R5 Kagan Comes Back

In the furniture world, there are the venerable classics, the gilt-framed Louis XIV chair, the Chinese Chippendale desk. And then there are the new classics. Take, for instance, the curved and comely Sloane sofa, which looks as though it was the inspiration for Nike’s Swoosh mark.

“Look how minimalist it is, nice and elegant,” says its equally iconic designer, Vladimir Kagan, patting the nubby white upholstery, a wool-blend bouclé. “It has no time frame. You can’t tell whether it was made in the ’50s or yesterday.”

In fact, the Sloane was dreamed up decades ago, along with most of the other pieces in Kagan’s new 2,000-square-foot New York Design Center showroom—his first in more than 25 years. The circa 1950Sloane is named after the famed London street Kagan’s sister lived on way back when. Her flat housed the original couch then, and it’s been with her ever since, these days gracing her home in Geneva.

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And still, “it looks glorious,” Kagan gushes. “I used to think I was cutting-edge. Now, I’m classic,” says the German-born Kagan, energetic and impish even at age 80. But, really, he’s both: classic to the those who first bought Kagan back when Frank Sinatra, Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Marilyn Monroe were opening their wallets for his pieces, and cutting-edge to the 30- and 40-somethings discovering him (among other mid-century masters) today, during modernity’s recent renaissance. Boutique hotelier Andre Balazs put Kagan in the lobby of The Standard in downtown Los Angeles when it opened in 2000; during his Gucci reign, fashion designer Tom Ford outfitted all of the luxury label’s stores (as well as his Santa Fe home) with Kagan’s designs. This year’s Kips Bay Decorator Show House featured an entire penthouse dedicated to a Kagan retrospective.

Vladimir Kagan’s Omnibus sofa

If the reopening of a Vladimir Kagan showroom marks a homecoming of sorts, it also heralds a resurgence of interest in designs that never faded from the collections of sophisticated homeowners. The showroom provides a showcase for The Vladimir Kagan Couture Collection, about 22 of his iconic designs. (More are coming.) Once manufactured in Italy, these pieces now are produced in Clifton, New Jersey, where he can keep a close eye on quality (such as eight-way, hand-tied construction) and hand-selected materials, like solid maple, horsehair, and down. “This is,” he says, “my renaissance.”

Avant-garde doesn’t necessarily evolve into something timeless. Typically, “it’s transient,” Kagan says. His creations, on the other hand, occupy that rare piece of floor space: they’re “cutting-edge, but they’ve stayed forever.”

Which is a large part of Kagan’s legacy: he helped redefine “classic,” allowing the term to encompass far more than a Stickley sideboard. Take the Swan Trisemetric (designed in 1955), whose swooping body, akin to the neck of a swan, was modeled after the “glorious” hilly views from the Martha’s Vineyard getaway owned by a Boston client of Kagan’s. The first Swan, the piece made for the Massachusetts client, was covered in wheat fabric in a nod to its natural setting and perched atop steel legs. The reissued showroom piece, parked by a white shag rug atop the dark-stained wood floor, is upholstered in chocolate mohair and pops atop orange lacquered legs. The fabric is a kind of retro wonder itself: once called transportation cloth, it was used to cover railcar and bus seats because it wears so well.

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The Barrel Chair

And then there’s the amoeba-on-steroids, the Serpentine. First sculpted in 1949, the 140-incher is perhaps the designer’s signature piece. Kagan, his red-frame glasses perched beneath a pair of thick eyebrows and a shock of gray hair, snuggles into the sofa’s cozier cousin, the Hampton Serpentine, 112 inches covered in creamy chenille (it still accommodates up to eight).

“It’s delicious,” he decrees. For apartment dwellers, there’s a new 96-inch elevator-and-stair-friendly version, the five-seat Shorty. For “couch potatoes,” as the designer puts it, there’s the high-backed Serpentine, the Embrace. “All modern sofas have a low back; that’s an identification and a limitation,” he says. But sometimes, “people like to lounge at home.” And for when they really want to relax, they can (gingerly) prop their feet up on Kagan’s Upsilon table: a Y-shaped slab of zebra wood topped with glass, a piece created during the 1960s that looks as sleek and chic as if it were fresh off the drawing board.

A New York icon, Kagan opened his first showroom on East 65th Street in 1949, later moving to the fashionable East 57th Street location in 1950. But the buying public didn’t always appreciate his revolutionary vision. The ’80s were a particularly difficult time for business. “There was modern, but the young people hadn’t gotten into it yet,” Kagan explains. “There was a market for me, but it was representative of maybe one percent of the country.” In 1987, he closed his New York showroom and retreated to producing pieces out of his Upper East Side apartment.

Three iconic sofa designs vie for attention in Vladimir Kagan’s new showroom (from left): the Hampton Sepentine upholstered in poodle chenille, the Sloane upholstered in boucle, the Swan Tri-Symmetric upholstered in brown mohair with an orange lacquered base (in back), and the Embrace in boucle, set before the designer’s Upsilon table in zebrawood.

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By early 2000, however, Kagan noticed that tastes were shifting back in his favor, in part thanks to the growing mainstream visibility of the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in Manhattan. “Ninety percent of American people live in traditional homes with traditional silk shades and stupid furniture,” says the ever-blunt designer. “But they work in a modern office. That environment was somewhat of a catalyst for introducing young people to modern furniture.”

So now they’re furnishing their homes with retro-futuristic finds like Kagan’s circa-1969 Omnibus modular sofa, whose bolsters can be reconfigured thanks to hidden strips of Velcro-like carpet liner. Covered in chocolate velvet, the showroom piece floats on Plexiglas legs. “The idea was to lift it off and lighten it up,” says Kagan, who’s kept an Omnibus in his apartment since 1970 (he recovered the white chenille with dark-green mohair in the 1990s). A bed-like upholstered platform protrudes from the back.

“I’ve politely said it’s for children to crawl on—I didn’t say how old,” says Kagan, grinning. His Scottish-born wife of 51 years, Erica Wilson, an accomplished embroidery designer in her own right, told him that it’s bad luck to sit on a table, so Kagan designed the back of Omnibus as its own perch. “That’s the king-of-the-castle position,” he says. “A contemporary throne.”

A contemporary loveseat is his 2002- designed down-stuffed La Ronde. “You have to crawl into it,” Kagan says as a visitor cuddles into the polar white Ultrasuede. “It’s very comfy for two. If we didn’t have open windows, I’d demonstrate,” he says, winking. With that kind of wit, one can only imagine what he’ll dream up next.


A New York-based freelance writer, Julia Lange writes frequently about architecture and interior design.

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