From Palm Beach to Palm Springs
Copyright Vladimir Kagan, February 20, 2016
In November of 2015 a conspiracy was launched to drag me from the East Coast to the West Coast: Palm Beach to Palm Springs. That didn’t sound too daunting all those months ago, but as time grew closer, the reality set in. Why leave Florida’s sunny beaches for California’s arid deserts? Answer: They needed a feature speaker for Palm Spring’s Modernism Week –Who better than me? I could talk up a storm about Mid-Century Modern.
Michael Boodro, the editor of Elle Décor, was to moderate the event. Smart, poignant questions were floated. Michael requested a short Power Point presentation to illustrate my thoughts. ‘Short’ is not in my make-up – “More is more, is more like me.” I prepared a lovely talk with over 150 slides. Editors being editors, Michael pared it down to 45!
Michael Boodro, Editor Elle Decor, Michael Hinkle, Manager, Donor Relations and myself, previewing the slides for the lecture
photo Lani Garfield
(See the Q&A’s between Michael and myself at the bottom of this article)
The Palm Springs Art Museum has the magnificent Annenberg Theater that can seat four hundred-thirty-three people. That was to be my stage! (Empty seats are the kiss-of-death for a performer.) To my surprise they sold over three hundred tickets and at the book signing that followed, I scribbled my notes, sketches and good wishes into over 125 books! The Mid-Century is alive and flourishing in California!
Elisabeth Armstrong, the Executive Director of the Palm Springs Art Museum and me before my lecture
I loved the spacious open plan of the museums architecture and the use of local lava stones to veneer the exterior walls
Here is where I got 'artsy' and created an abstract photo of the Museum's interior.
The Museum has a huge footprint for a small community. It even has a separate building, totally dedicated to architecture and design, converted from a seventies bank designed by E. Stewart Williams a celebrated local architect.
photo Dan Chavkin
The Museum is blessed with members who have a big hearts and deep pockets. But, like everywhere else, prying their hands out their pockets takes skill. But enough of the community’s patrons have made this small museum an architectural treasure with a significant collection.
The Henry Moore Sculpture Exhibit on the ground floor
Meandering through the museum, I found art that amuses me... it may not be a critic's choice, but it's mine
A sculpture made entirely of steel cubes
Taking a leaf out of my friend Seward Johnson's sculpture, this couple is waiting to converse with you.Just pull up a chair!
And especially for me, a luscious nude, real enough to cuddle - (where did Henry Moore find his models? Ha ha)
Every museum needs a Chihuly - thanks to his high level of productivity, every museum can own one!
Louise Bourgeois' Spider creeping up the wall. I saw a thirty foot tall version at the Tate. Does size make it more valuable? Is it more art?
This giant Puppy is entirely made of felted wool.
A wonderful horse, made out of desert drift-wood and cast in bronze.
The museum's two upper floors are divided into focused exhibits: one is dedicated to the core concern of all Westerners - water, another exhibits beautiful indian pottery and jewelry, there is superb contemporary glass. I could have spent the day, but my rule of thumb is that you don't spend the day in a museum when the sun is shining...
My book signing was a breeze, in the museum's garden, under a half moon, with balmy temperatures and plenty of food and booze to keep everyone happy. I could have signed all night, but my hosts' were getting hungry and squirreled me off to a fancy, noisy restaurant for a delicious Valentine's Day dinner.
A stack of books awaiting my signature
One of the celebrity guests at the event, my friend Trina Turk, the fashion designer
I traveled with Mark Minichiello, the COO of my company, whose mission was to make certain that I didn’t get into trouble with a buxom starlet. I was hoping that he’d bring back a whopping big order! He succeeded in the first mission, but fell short in the second.
Mark is a man of military precision. I did not know that when I read his resume. He plans ahead like a drill sergeant, which is quite contrary to me. I live on ‘Kagan time’, which has suited me for quite a few years, but I may have to change my watch to accommodate Mark.
The weekend was delightful, plenty of time to relax by the pool and acquire an instant suntan; I was squired from cocktail parties to receptions and dinners. Star status has its advantages.
