Vladimir Kagan designs are timeless, modern

February 19, 2006|By STEPHEN G. HENDERSON | STEPHEN G. HENDERSON,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In creating what "now" looks like, style makers in architecture, fashion and entertainment recycle many eras from the past. Within the world of interiors, however, what passes for contemporary seems strangely stuck in just one epoch. It's only a slight exaggeration to say that no room can be considered up to the moment in 2006 unless it somehow pays homage to "Mid-century Modern." It's de rigueur to include an Eames chair, for instance, an Isamu Noguchi light fixture or an Eero Saarinen table.

Mid-century Modern refers to decor that was first created during the post-World War II boom and "Space Age." Of all the artists from this optimistic era, no one is still flying quite as high as Vladimir Kagan, the esteemed furniture designer who will deliver a guest lecture on Friday at the Hunt Valley Antiques Show. Proceeds will benefit Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland.

In a career that's spanned nearly six decades, Kagan's innovatively sculptured tables, chairs, and sofas have been heralded as icons of modernity. He's the darling of celebrities like Uma Thurman, David Bowie, Demi Moore and Tom Cruise, and featured in the permanent collections of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Manda Riggs, co-chair of the Hunt Valley show, thinks Kagan couldn't be coming to Baltimore at a better time. "In light of all the changes Baltimore is making to attract a younger population, and keep young families here, Vladimir Kagan's style is perfect. It is clean, streamlined and forward thinking. It symbolizes the life we are living."

Another admirer is designer Tom Ford, who himself knows a thing or two about forward-thinking. "Looking at Kagan's furniture, I am always slightly awed because I can't imagine them ever looking anything less than totally relevant," Ford writes in his preface to The Complete Kagan (Pointed Leaf Press, 2004, $65), a lavishly-illustrated autobiography. When he was first retooling Gucci's image in the early 1990s, Ford wanted its retail environments to have a "glamorous, luxurious, but very clean aesthetic." After deciding that a multilevel, multi-directional Kagan Omnibus sofa could anchor this style, he ordered 360 of them for all Gucci's stores worldwide.

This autobiography's subtitle, A Lifetime of Avant-Garde Design, summarizes Kagan's achievement, but raises questions as well. How, after all, can one be in the vanguard for decades? Isn't this a bit like being forever young?

Well, the fact is, at age 78, Kagan is forever young, too.

"He is so exuberant. The man doesn't stop," marvels Riggs, who first met Kagan on Nantucket, Mass., where the designer has a vacation home. "It's like the waters of Nantucket are his fountain of youth. Vladdy does more before 8 a.m. than I do all day!"

When not aboard Korduda, his Indian sailboat, Kagan lives on Manhattan's Upper East Side with his wife of nearly 50 years, Erica Wilson, the famed knitting and needlepoint expert. The couple have three children, Jessica, a jewelry designer; Vanessa, who runs Wilson's much-beloved shop on Nantucket; and Illya, a painter.

On a recent afternoon, Kagan welcomed a visitor to his magnificent courtyard building on Park Avenue, where his apartment is a rambling, chaotic affair. There's Haitian art; Indonesian and African masks; wood carvings from Mexico; and, many, many paintings, including a large Frank Stella and a quite good knock-off of Salvador Dali painted by Illya. Enormous floor-to-ceiling vitrines in the dining room are crammed with an ever-growing glass collection. Wilson's stitchery is everywhere -- pillows, samplers, even whole items of upholstery -- as are exquisite samples of Kagan's furniture.

Surveying this melange-bordering-on-mess, Kagan hoists one of his wildly overgrown eyebrows. "When decorating, people tend to be timid about color," he says. "But I always say, 'When in doubt, pick red. It goes with everything!'" He good-naturedly identifies this treasure or that, but is clearly anxious to fire up his laptop computer, where digital images are stored of his latest designs.

These pieces, which made their debut in January at the Cologne Furniture Fair, are enormous, slithering shapes that curve around circular ottomans, all upholstered in the same fabric. Their appearance simultaneously evokes 1960s "Rat Pack" Las Vegas, New York's Studio 54 discotheque in the '70s, and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kagan selected Benny Goodman's Big Band music as a soundtrack for these visuals, but hip- hop or even Frank Sinatra (another Kagan collector) would serve equally well.

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