American furniture designer Vladimir Kagan — best-known for his mid-century organically sculpted furniture — was one of those lucky few artists to enjoy his “living legend” status well before his death in 2017. This was thanks not only to his talent but his successful navigation of the vicissitudes of business and fashion.
German-born Kagan (1927-2017) was the son of a Russian-Jewish cabinetmaker whose family fled Germany prior to World War II. The family arrived in the United States in 1938 and settled in New York City, where Kagan’s father reestablished his furniture-making business. Kagan studied art and sculpture at the School of Industrial Art and attended architecture school at Columbia University at night. In 1947, Kagan joined his father at his cabinet-making shop and began to learn what was and was not possible in furniture making.
His exposure to woodworking in his father’s shop and his interest in Scandinavian modern design inspired Kagan’s move toward wooden-framed furniture. Kagan’s modeling and sculptural studies influenced his lifelong interest in amorphous shapes, while nature provided Kagan with inspiration for his furniture designs. Kagan was fascinated by the growth pattern of the branches on bare trees outside his family’s apartment on Riverside Drive. This gave him his first lessons in nature’s engineering, and he would later incorporate this knowledge into his sculptured furniture designs.
Kagan began designing for his father in 1948 and worked in another partnership before setting out on his own in 1960. His firm thrived through both design and factory production until difficult economic times forced the shuttering of his business in 1987. By the mid-1990s, however, Kagan’s star was on the rise again with the reissue of his designs for an eager new audience.
Seating furniture remains Kagen’s most important work. His most iconic designs, such as his Contour chairs, rocking and lounge chairs, and his Serpentine and Floating Seat and Back sofas share a sculptural, even sexy, quality. Modern design specialist Richard Wright notes that Kagan excelled at luxurious Modernism and livable furniture. His works, while fully modern, were not rigid. They were designed for comfortable use.
Kagan’s early furniture featured carved walnut frames. A chair leg might be inspired by a tree branch or might evoke the spindly leg of a newborn fawn. Seats were designed with contoured backs, which added to their sinuous nature. Later, Kagan began to incorporate metal bases of brass, aluminum and acrylic. Kagan’s much-loved Unicorn seating was inspired by Constantin Brancusi’s “Bird in Flight,” and featured a V-shaped angled base made of bronze or polished aluminum.
For upholstery, Kagan favored supple colored leathers or monochromatic upholstery, which offset the carved frames. The crewel embroidery of his wife, designer Erica Wilson, was also used as upholstery and was an exuberant departure from his monochromatic palette.
His Serpentine sofa and the Floating Seat and Back sofa feature exaggerated, seductive curves and were designed to be aesthetically pleasing from all vantage points. These pieces served as anchors in a room and fulfilled Kagan’s promise that “one piece by Vladimir Kagan is worth a roomful of anything else.”
Kagan success in seating designs continued with the introduction of his Omnibus series in the late 1960s. This modular furniture offered endless configurations, pieces and heights. The form had longevity: Hundreds of variations were produced over the years. Notably, Tom Ford selected the Omnibus line to outfit the entire worldwide Gucci network of 360 stores in the 1990s.
Today’s collectors are not recreating a Kagan environment, but rather seeking a statement piece that telegraphs “Kagan” for their eclectic interiors. The Kagan market at auction is, by and large, a consistent one. The long production run of Kagan’s furniture has ensured that a taste for the material continues today. Kagan’s work from the ’50s into the ’60s is considered his most iconic and is consequentially the most valuable. A pair of Contour armchairs or a Floating sofa can bring more than $30,000. Unicorn works are rarer to the auction market. Unicorn sofas have brought more than $90,000. The prices for Kagan’s Omnibus modular seating series vary more at auction. Its success is dependent on its scale and the condition of the upholstery, with values ranging from $2,500 to $15,000.
For further reading, see “The Complete Kagan: Vladimir Kagan, A Lifetime of Avant-Garde Design” (2004, Pointed Leaf Press).
Jennifer Pitman writes about the modern design, jewelry and fine art she encounters as Rago Auction’s senior account manager for Westchester and Connecticut. For more, contact email@example.com or 917-745-2730.