Vladimir Kagan - Design New York Tuesday, December 7, 2021 | Phillips

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  • For the present sofa, Vladimir Kagan adapted his L-shaped Swan-Back sofa (model no. 507), swapping the standard blackened and stainless-steel pedestal base for three gleaming cast aluminum Tri-symmetric pedestals. In a further departure from the 507 sofa, he constructed this example as a sectional (as opposed to a single seat) and instead of having an open-ended hassock, the Swan back sweeps around the corner to accommodate additional sitters. 


    Left: Vladimir Kagan, "Tri-Symmetric" stool, model no. 504, circa 1955. Right: Vladimir Kagan, L-shaped "Swan-Back" sofa, model no. 507, circa 1955. 

    The sofa’s lithe, aerodynamic form, poised on its pedestals as though it’s ready for blast off, recalls the vocabulary of aviation design as well as Biomorphism, two key features of postwar modernism. Yet while many of his peers from the era, such as Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen, designed furniture for mass production, Kagan remained rooted in Old World fabrication methods, working out of his small family-run factory on East End Avenue in New York City before re-locating to Long Island City, Queens in 1973. At the time, the area was populated by cabinetmakers and other small-scale fabricators, such as the local foundry where the Tri-symmetric pedestals would have been cast.


    Kagan described the 1950s as “a playground for experimental creations.” In addition to sculpted wood, he worked in wrought iron, sculpted and cast aluminum, and bronze. He collaborated with artisans and incorporated ceramics, mosaic tiles, and etched metal into his designs. For his upholstered furniture he worked with local weavers such as Nadia Cheripov and Dorothy Liebes and provided his customers with custom-colored textiles through a process known as piece-dyeing. His client base also expanded during this period, in large part due to his partnership with Hugo Dreyfuss, a retired textile manufacturer, which allowed him to open the Kagan-Dreyfuss showroom on East 57th street, a fashionable area known for its art galleries. He showed art alongside furniture in this space, such as busts by Amedeo Modigliani and sculptures by Louise Nevelson, who was also known to scour his dumpsters for wood scraps.


    Vladimir Kagan at his workshop in Long Island City, Queens, New York, circa 1972.

    In this milieu Kagan formed a close synergy with the fine art crowd. His freeform sofas, such as the present example, were developed out of the need for uninterrupted wall space in the homes of art collectors. “I wanted to create a seating concept that would ‘float’ in the center of a room,” he wrote, “an island surrounded by the works of art on my clients’ walls. It was the era of Jackson Pollock, Hans Hoffmann, and Willem de Kooning, and my patrons’ homes were hung wall to wall with these huge paintings.” Several important commissions, such as the duplex apartment for Alexander and Elaine Rosenberg over their gallery on 79th street, his re-design of the apartment of the owners of Pearl Gallery on Madison Avenue, and his Serpentine sofa for the art collectors Judy and Ben Heller, further cemented his status in this realm.

    "I wanted to create a piece of sculpture and saw no reason why a chair could not have the same derivative spark."
    —Vladimir Kagan 

    However Kagan did not just design his furniture in service to art-filled interiors; he aimed to bridge furniture and art with his sculptural, highly imaginative designs. “I wanted to create a piece of sculpture,” he said, “and saw no reason why a chair could not have the same derivative spark.” The creative crosscurrents of 1950s New York City, with artists, galleries, designers, and manufacturers all drawing inspiration from one another, certainly contributed to the highly original aspect of the present sofa. Indeed by the mid-1960s, he had stopped building furniture with metal bases due to the loss of metal and fabricating sources. This sofa is further distinguished by the fact that it’s a hybrid model—Kagan wrote that he “seldom had the opportunity to cross breed from one design to another”—making this work a truly exceptional example. 


    In 1994 when the present owner—an art collector—contacted Kagan for some additional information about the work, the designer responded with great interest and enthusiasm, remembering it so well as he did and so pleased as he was to see it again. Returning to the work some 36 years after he created it, Kagan had the aluminum legs professionally treated by his craftsmen and polished to a lustrous mirror‐like finish; and a few years later, when the collector was ready to have the sofa installed in his new home (not far from Kagan’s own apartment on Park Avenue), he personally arranged for the sofa to be set up and enjoyed.


    In addition to the distinctions of the sofa previously noted, which he discussed in the letter to the owner referenced above, Kagan carefully pointed out to him and delightedly so that the color of the chenille upholstery has a name. He called it Old Gold—which in this case may be described as a deep and dark yellow with a brown metallic tone made to resemble the color of oxidized gold. Indeed, the sofa seems to emit a soft and yellowy golden glow and has an iridescent sheen to it when certainly lit, the latter resulting from the raised textured surface of the chenille fabric (known as “pile”) which catches the light at right angles and when brushed in a certain direction produces that lovely effect. Kagan applied his custom color that was exclusively made for him, Old Gold, not only to the present work but apparently also, a few years later in 1966, to a monumental version of his famous Unicorn sofa that could comfortably sit up to ten people when he received a major commission to design the interiors of the magnificent home of Melvin and Audrey Troy in Sands Point, Long Island. 


    Interior of the Melvin and Audrey Troy house in Sands Point, Long Island, circa 1966.

    An object with a rich past and epitomizing all of the glamour and sophisticated chic for which
    the very best of Kagan’s works are known, this sleek and beautifully sculpted work of art which
    is spectacular from any angle has been the proud centerpiece and focal point of a duplex
    apartment off Park Avenue for the last three decades, where it was surrounded by and
    showcased a collection of twentieth‐century art that included works by Isamu Noguchi, Henry
    Moore, Andy Warhol, Auguste Rodin and others. There, in that treasured oasis, it has presided
    over elegant champagne receptions and “salons” with great art historians such as the late Leo
    Steinberg and Kirk Varnedoe, and welcomed and been enjoyed by many distinguished guests
    from the worlds of art, finance and culture including museum directors, noted architects,
    curators, prominent gallerists, interior designers and others, as well as by Mr. Kagan himself.


    Meticulously maintained by the owner (who is thought to be one of only two) during that time and always kept under cover except for such special occasions, the chenille upholstery which is all original is remarkably well preserved and the color is still fresh and vibrant. The fact that the sofa has survived for more than half a century in such beautiful condition is quite a wonder, though as Mr. Kagan stated in his 2004 autobiography: “These early fabrics were so well constructed that some have survived today.…”

    • Provenance

      Treadway Gallery, Oak Park, Illinois, "20th Century Sale," May 3, 1992, lot 591
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Literature

      Cara Greenberg, Mid-Century Modern, 1984, pp. 38, 102 for the related "Swan-Back" sofa
      Vladimir Kagan, Vladimir Kagan: A Lifetime of Avant-Garde Design, New York, 2015, pp. 84-85 for the related "Swan-Back" sofa, model no. 507, pp. 107-8, 174, 183, 218 for the "Tri-Symmetric" pedestal

Property from a Private Upper East Side Collection


Rare L-shaped sofa with "Tri-Symmetric" legs

circa 1958
Aluminum, original "Old Gold" chenille upholstery.
31 x 113 x 81 in. (78.7 x 287 x 205.7 cm)
Produced by Kagan-Dreyfuss, Inc., New York. Together with a photo-certificate and a letter from Vladimir Kagan, both dated 1994, confirming the authenticity and production details.

Full Cataloguing

$20,000 - 30,000 

Sold for $26,460

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New York Auction 7 December 2021