Our departure from Palm Springs was delayed due to inclement weather in New York. We managed to squeeze in two more days in paradise. Back east this is considered a boondoggle – out west it’s just the right thing to do.
On our drive from L.A. to Palm Springs we encountered a typical California four-and-a-half hour traffic jam. Mark was not about to let this happen again. He plotted our return four days in advance and with careful calculations, determined our departure needed to be 7:45 AM. At the precise moment of our scheduled departure, the electric lock in my hotel room hopelessly jammed. We were prisoners in my room. A half hour later with the help of a three-man maintenance crew, we were finally set free. Mark’s veins were popping in his forehead. In my Blyth spirit, I found it amusing and apropos to what can go wrong when you plan too seriously ahead. In the end, all went well and we made it to the airport two hours before our flight.
The rescue team that pried open the door
As a farewell present to our friends in California, it actually started to rain as we were departing!
The Q & A session with Michael Boodro of Elle Décor Magazine
The connection between modernism and decorative arts. Why do you think so many modernists were antagonistic toward decoration?
Modern was driven by a mission for purity – less is more - decoration is a sin.
I embrace decoration as part of my design esthetic! I come from a family that worshipped the decorative arts. My father had two art-galleries in Germany; He sold the works of Deutche Werkstätte and Wiener Werkstätte including creations by Joseph Hoffman and Eileen Grey. The range of products included metal work, leatherwork, bookbinding, jewelry and ceramics.
On the opposite site of the spectrum was my grandfather’s shop. Volkskunsthaus Wallach, in Munich, focused on folk-art from painted furniture, printed textiles, and accessories. My father hated my grandfather’s taste and vise-versa. I lived with both. Combining decorative arts and modern was a natural.
That's my mother, age 18, sitting in her father's shop
Many of your designs—even pieces from the 40s—seem so modern as to be futuristic, but you have always looked to natural and organic forms. How do you make organic inspirations seem so contemporary?
It was my devotion to the Bauhaus philosophy that stimulated my earliest modern esthetic. Before my work became ‘amorphous’ I was a devotee of linear design. My studies in architecture found expression in my first furniture designs.
I developed a corollary between modern and organic forms. . My organic shapes follow the human body. I design ‘vessels’ to hold the body. Human anatomy is not angular.
However, I have always been under the influence of Bauhaus ideology. “Less is more.,” meant eliminating clutter. A large amorphous sofa could seat ten to twelve people and eliminated the clutter of chairs. The second inspiration was, “Form follows function,” an admonition to create comfort. No piece of furniture, no matter how beautiful, is functional unless it is also comfortable or useful
Why are your designs timeless?
I have always understood the need to restrain the superfluous. I design disciplined, structurally rational lines.
What has changed home design over the past fifty years?
Apartment living has accelerated the shrinking space. I anticipated this in the 60’s and 70’s and designed the Omnibus Sectional Sofa Collection to accommodate smaller spaces. Omnibus was designed to float in the middle of a room, the sections are relatively small, built for apartment living and each element can be assembled like a ‘Lego’ construction. Not all spaces have shrunk. There are today’s affluent young. They live in multi-million dollar apartments and villas, decorated by trendy interior designers. Thankfully, these are my clients, – My design philosophy suits their 21st Century esthetic.
You have seen so many styles/trends come and go—you have ridden the wave, a few, such as Post-modernism, you embraced yourself. You have been in and out of fashion; embraced by Tom Ford and Bill Sofield at Gucci in the nineties. Did that surprise you? It seems you are more ubiquitous in high design than you ever were. How does that feel?
With my celebrity clients like Tom Ford, Sir Elton John, Tommy Hilfiger, and Angelina Jolie, I floated to the top of the heap. Yes, that is very satisfying. Staying on top, however, takes work. Coming up with new creativity is inspiring and challenging and keeps me energized. Did I ever fathom it would happen? NO. Will I ever retire? Hell NO.
How do you feel about your early work being considered collectible, even as you create new pieces?
It is very flattering that my early works have retained their value and those children that have inherited their parents early Kagans are very lucky indeed. It is flattering that when my furniture comes up at auction, it brings ever-increasing prices.