Pioneering presence

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There can’t be too many retailers who would open a shop with just six products in the main showroom. Yet that is precisely what Zeev Aram did when he launched his first Aram in London in the 1960s. There, in a pristine white space – in itself a revolutionary step at the time – were two chairs by Marcel Breuer, a sofa by Scarpa, a table by Vico Magistretti, a chair at the back by the Castiglioni brothers and a huge curving Arco light. At the time, all the designers were known only to a select group of architects, designers and other cognoscenti. To those who had never heard of them and first saw them in Aram’s showroom, they came as a revelation.

Aram’s approach makes more sense when you consider he “never intended to be a retailer at all. I was an interior designer working with outstanding architects of the day, such as Sir Basil Spence and Ernö Goldfinger, and I couldn’t seem to find the sort of exciting contemporary furniture that I wanted for the buildings and interiors, so there was nothing for me [to do] but to bring [it] into the country myself,” he explains.

His frustration was understandable. Pre-Aram London was home to a raft of huge shops stuffed to the rafters with shiny mahogany faux-Chippendale and Sheraton. The shining exception was Heal’s, a small oasis attempting to sell modern furniture. But there was no Ikea or Habitat (the first Habitat store was opened on the Fulham Road in 1964, a few months after Aram). The houses of most city dwellers were filled with stripped pine furniture, culled from junk shops, or faded country-house chintz. The prevailing view at the time (even from the Design Council) was that the public couldn’t possibly understand exciting new modern design and would need a great deal of education before it was worth putting anything interesting before their dull, ill-informed eyes.

Aram, though, wouldn’t consider selling anything but the best. “I decided only to have outstanding examples of modern design in my shop, which I then hoped would sell – I never chose anything simply because I knew it would sell.”

Many others have come around to Aram’s way of thinking over the past few decades. And the furniture scene today – dozens of small niche design-aware shops as well large, more traditional stores selling modern classics (Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Eileen Gray, Marcel Breuer and their ilk) as well as cutting-edge, 21st-century design – is a testimony to how far we’ve come.

But, from Aram’s point of view, other things have regressed. “Just as an architect needs a discerning, educated client to produce a really great building so product and furniture designers need the collaboration with a really skilful, caring and involved manufacturer if they’re to come up with really great new pieces. [But] the state of manufacturing has changed dramatically over the years. The bean counters have taken over from the great manufacturers of the mid 1960s and 1970s who helped advance Italian design so much. Making furniture . . . is more of a business than the passion it used to be.

“Look at the wonderful companies such as Cassina, Poltrona Frau, Capellini – all those were owned by people who cared enormously about design. What I see now is lots of shouting, lots of big gestures and designs that stun . . . but I see very little that seems to me to have long-term staying power and real quality of the sort that the designs of, say, Breuer or Eileen Gray or Flos, have got.”

He worries about the influence of fashion – “the problem with fashionable furniture is that it then goes out of fashion” – and even technology. “The advance in technology since the days when I first started selling furniture has been huge and that [is what] seems to be driving most new design,” he explains. “What I would like to see is the two parallel worlds coming together so that all the technical advances could be harnessed to good pieces made by manufacturers who have the patience, know-how and stamina to see them through. We need more pieces that are innovative, original, functional and very beautiful instead of so many things that are merely original and new.”

He applauds the media for having made design “respectable”. But there is criticism too: “The trouble is that the market is demanding all the time ‘What’s new?’ whereas what I am interested in is ‘What is really fine?’”

Those who want to see which pieces Aram puts in that category need to visit the modern-day Aram Store in London’s Drury Lane – where he now stocks more than six items.

Aram, tel: +44 (0)20-7557 7557; www.aram.co.uk

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