Zeev Aram is cheerfully observing parakeets hanging off the bird-feeders in his London garden, and occasionally interrupts the conversation to comment on some particularly acrobatic piece of feeding. “I never liked this house,” the designer says, “ever since we bought it – until we built this space.” The “space” he is referring to is a garden extension, a generous dining room spanning the width of the house with a lofty vaulted ceiling. “I kept wanting to extend it,” he adds, “but my wife kept putting it off. Still, now we’ve done it – it’s good, hmm?”
We are sitting on Arne Jacobsen Ant chairs arranged around an oval dining table. Beside us are two elegant wood-and-leather armchairs by Austrian architect Josef Frank, chairs by Eames and Le Corbusier and, on the wall, a lithograph by Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida. But before you get the impression that this is some kind of modernist temple, it is nothing of the sort; it is a big Victorian house in Wimbledon filled with lovely things.
Aram, 82, who was awarded an OBE earlier this year, is, you might say, the man who brought modern furniture to Britain. Having opened his first shop in the King’s Road in Chelsea in the swinging 1960s, he pioneered the tubular chairs, radical lights and now familiar accoutrements of modernist living in a city still mired in brown wood and mossy upholstery. Now his shop inhabits a huge warehouse in Covent Garden, and the company celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
“All my friends lived in north London, in Islington, Hampstead or St John’s Wood,” says Aram. “But my first digs were in south London, in Putney, and I always stayed south of the river. As I got older, I just moved further up the hill,” he laughs.
He may have been in south London for seven decades but he got there by a circuitous route. “I was born in Klausenburg,” he says. That’s Cluj-Napoca in present-day Romania, formerly in Transylvania; to ethnic Hungarians the city was known as Kolozsvár. “Everyone wanted their own name for the city,” he says.
With the outbreak of the second world war, the family left for Israel in 1940 and Aram grew up there, serving in the army and the navy, but came to London in 1957 “for an education”. “I arrived and I realised my complete ignorance in the creative world, so I became a bit of a magpie.”
Aram had wanted to study architecture but found himself studying interior design at the Central School (now Central Saint Martins). After three years he joined the office of a fellow Hungarian, the renowned Ernö Goldfinger, designer of the first modernist house to be bought by the National Trust (Willow Road, Hampstead) and London’s Trellick Tower.
Goldfinger was famously difficult. “The average survival time in the office was six-and-a-half months,” he says. “I did well – I was there for 10.” Aram worked on interiors, including the architect’s own kitchen. “I was perhaps the 12th or maybe the 15th to work on those designs,” he says, “and not the last.”
He went on to work for Sir Basil Spence, architect of Coventry Cathedral and, finally, for Spence’s erstwhile partner Andrew Renton. He was, in other words, at the heart of postwar British architecture.
“I realised, though, that I was getting too comfortable; I needed to set up on my own, while I still could.” So, in 1964, he set up shop on the site of an old restaurant (The Cosy Dining Rooms – “2s and 9d for a three-course meal”). “The neighbours were Mary Quant and the tailor John Michael – it was becoming incredibly fashionable.”
It was after Aram’s shop opened that Terence Conran opened his place a few doors down. Aram maintained parallel careers as a designer and a retailer for almost three decades, introducing to the UK some of the most recognisable and influential furniture of the modernist era with the design of his own popular ranges and a series of interiors and fit-outs.
“The first design project was our own shop,” he says. “I loved Marcel Breuer’s designs – which you couldn’t get here then – and we thought we’d start selling those. And if we couldn’t get them then we could just sell my own designs.”
Aram did manage to get them and the bent-tube designs of Breuer, the Hungarian-born, Bauhaus-trained architect (inspired by the functionalism of bicycle frames) became an almost ubiquitous presence, from boardrooms to dining rooms. Aram acquired licences and began both importing and manufacturing the most popular pieces. Breuer’s designs were joined by those of Le Corbusier, Charles and Ray Eames and Achille Castiglioni.
At the same time Aram was also an assiduous promoter of young designers, curating exhibitions and using his showroom to give space and exposure to design graduates. But the designer with whom Aram came to be most associated was, at the time, almost completely unknown.
Eileen Gray, who has since earned the accolade of becoming the most expensive designer in history – her Dragon chair (“Fauteil aux dragons”) sold at auction in 2009 for an astonishing $28.3m – lived in her Paris apartment in obscurity despite having designed some of the most refined – and now revered – pieces of modernist furniture. “Joseph Rykwert had written about her in Domus in 1969,” Aram says, “and there had been a small exhibition. When I approached her, she originally couldn’t believe that anyone was interested. She said it was ‘a bad joke’.”
“She was such a success in the 1920s that even Le Corbusier was jealous of her. She’d been forgotten for 40 years, so for her it was like a rebirth or ... ” – he pauses to think of the right word – “ ... an affirmation. She was never interested in the money – but I think she was grateful to finally be recognised.”
An Eileen Gray sofa sits in the front room just beside us, along with her now familiar (and still unsurpassed) E1027 adjustable height table originally designed for her own Côte d’Azur house. As we walk around, Aram points out certain objects. “Please don’t photograph that picture,” he asks the photographer; “everyone always wants that one.” It’s a big Prunella Clough abstract canvas – Clough was Gray’s niece. There is an exquisite portrait of Brigitte Bardot in a hat by Peter Blake, works by Allen Jones, David Hockney and other artists from Chelsea’s pop art era.
Aram has the same enjoyment of objects, sculpture and furniture that a chef might have of ingredients: he rolls his eyes and sighs, exuding pleasure in their beauty and strokes their forms. I ask if he keeps any of his own designs around. He looks at me. “Hmm. In the garage.” So we go in there and find whole walls of his Dino storage system, an ingenious and deceptively simple modular system of notched timber uprights, shelves and drawers. “In the end it just grew too many parts ... It was like a Swiss Army knife with all the functions. We even had a bed.”
He continues: “For years, reporters wanted to come and photograph me at home, and I always said ‘No, this is a home, not a studio’. It was a mess, toys everywhere, drawings scrawled on the walls.” Finally, he takes me to a folksy painted Hungarian linen press, a reminder of his Transylvanian roots. “Do you want to know what’s in it?” he asks, and opens it. It is stuffed with toys and games. “For the grandchildren,” he says. “Now, at last, we have space.”
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic
Aram guides me to a small plinth cantilevered prominently from the wall, which displays a slender, mesmerically lovely, wooden sculpture of an Egyptian baboon god. “I was a guest at a charity auction and no one wanted it. So I got it for £25,” he says.
Beside it is another carving. “Liz [his wife] got this one at her shop [Traders Antiques in Wimbledon Village]. It came off a piece of furniture.”
Aram hands me a bird, almost streamlined in an art deco style. “Look how beautiful,” he says as he caresses its flowing shape. Antiquity and modernism always seem to go together so well.
Letter in response to this article:
Heal introduced modern furniture / From Mrs Jean North