When David Hockney was asked in 1971 to paint a portrait of the retired CEO of London’s Royal Opera House, he insisted that the model come to his Notting Hill flat. The resulting image, Portrait of Sir David Webster, shows the ill Mandarin in a Mies van der Rohe chair, next to a glass table with steel tube legs. Both pieces of furniture were sold to Hockney by Zeev Aram, who also designed the second.
Aside from its subject, Hockney’s painting is a portrait of a time whose gaze Aram had helped shape. His glass table, called Altra, had in 1971 become a sine qua non of London fashion shows. Aram, who died at 89, had designed it in 1967, exactly 40 years after the Mies chair. Both had been displayed in the showroom-office at 57 King’s Road, Chelsea, which had opened in 1964. King’s Road, then, was at the heart of what was about to become Swinging London: Mary Quant’s Bazaar was at a few doors down from Aram’s store, Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell’s Quorum around the corner. In Hockney’s portrait of the last two, Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy (1971), Clark hunches over in a Marcel Breuer chair; a trademark of Aram.
Both Mies and Breuer had been to the Bauhaus, and it was Bauhaus aesthetics that informed Aram’s eye. Born to Jewish hotelier parents, Palma and Aaron Ungar, in Cluj, Romania, he was brought to what was then Mandatory Palestine in 1940 to escape anti-Semitism. Leaving kibbutz boarding school at age 15, Ze’ev – Hebrew for “wolf”, pronounced “Zev” – had found work with an architect named Hans Zelig, who was designing a restaurant in Tel Aviv for Aaron. Zelig had been to the Bauhaus. “I was just a guy from odd jobs, sharpening pencils and making tea,” Aram recalls. But every night Hans gave me drawing and perspective exercises. He taught me basic design and stayed with me. “
This architectural formation was interrupted by national service in the new Israeli navy – Zeev changed his name at this time, from Ungar to Aram, to better assimilate into Israeli society – which in turn led to a seven-year commission. (Something about the sailor was staying with Aram, who was short, broad-chested, and walked with a rolling step.)
In 1957, he met Elizabeth Bunzl, the English daughter of Viennese parents, who had come to Israel to work on a kibbutz. When Bunzl returned to London to study textiles at the Central School of Art, now Central Saint Martins, Zeev accompanied her. They were married the following year. Graduated from Central in 1960 in furniture and interior design, Aram found work in the offices first of Ernö Goldfinger and then of Basil Spence.
When he got to London, Aram said, he knew how to load a gun, but not how to mix paints. “I didn’t bring anything from Israel in that line,” he laughed. “I only contributed persistence, insistence and impudence.”
If, in the early 1960s, the British had largely converted to modernism in architecture, they had not yet been conquered in terms of decoration. “People drove smart cars and watched televisions,” recalls Aram, “but when they bought furniture, they wanted to reproduce it.” In part, this was due to a lack of choice. The strange Eames chair aside, London was then a desert of good modernist furniture. In January 1964, Aram traveled to Milan in search of that. There, for the first time, he saw works by Breuer and Italian designers, Achille Castiglioni Y Vico Magistretti. He quickly signed contracts for all three.
On April 9, Aram Designs opened its doors in Chelsea, its all-glass facade and white and stainless steel interior stopping passersby in their tracks. “People were horrified by the furniture,” recalls its cheerful founder. “I used to sit at the Wimpy across the street to see their reactions.” When American Vogue photographer Claude Virgin walked in and bought a Breuer Wassily chair on opening day, Aram was so taken aback that Virgin was forced to carry it home on her head. It was the store’s last sale in three months.
This soon changed. Upstairs from the showroom was Aram’s small design office, producing interiors for an increasingly bluechip clientele, and the furniture often came from the shop below. In 1965 a commission arrived for Simpsons of Piccadilly, a rare modernist landmark in central London. Aram’s curved-edged white plastic accessories captured the 1960s mood, drawing a younger clientele to what had become rather stifling menswear. Other corporate clients included advertising giant J Walter Thompson, although Aram was not above hiring smaller regional firms. There were also private clients, including a heartless man who Aram mistook for a gas fitter, but who turned out to be Victor Rothschild. “I opened the door, he looked around and he told me to get in touch with his secretary,” Aram recalled. “We ended up designing his office and we became good friends.”
By 1973, rents in Chelsea had multiplied and the showroom had gotten too small. Aram moved his business to Kean Street in Covent Garden. When the old warehouse next door went up for sale in 1999, the store also expanded, eventually moving into its current Drury Lane building in 2002. By now, the business was established enough that Aram was less focused. in your own designs. and more from other people. While touring the art school degree exhibitions, he would invite his attention-grabbing students to exhibit in the company’s third-floor gallery, covering all costs himself and hosting launch parties that flowed champagne. Among other recipients of this generosity were Thomas Heatherwick and Jasper morrison.
In 1973, too, Aram met Irish designer, Eileen Gray, then in her 90s and almost forgotten. When asked by Aram if he could start making his designs, Gray assumed he was joking. These are now among Aram’s most successful products, most notably the iconic E1027 side table. When asked what the proudest moment of her career had been in 2014, Aram replied, “Bringing Eileen Gray back to life.”
By that year, the 50th anniversary of his signing, Aram had joined the business with two of his children, Ruth and Daniel. In 2014 he was also named OBE.
Despite everything, he remained eminently a family man. If his business life was in the West End, his home was the quiet suburb of Wimbledon, in South London. The Dutch Edwardian home where the Arams raised their four children emphasized both comfort and style, yet contained an impressive collection of art. However, it is not a Hockney. When the painter bought his Altra table in 1971, he had offered to pay for it with a painting. Aram responded that, in general, he would prefer to have the money in cash. That Hockney’s portrait in which his table appeared sold in 2020 for £ 12.9 million it amused him a lot.
Ruth died in 2018. Aram is survived by Liz, her children Deborah, Karen, and Daniel, and 10 grandchildren.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism