Israeli-raised designer and retailer Zeev Aram has long been a name to know in British design. In the early 1960s, when the prevailing taste was for chintz curtains and shiny brown furniture, he opened a small white cube of a store on London’s King’s Road. On display were just two Marcel Breuer chairs, a sofa by Le Corbusier and Castiglioni’s Arco lamp – works that, for the most part, had yet to be discovered by the public in this country. So unfamiliar was the concept that legend has it passing traffic was brought to a standstill.
The store was a statement of intent and, over the years, during the ups and downs of boom and bust, Aram has remained true to his early ethos – only dealing in what he deemed to be the very best of modern design. “I was never looking for just the latest or the newest,” he says. “What interested me was what was really fine.” His timing was impeccable. His first emporium opened just as Italy’s great postwar recovery was underway and Italian design began to excite the world; he then replicated his initial success on a grander scale in 2002 when opening his 20,000sq ft showroom, which remains a fixture on London’s Drury Lane to this day.
Aram’s discerning eye has helped introduce some of the best design classics to the capital, and he’s kept a single example of some of the most interesting for himself along the way. The imminent sale of his vintage furniture creates an opportunity for lovers of modernist design to own an icon – just in time for Christmas. Several of the pieces are no longer made and so can only be found at auction, and almost all are of importance in the history of design. For Aram, parting with them is painful. “They are like children, part of my family,” he says. “When I visit the warehouse where they are kept and see three huge racks filled with the things I’ve bought, I fall into a reverie, remembering all the stories behind them. Each one brings back memories. But they are gathering dust and my children don’t seem to want them, so I thought it would be a good idea to offer them for sale.”
The hoard charts much of the story of design from the mid-1960s, although there are a few examples dating back much earlier. It includes such rarities as the Gavina Giro rotating chair designed by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni in 1964. The restaurateur Michael Chow is said to have been so enamoured by the piece when he spotted it in Aram’s store that he bought six for his then girlfriend’s hair salon, even though the leather upholstery was not designed to cope with the constant mist of hairspray. Achille Castiglioni, often referred to as the godfather of Italian modernism, also created the Primate kneeling stool for Zanotta – a concept that created something of a sensation when it was unveiled in 1970. The stool was ergonomically designed to allow the sitter to perch on a cushion that rested on an arched stainless-steel arm: Castiglioni may have drawn inspiration from the east where he observed that people would sit kneeling on the floor without a back support.
Equally engaging, but at the opposite end of the design spectrum is Japanese designer Kazuhide Takahama’s wonderful 1968 Kazuki chair. Although no longer produced, it demonstrates Takahama’s rigorous clarity of line with its straight, linear form constructed from red lacquered wood. He designed the piece for Italian manufacturer Gavina, having met its founder, the furniture designer Dino Gavina, at the Triennale in Milan in 1957. Gavina, a visionary who brought to life the innovations of contemporary creatives and went on, with others, to establish the lighting brand Flos, saw the potential of Italian design early on, working with, among others, the Castiglioni brothers (the aforementioned Giro chair), Richard Sapper (two of his Lambda chairs designed in partnership with Marco Zanuso are up for grabs in Aram’s sale), Marcel Breuer and Man Ray.
One of Man Ray’s most compelling works, the surrealist Le Témoin seat sculpture, was created for Gavina’s Ultramobile exhibition at the Modern Art Museum in Bologna in 1971, where art began to merge with mass-produced furniture. The sculpture, which can be used as a seat, rocking stool, coffee table or just as a piece of art, takes the form of an eyeball made of screened methacrylate, faux leather, foam and plywood. Aram’s example will be sold for £5,500.
In 1968, Gavina established the brand Simon, which manufactured the incredibly surreal MAgriTTA chair by Roberto Sebastián Matta, also shown at Ultramobile. The piece, an example of which can be picked up for £4,500, was modelled on the black hat and green apple in René Magritte’s artworks. Gufram, another creative hub of modern Italian furniture, established in 1966, produced the famed Bocca sofa designed by Studio 65, an avant-garde collective of architects, designers and artists, who modelled the lip-shaped seat on Salvador Dalí’s surrealist portrait of Mae West. Aram’s example will be sold for £10,000.
Given the number of pieces in his private collection, Aram clearly has a passion for Thonet – the company founded by cabinetmaker Michael Thonet, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. Among the rare items in Aram’s selection are two chairs by the Austrian architect and Viennese art nouveau protagonist Otto Wagner, originally designed for the Post Office Savings Bank in Vienna in 1904. One piece has a red upholstered seat, and the other features fine brass stripes on the arms. There’s also the very beautiful Bentwood Model 225P chair, whose curved wooden back support makes it the perfect dining chair. The sale also includes a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; the pioneer of modernist architecture contributed a cantilevered creation in tubular steel for Thonet, which could be yours for £1,500.
One of the earliest pieces in the collection is Josef Hoffmann’s Fledermaus chair, which was originally designed for the famous Viennese Cabaret nightclub in 1907. And among the rarest is a brilliant design by the late Lord Snowdon that he created for Aram’s 23rd anniversary celebrations in 1987. It’s a simple, portable wooden Weekend Wardrobe taking the form of a step ladder that provides weekend guests with a place to hang a suit or dress and store a small number of other garments, jewellery and keys. “We only made a dozen examples and I was thrilled to find I’d kept one back,” says Aram.
With the sad news of the death of the architectural historian and landscape artist Charles Jencks in October, it is poignant to also find six of his Dice table-stools in the sale. The pieces were shown at an Aram exhibition in 1985 and form part of a group that can be placed together for use as a large table or deployed individually as seats. A learned feature in a 1984 issue of Art & Design magazine informs us that “the mouldings vary in pattern from one to another… are reversible and can be turned upside-down to reveal another layered ornament”. Most comforting of all, the article declares that “the proportions are the same as the Parthenon triglyphs”.
These, then, are just some of the special pieces that Aram has collected over the years and now hopes will find a home with people who recognise their true worth. “It’s not a question of making money,” he says. “It’s about giving somebody who would appreciate it the joy of owning a wonderful piece of design.” The pieces will go on display at Aram’s store in rotation from today and can be purchased from the showroom from November 20 until the last piece is sold.