can be fit together or pulled apart.
Kagan recently sold a Baby Rock Star rocker (left) to Hollywood power couple, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt (Brangelina to some of you).
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