By Stephanie Murphy
In March 2010, The Coudert Institute drew dozens of participants to a
compelling discussion of “Architecture and Design.” The featured panel of
experts included Paul Goldberger, Vladimir Kagan, Anne Fairfax and Richard
Goldberger is the architecture critic for The New Yorker, where his “Sky Line”
column has run since 1997. In 1984, he received The Pulitzer Prize for
Distinguished Criticism; and holds the Joseph Urban Chair in Design and
Architecture at The New School in New York City. Goldberger, also a prior
presenter for the institute, discussed the highlights of his book, Why
Kagan, who began designing in 1946, had by the early ‘50s, created a new look
in American furniture. His innovative sculptured designs continue to influence
hotel furniture, textiles and home furnishings.
Architects Fairfax and Sammons showed slides of some of their works in Palm
Beach and elsewhere. They demonstrated their common sense approach to
sustainable building practices, and the ability to achieve designs of enduring
John Loring was the moderator. The design director of Tiffany & Co., Loring is
the author of 15 books on Tiffany style and entertaining.
Referring to the panel, Loring asked, “Why are all these people here? They are at
the top of their professions, and they have very strong opinions.”
In a PowerPoint presentation, Kagan showed the architectural origins which
inspired many of his designs.
Loring asked Kagan to explore two questions: what makes good design, to you,
and what makes up your design philosophy? [The moderator also noted that the
New York City building where he lives has two Kagan designs in the lobby].
“I love to look at architecture, but I never got to practice it,” Kagan said,
explaining the background of his career choices. “My father said I couldn’t
make a living in architecture, so I went into [the cabinetry] business with him.”
He described a designer as “the middle man between a product and the
Kagan traced the evolution of every-day devices such as the bobby pin, the
stapler, the zipper, scissors, the steam engine, a manual typewriter, and the
accelerated jumps from electric typewriters to personal computers and today’s
advanced wireless media and communications gear.
He compared and contrasted furnishings that one can buy at Home Depot for
$49 with a $1,000 version at Designs Within Reach.
A fan of chairs, Kagan showed slides of a chair available from Room & Board for
$1,200; and a Vladimir Kagan-creation priced at $6,200.
“The difference is in the perceived value [of designer furniture],” he said.
However, a Kagan sofa with a tag of $899 at Room & Board looks identical to
one on display in the designer’s showroom priced at $8,499 – not including the
fabric. The difference is the core. The less-expensive piece has a plywood
frame; the pricier one has inner springs.
Displaying photos of an “iconic” rocking chair he created in the 1950s, Kagan
referred to some sculptured furniture with an arboreal concept, “like trees.”
He showed slides of Bird in Flight, one in the “Bird in Space” series of marble
and bronze works by Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi. Created in 1923,
it sold for $27.5 million in 2005, a record for a sculpture sold at auction.
Extreme Design: is it art or is it design? Kagan tackled the debate and
illustrated the topic with some works by Marc Newsom, Ron Arad, Philippe
Starck, Zaba Hadid, Frank Gehry and the Campana brothers, Fernando and
Newsom, an Australian industrial designer and furniture craftsman, created an
aluminum bench which Kagan critiqued: “As a work of art, it’s dirt cheap. But as
a chaise longue you can’t sit in, it’s bloody expensive.”
He said the fearless Israeli designer Arad produces “real works of art.” Of works
by the Frenchman, Starck, “some are kitsch, some are wonderful,” Kagan said.
“[Zaba Hadid] said I inspired her furniture designs,” Kagan said, calling them
edgy limited editions, which sell for “outrageous amounts of money.”
The Campana brothers’ compilation of indigenous materials in Brazil is “hardly
furniture, but lovely to look at,” he said.
Citing “The Bird’s Nest” or National Stadium where the Olympics were held in
Beijing and the Monaco Pavilion at The Shanghai Expo in May 2010, Kagan said
“some are more art than practical architecture.”
About the Burj Al Arad Hotel in Dubai, nicknamed the Arab Sail for the tower’s
nautical lines, Kagan posed the question: “Is it art or architecture? I don’t
Kagan cited architectural landmarks and elements that have influenced his
furniture designs: the Grand Canal and several sites in St. Petersburg, Russia;
the Peachtree Hotel in Atlanta; and the Berlin Rail Station.
Architecture shows up in Kagan’s design of a book display wall unit, in which
he “married [the furniture] with the arches, and it leads you through the books
into the living room.”
In an Art Deco building in New York, he designed a wall treatment that doubled
as a desk. After his client died, the furniture went to an heir in St. Louis.
Architecture that takes too long can take wrong turns, as is the case with some
of the later features of La Sagrada Familia, or Holy Family Church in Barcelona --
designed by Antonio Gaudi and under construction since 1882. Kagan’s view is
that the temple progressed appropriately, but up to a point:
“Many of the additions were OK, until they had too much money; now the peaks
are ghastly,” he said.
Kagan is a big fan of concrete and said he loves what builders create with it,
such as the air train in New York over the Van Wyck Expressway; and various
interchanges for I-95 in South Florida.
