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How Aram changed our taste in furniture

In spring 1964, one month and half a mile apart, two shops opened in Chelsea, west London, that would reshape the capital’s taste in interior design. One was Terence Conran’s Habitat and the other was Aram Designs — which celebrates 60 years in business this month.

The historian David Kynaston described the early 1960s as a “Janus-faced” era in which Britain looked simultaneously backwards to the second world war and forwards to a more liberated pop culture-fuelled future. Though some of the designs Zeev Aram promoted dated from the 1920s and 1930s, he was firmly in the forward-looking camp, providing cool clean-lined decor that helped underpin London’s new “swinging” image.

And unlike Conran, who mixed French farmhouse kitchenware with contemporary furniture, Aram was resolutely Modernist. “Compared to Terence [Conran] he wasn’t the greatest businessman in the world,” says Daniel Aram, who joined his father in 1999 and is now the company’s managing director. “His focus was not on maximising profits, that was never his business. His focus was on design. He was basically a designer.”

The narrow shop, which replaced the Cosy Dining Rooms at 57 King’s Road, was a showroom to present to clients of his own interior design business — Zeev Aram & Associates — alternatives to the heavy Victorian furniture they had inherited.

black and white archive shot of Aram shop in the King’s Road, 1960s
The King’s Road Aram shop in the 1960s

Aram studied furniture and interior design after moving to London from Israel in the late 1950s. He experienced an epiphany aged 32 on a trip to Milan, seeing the work of designers such as Marcel Breuer and Vico Magistretti and decided to bring them to the UK.

He championed the seminal Irish architect and designer Eileen Gray, whose reputation had languished in the shadow of her male collaborators, including Le Corbusier. The company still has the exclusive worldwide licence to distribute Gray’s designs and her E1027 side table, with its polished chrome hoops, finds a place in many homes a century after it was designed. Later, Aram provided early showcases for up-and-comers including Thomas Heatherwick and Jasper Morrison.

Aram also sold his own designs. He said he rued an offer of a painting in lieu of cash for one of his coffee tables from a young David Hockney. The table was later featured by the artist in a picture, the 1971 “Portrait of Sir David Webster”, which sold for £12.8mn in 2020.

Aram moved the store eastward to Covent Garden in 1973, finally settling in a five-storey former warehouse at the lower end of Drury Lane. Aram died in 2021 but Daniel says the business preserves the ethos he created, mixing commerce with pure design enthusiasm. So alongside the popular lines that keep the store financially buoyant — its strongest seller is Hans Wegner’s 1949 Wishbone chair — floor space is reserved for historically important pieces that cannot be found easily elsewhere, such as the reissues of chairs by Frank Lloyd Wright or Ray and Charles Eames’ surreal, amoeba-like La Chaise.

There is also always room for new design. “We’ll discover some new brand in Milan or somewhere else and think ‘that’s an interesting item’, and put it on the floor just because it’s an interesting design, not necessarily with the expectation that it might make money.” It is this mix, says Daniel, that helps set Aram apart from the numerous other outlets now selling brands such as Cassina, Vitra and Fritz Hansen, and continues to make the store a place of pilgrimage for design students and collectors.

Ray and Charles Eames’ surreal, amoeba-like La Chaise. (1948), still sold by Aram
Ray and Charles Eames’ surreal, amoeba-like La Chaise (1948); reissues are still sold by Aram © Vitra Collections AG
A limited edition of Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair (1925) has been issued by Aram for the 60th anniversary
A limited edition of Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair (1925) has been issued by Aram for the 60th anniversary

To mark the 60th anniversary, Aram is issuing a limited edition of Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair from 1925 — one of the first pieces displayed in the King’s Road shop and reportedly Zeev’s favourite — with black canvas replacing the conventional leather belts in the arm and back rests.

The birthday will also see the relaunch of the Aram Gallery, founded by Zeev in 2002, which put on five shows a year by new designers and occasional retrospectives of undervalued Modernists. The gallery had been mostly mothballed since the coronavirus hiatus and Zeev’s death. In its new iteration it has moved from the third floor at Drury Lane to the basement, increasing its exhibition space by more than 25 per cent.

Daniel plans a more modest schedule of three shows a year, with guest curators and an emphasis on emerging design. “I think that encouraging new avenues and young designers is where we should be,” he says.

bright, airy Aram shop with arched windows and light wood floors and some furniture for sale
The Aram shop in Covent Garden today © Christina Hancock

Programming the first exhibition is interior designer Max Radford who, like Zeev Aram, runs his own gallery to promote designers he admires. The exhibition is titled “Now 4 Then”, the “then” being the future, says Radford: “It is forward-thinking design, as of now, but likely will continue to function and be of the moment as time moves forward.” He was asked to curate the exhibition bearing in mind a comment by Zeev in a 2014 interview: “I decided that I will try my best to bring to the public designs which are contemporary; correct for the time.”

Radford says he interpreted this broad brief by focusing on correctness for a post-disposable, carbon-conscious age. The young designers he has chosen have an eye to longevity and low environmental impact. Isabel Alonso’s minimal tubular chairs are made to be flat packed, cutting the emissions associated with their transport. Jaclyn Pappalardo’s Sunday Bed is made of recyclable materials and its wool and cotton covers were cut from a fabric remnant. The bed is made of clip-together segments that can be reconfigured and added to as its owners’ needs change, to make anything from a day bed to a king-size.

This modularity is a feature of several pieces in the exhibition. “I think people are really considering systems,” says Radford of the designers. “The items are more approachable, so you can be in love with the design, but have it as you want.”

lights and stools on display in a warehouse-like space
Aram Gallery exhibition celebrating the 60th anniversary of the shop, featuring designs by Andu Masebo © Richard Round-Turner

The exhibits’ virtuous qualities are not at the expense of aesthetics. Andu Masebo has welded lengths of stock steel profiles in a circle and covered them in bright lacquers to make a striking postmodern stool or side table. Some designs, such as Amelia Stevens’ stripped-back glass and steel table with its intersecting planes, channel the Modernist sensibility that Aram Design introduced in the King’s Road.

That sensibility helped show a way out of the postwar doldrums for domestic design in the 1960s. Sixty years on, the pieces on show in the Aram gallery may point the path to a new, less environmentally reckless, age.

“Now 4 Then” is at Aram until June 15;

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