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Remembering Avant-Garde Midcentury Furniture Master Vladimir Kagan

The New York-based designer made a massive impact on Midcentury modern decor

To the late master furniture designer Vladimir Kagan, who passed away last week, seating and design was an art form, akin to "interior landscaping."

"We don't all have to sit like birds on a telephone wire facing in one direction," he told Elle Decor. "You need mobility and flexibility."

Those two values remain central to Kagan’s legacy. The talented designer, who passed away on Thursday due to a heart attack, would always joke that while his father, a talented furniture maker in his own right, always told him to "measure three times and cut once," he would cut three times and never measure. His intuition, however, would exert a sizable influence on midcentury modern design, creating a series of curved and amorphous pieces he would call "vessels for the human body."

Born in the son of a Russian cabinetmaker in Worms, Germany, in 1927, Vladimir Kagan had an abbreviated childhood, interrupted by the rise of the Nazi government and immigration to the United States in 1938. Kagan followed his father’s footsteps and became a craftsman and designer, first studying architecture at the School of Industrial art and Columbia University before joining his father on the shop floor in 1947. Kagan, who was srawn to sculpture, quickly realized he wasn’t the same kind of designer as his dad, but, as he told the Financial Times, he "was damn good at conceptual ideas."

Kagan opened his own business in 1949, and quickly rose to prominence with a series of daring, curved pieces, a stripped-down aesthetic drawn from Bauhaus ideas and an innate belief that furniture should be contemporary and comfortable.

"A lot of modern furniture was not comfortable," he told the Financial Times. "And so comfort is: form follows function; the function was to make it comfortable."

It’s possible to get a sense of his sinuous, modern style merely by scanning a list of his designs, such as the Serpentine Sofa, introduced in 1949, his 1947 barrel chair, or the Floating Sofa from 1952. They showed the early development of his vast vocabulary of smooth curves and organic shapes.

Kagan also seemed to posses an innate ability to attract celebrity and corporate clientele. His first major commission was the Delegate's Cocktail Lounge for the first United Nations's Headquarters in Lake Success, New York, , and he would go on to craft the furniture for the Monsanto House of the Future at Disneyland, and work for stars such as Gary Cooper and Marilyn Monroe.

Kagan’s influence on the design world was deep and varied. A career-spanning book published last year, Vladimir Kagan, a Lifetime of Avant-Garde Design, contains praised from both Zaha Hadid and Tom Ford, whose decision to buy Kagan pieces for the Gucci stores in the ‘90s helped interest a new generation in the furniture maker’s work. While Kagan officially retired in 1988, he remained quite active (and maintained his own blog), with renewed interest in his work stemming from the reintroduction of classic designs in the late '90s.

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