Although designer Michael Aram’s West Village home is quintessential New York glam, we found that we spent most of our time talking about his home and his life in India, where he spends most of the year, and where he has his workshop. There he designs and produces the tableware and beautiful metal objects for which he has become known. Our conversation gave us a fascinating insight into how the global world works now, and how astute he was to read it right more than 20 years ago when he first wandered the back lanes of New Delhi, entranced by the metal workers with centuries of tradition behind them producing gorgeous handcrafted tools that were considered less valuable than the plastic, factory-produced alternatives.
You said that you were a ‘man of the east’, which is interesting. Can you tell us more about that?
Well my ethnic background is Armenian on both sides and my grandparents and great-grandparents emigrated to Massachusetts, so I’m definitely American-born and raised. But the Armenian in me is quite strong, having grown up in the Armenian church and with the Armenian language. In terms of creative influences, I always say that I grew up crawling around on oriental carpets … you know, pattern on pattern, color, the richness, the richness of the church, the gold … the sense of ritual.
You have to be susceptible to those things though—other people might not be.
Absolutely. The other thing that I would say from my Armenian background that has been highly influential is this love of food and family, the ritual of eating together. Every night was family dinner … it all revolved around beautifully set tables, beautifully cooked meals, and that sense of like a ‘sacredness’ to those moments.
Are you able to keep that up in your current life?
Yes. Absolutely. My friends make fun of me because there’s always linen napkins down, even if it’s two of us. I’m the kind of person who, if I invite you for dinner and you say I have three friends in town, there’s no question—bring them!
Can you describe your life in India? [Michael has had a home in New Delhi for the last 20years.] Can you describe your day there?
Well … my day … [pauses to consider] … the wonderful thing about living in India, I can really truly focus on my work. There’s not a lot of other distraction. My life there is so beautifully focused between my home and my work and my friends … just the way society works there. My house is a running house, there’s a cook there who cooks meals for me, there’s a driver there who takes me to work.
Can you tell us what your house looks like?
I have a home in New Delhi, which is a British colonial home in Lutyens’ Delhi [the part of New Delhi designed by British Edwardian architect Sir Edwin Lutyens] It was designed by Lutyens’ assistant, Walter Forge …an amazing, amazing building with an incredibly lush garden where we have banana trees and monkeys and peacocks. It has very thick walls and fireplaces.
Oh how fabulous! Is it made of that reddish sandstone like the Lutyens’ government buildings?
No it’s white. It’s a white on white India for me. In fact I’ve just designed a collection for Waterford called ‘Jaipur’, which is about my India—very restrained, almost an Anglo-Indian interpretation of Indian motif, you know beautiful crown-moldings but Indian Art-Deco borders and polished terrazzo floors.
Do you have an office there?
Well, I have a workshop there. A hundred and sixty craftsman work there. I use the euphemism that the India office is the heart of the organization and the American side is the body.
How did you end up there?
I went to India in 1988 as a tourist. I was working in New York as a graphic designer and a painter and I took a trip just to visit. On that first trip I walked through the old city and explored the back lanes and the by-lanes of the old city and was seduced by what I saw as incredible talent with the local craftspeople, whose work was underappreciated. They were making buckets and shovels with rivets down the side, which were not as valuable as the plastic bucket. Someone would much rather have a plastic bucket which was lighter and wouldn’t leak than a beautifully-constructed, hand-forged iron or brass bucket with a beautifully-turned handle because they were more functional. These were craftsman who came from centuries of craft! I felt like a kid in a candy store.
What did you want to do then?
Well here I was in New York, I could do nothing but draw or paint in a studio apartment. I couldn’t make any noise, because when you are starting out as an artist in New York City, you can’t just go to the foundry and cast something. Suddenly I was surrounded by people making huge copper vessels – unbelievable! It was a turning point in my life. At that point I just started working side by side with craftsmen in New Delhi, sometimes making drawings in the dirt, sometimes with a sketchpad.
So you just decided to take a leap?
You know, I don’t even know if it was a decision. I just immediately started doing what felt right.
Did the stuff start to sell?
I came back to New York with a bag of things that I had had made. It was the late 80s and everything was state-of-the-art, high tech, brushed stainless and super-clean lines … everything looked like it was made in a Mercedes Benz factory, and I showed up on the scene with the opposite. It was stuff that had all the dents, what I call the hallmarks of the handmade. You could feel every single stroke, every single gesture that went into it. It had what I call ‘I made this’, you know … ‘A human being made that”..
How did people react?
I think that people were waiting for that, for that sensuality. I had done a set of ‘twig’ cutlery. They were on the cover of the Nieman Marcus catalog.
What sort of people do you hang out with when you are India? How did you make friends?
Well I was very lucky because I actually went to visit my sister who was working in fashion there. She was my introduction. Like my first night in India was at the home of who was at that time India’s number one fashion designer. I ended up falling into an incredible group doing unbelievable things.
People tend to be very chauvinistic about the credentials of designers, and their nationalities.
Three of my very dearest Indian friends just showed at Paris fashion week. We’re all part of a global stage now. I was voted ‘Indian Designer of the Year’ a couple of years back!