Recalling that people initially hated the concept for the Sydney Opera House,
which was completed in 1973, Kagan said it’s a gorgeous design and much
loved for decades. Notably, the structure is as famous for its looks as it is for
its use. When the Danish-born architect, Jørn Utzon, received the Pritzker Prize
in 2003, the citation said it was his masterpiece:
“It is one of the great iconic buildings of the 20th century, an image of great
beauty that has become known throughout the world – a symbol for not only a
city, but a whole country and continent.”
Likewise, the TWA terminal at JFK Airport in New York is one of Eero Saarinen’s
best-known projects [the Finnish-born architect also designed The Gateway
Arch in St. Louis].
Kagan recalled “a very eccentric client” who asked him to design a motorized
sofa that could be adjusted for various views at certain times of day. The man’s
idea came from spinning cars in an automobile showroom, and the site for his
new furniture was a loft in Tribeca.
Noting his affinity for bridges, Kagan showed a slide of the pedestrian bridge in
Bilbao, Spain, designed by the architect-engineer-sculptor Santiago Calatrava
[who also designed the new transportation hub for the World Trade Center in
Kagan said the lines of the Coronado Bridge over San Diego Bay are evident in a
1950s table design. Citing the curve-happy Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer,
Kagan said “my chairs have his Rio rhythms.”
And if Ralph Pucci can branch into making mannequins to suit the styles they
wear, why can’t Kagan dabble in a related field? The furniture designer – whose
work includes Nobu restaurant in Milan – said his latest career change is
His hero is Mies Van Der Hohe, and he said he loves Richard Meier’s work,
notably the Douglas House in Harbor Springs, Michigan, and the Jubilee Church
Some of Kagan’s furniture, such as a cantilevered table/desk, has the same
spirit, he said.
He said he is furnishing a client’s home in Boca Raton, where he practices one
of his passions:
“I’m driven by less is more; which for me, equals fewer pieces [of furniture] but
more of them.”
His slides of striking favorites included the personal residence of the late
architect Harry Seidler and his wife, Penelope Seidler, in the Killarra section of
Kagan’s wife, needlework artist Erica Wilson, dubbed one of his designs “the
fettuccine chair,” and pushed him to produce it, he said. She was prescient, as it
has been immensely popular with clients.
Another homerun was Kagan’s Bilbao collection, he said:
“We know it’s been successful, because it’s been knocked off by every major
Alas, the interiors of too many buildings don’t reflect their exteriors or their
surroundings, he said. In one instance, the developer ran out of money, “so I
won’t be famous for designing a flower among the weeds.”
Designing for clients is not the same as accessorizing the lifestyle he shares
with Erica, at their homes in Palm Beach, Nantucket and New York:
“I don’t practice what I preach. Our apartment is, more equals less. What I drive
in Nantucket is a 1922 Model T Ford; which is hardly edgy.”
In introducing architect Richard Sammons, Loring posed the question of what is
“I’m not terribly interested in modernism,” Sammons said, “because the one
differentiation is, it puts a precondition on the good, which means new …
never-before seen. I’m not against progress. But it’s hard to see what is and
Loring referred to an architect during the reign of King Louis XVI who built
neoclassic styles and spheres.
“Isn’t it possible that modernism and classicism can be joined?” Loring asked.
Sammons said that depends on how you define those “isms.” Referring to
Victorian-era art critic John Ruskin, Sammons said Ruskin viewed classicism [or
classicalism] as a “rejection of God and Nature.”
Sammons also recalled 19th-century artist and poet Kenyon Cox, who discussed
classical design as “the disinterested pursuit of beauty.” It is not, Sammons
said, what it looks like that makes it a classical work.
The work of Fairfax & Sammons is “stylistically familiar. That is our choice and
we like it,” Sammons said. “It’s homey ... to do something good in an old way.
We look back five centuries to look forward five centuries.”
Sammons showed a slide of a Palm Beach house designed by Maurice Fatio, but
with additions, and said, “All you see is brand new.”
He showed a dramatic study in contrast between a large house on Gin Lane in
The Hamptons, and a tiny, 9-by-13-foot cottage by a lake that was designed to
accommodate a full-size bedroom, a kitchen, bathroom, and fireplace.
In Florida, Sammons’ firm has an affinity for British Colonial works “or high
Regency,” he said.
One slide in his presentation showed the John Volk-designed mansion at 1930
S. Ocean Blvd. in Palm Beach. Fairfax & Sammons created a major renovation
several years ago for former owner Conrad Black.
Fairfax & Sammons’ portfolio includes urban and civic designs, including
Marion Square in Charleston, S.C., which was a pro bono project.
“What they all have in common is that no part of the buildings is in any way
arbitrary,” said Sammons, a self-described “raging fundamentalist.” The firm
follows strict guidelines, but uses a flexible approach.
Sammons delved into the art of Eurhythmy and symmetry, equality and duality,
in speaking about the meter and rhythm of music:
“That’s the way we play architecture,” he said.