meet the makers | Jun 27, 2024 |
This furniture maker earned his chops as Vladimir Kagan’s apprentice

Chris Eitel is a storyteller. The New Jersey–based director of design and production at Vladimir Kagan Design Group approaches each of his pieces with a specific narrative in mind before deciding which materials and techniques to use. “My mission is to continue to build upon Kagan’s legacy by telling his stories through design,” he tells Business of Home. “I agree with his philosophy that you can find inspiration anywhere—you just have to look.”

Chris Eitel of Vladimir Kagan Design Group
Chris EitelAndrea Fremiotti

Eitel’s design story begins just over a decade ago in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he earned a degree in furniture design at the Kendall College of Art and Design while interning for Kagan. Once promoted to full-time apprentice, he began living and traveling with the legendary designer and his family—who had homes in New York, Nantucket and Palm Beach. “Our general routine was to wake up, exercise, have breakfast, and start working on designs in his home studio,” he says. “Vladi called it ‘The School of Kagan,’ and in those years, he effectively gave me a master’s degree in furniture design.”

In 2015, Eitel was named director of design for the brand, just a year before the prolific designer passed away. Then the company was acquired by Holly Hunt in 2016. Today, he strives to keep Kagan’s traditions alive by reimagining his most iconic pieces for the modern age. “We like to approach a reintroduction by considering the story that the design can tell from the past,” he says.

In addition to updated reissues, he also fashions fresh designs—including the sinuous Big Picture sofa and the multitasking Bienenstock coffee table—using the firsthand knowledge and skills he gleaned from his mentor. “I use materials such as foam and clay to help turn my idea into a working model that I can sculpt and carve,” he explains. “I believe that each design has its own path to becoming an object, and it often requires a lot of tools and techniques—and trial and error—to determine the final design.”

The First Collection by Vladimir Kagan at Holly Hunt
The First Collection by Vladimir Kagan, re-created by Chris Eitel for Holly HuntCourtesy of Holly Hunt

Working closely with his team of in-house artisans, Eitel transforms his models into prototypes and eventually full-fledged furnishings, often employing a collaborative process he learned from Kagan. “As an apprentice, I would interpret Vladi’s loose sketches into orthographic drawings that he would edit and give back to me,” he explains. “We called this back-and-forth process ‘wash-rinse-repeat,’ and I still use it today with success.”

Holly Hunt’s Big Picture sofa by Vladimir Kagan
Holly Hunt’s Big Picture sofa for Vladimir Kagan Design Group at Holly HuntCourtesy of Holly Hunt

In April, he relaunched the first two pieces his mentor ever produced: a side chair and table he designed for his parents’ home eight decades ago. The fittingly named First Collection features updates to the solid walnut chair including a version with undulating armrests (a tribute to the designer’s sculptural furnishings) and a larger-size offering, which Eitel scaled up to better suit modern-day dining setups. “We make these chairs entirely by hand utilizing the same techniques that Kagan used in his workshop back in 1947,” he says. The artisan reconceived the famed flare-leg table with optional drawers that allow it to moonlight as a storage piece in other areas of the home. “I wanted to keep it as close and pure to [Kagan’s] original design as possible,” he says of the collection. “That’s why we offer both pieces in their original ‘vintage’ sizes.”

Looking ahead, Eitel is hard at work on several new designs for the brand, including a line of outdoor furniture inspired by Kagan’s archives. “I am also working on some pieces that will be launched in limited editions,” he says. “These are very exciting for me because they’re the sort of high-level designs that I got my start doing with Vladi over a decade ago. I have a lot of ideas on how to bring more limited-edition pieces into our product offering, and I look forward to telling the stories behind each one.”

If you want to learn more about Chris Eitel, visit Vladimir Kagan Design Group’s website or Instagram.

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