KCAD Community Reflects on the Life of Legendary Furniture Designer Vladimir Kagan
Vladimir Kagan, a giant in the world of furniture design, passed away in April at the age of 88. Having first learned the basics of the craft from his father, a cabinet maker, Kagan would go on create some of the most iconic modern furniture of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. After retiring in the 80s, Kagan came back to furniture design in the early 2000s when his work once again surged in popularity, thanks in part to luxury fashion designer Tom Ford’s desire to furnish every Gucci store with Kagan’s designs.
But despite his fame and widespread influence, Kagan always made time to mentor students, including many from Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD). He spent many years teaching at Parsons School of Design, and lectured at Yale University and Philadelphia University. In 2001, he was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from KCAD, where he was an ardent supporter of the Furniture Design program.
Vladimir Kagan (middle) receiving an honorary doctorate during the 2001 commencement ceremony
“Vladi was a long-standing champion of the KCAD Furniture Design program and students, providing countless design opportunities and internships, always with a glad heart. He organized special trips, regaled students with stories, and spent hours connecting with and encouraging them. He was completely loveable, a dear dear person,” says Associate Professor and Furniture Design Program Chair Gayle DeBruyn.
In 2002, Kagan leveraged his connections in the furniture world to invite a group of KCAD Furniture Design students to participate as exhibitors in the SaloneSatellite portion of the Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan, Italy, the largest furniture design expo in the world. It was a huge opportunity for the eight students who participated to experience furniture design on an international scale and have their own work seen by an international audience.
KCAD alumnus Steve Rigirsh ('02), then a student in the Furniture Design program, chats with Vladimir Kagan (middle) and former KCAD faculty member and Furniture Design Program Chair Max Shangle (right) at the Milan International Furniture Fair in Italy in 2002.
A number of KCAD students had the opportunity to work with Mr. Kagan on a more individual basis as well, both during and after their time studying here. Noah Packard (’05, Furniture Design) was able to work with Kagan as an intern, eventually earning the opportunity to work full time as a studio designer. Packard now owns and operates his own furniture design studio, Noah Packard Design.
“I really can't put Vladi or my experience with him into words,” says Packard. “[Working with Kagan] was a once in a lifetime experience, and he was a once in a lifetime friend and mentor.”
Chris Eitel (’13, Furniture Design) also had the opportunity to work closely with Kagan during his time at KCAD, and is now the Director of Design and Production at the Vladimir Kagan Design Group. Eitel interned with Kagan just before graduating, and was then offered a job traveling with him as a design assistant to keep Kagan’s various projects moving forward while the pair were on the road.
“I lived with him and we ate breakfast together every morning and dinner every night. I had a room in all of his houses and we essentially became roommates,” says Eitel.
KCAD alumnus Chris Eitel ('13, Furniture Design) with Kagan during his internship (image courtesy of Vladimir Kagan Design Group)
Kagan had a passion for design, but envisioned himself as an artist as well, often using clay models and drawings alongside CAD files and 3D printed models. He also felt strongly about staying connected with young designers, always having interns and students around to help him stay ahead of the curve and push his designs to their full potential.
“He loved KCAD students. We were at the top of his recruitment list anytime he was looking to hire a designer,” Eitel says. “When he got someone from KCAD he would say, ‘They’re trained to speak the language I know. They can draw, they can detail by hand.’ It was a way for him to stay on the cutting edge. He started his career when he was young like me, and he was ahead of his time. He was always pushing the envelope.”
Kagan address the crowd during KCAD's 2001 commencement ceremony, where he received an honorary doctorate degree from the college.
Though Kagan may be gone, his influence on KCAD remains, waiting to inspire future generations of Furniture Design students. He will be sorely missed, and the college extends its condolences to those who knew and loved him best.
Learn more about Vladimir Kagan's work and legacy at vladimirkagan.com.
Learn more about KCAD's Furniture Design program at kcad.edu/furnituredesign.