For a hundred dollars, I would have been an artist,” Michael Aram chuckles. The high-end dinnerware designer seems to be living a gilded life, with a department in Harrods and a contract with Waterford Crystal. He flits between his stylish home in New York’s West Village to his open, airy apartment in New Delhi’s Sujan Singh Park (where he tells us the abridged story of his life over cold coffees). And he is feted by American magazines and newspapers alike.
Yet 20 years ago, he was a nearly-broke, confused 25-year-old, unable to pursue a career in painting because he couldn’t afford an apartment $100 above his budget.
India-inspired: At his factory in Noida, Michael Aram with pieces from his dinnerware line. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
As so many others before and after him have done, he bought a ticket to India in search of something. His sister worked in fashion here and perhaps inspiration would strike.
And strike it did. In the galis of old Delhi, Aram stumbled across a street of metal workers, casting molten iron into scissors, buckets and shovels. “When I saw what they were doing, it caught my imagination.”
Aram had caught the Indian bug. “(India) is an incredible collage and a pastiche of things and they are always so divergent. It gets under your skin.”
Aram spent the next two months with the craftsmen, using “a lot of hand gesticulation”, making sketches in the dirt, and learning the trade. “We come from such a manufactured world in America,” he says. “Where you just imagine everything pops out of a machine…because everything does pop out of a machine. There is so little hand process in any of it.” He returned to the US only to pack up and move full-time to India in the fall of 1988 to start a business. “This was all Rajiv Gandhi, economic liberalization coming; it was a very heady time. It was all this young government and looking abroad and encouraging investment.”
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But Aram did not have it easy when he arrived. There was no network of metal workers. People saw handcrafted textiles as something worth preserving, but casting metal products would soon be outmoded, replaced by plastic goods. But he forged ahead anyway. “Thankfully, I had youth and ignorance on my side,” Aram says. “I had the energy and I didn’t know any better.”
In 1989 Aram took his second collection of hand-beaten dinnerware to the New York furniture fair. The Twig collection looked as if silver sticks had suddenly sprouted spoons, forks and knives. Nieman Marcus, a large department store chain, put the collection on the cover of its fall catalogue and the Michael Aram line became an instant hit.
Olive branch dish: $75.
His designs, many inspired by nature, have an ornate feel to them, with the rustic charm of slight handcrafted imperfections. The line, though, did not have a distinct Indian feel. “What was inspiring for me was the craft(s) tradition,” Aram says, “but the (Indian) design I pushed away.”
He says that coming from a fine arts background, he took a “militant” approach to inspiration. His inspiration stemmed from his Armenian heritage and his American childhood—and wasn’t slapped on because he was in India for a few years. “I can’t just arrive someplace and have it influence me. I am someone who feels he has to assimilate.”
To explain his fear of assimilating too fast, he relates a story of travelling to Armenia as a 17-year-old and finding an amazing pair of cotton trousers. “I knew that they were long underwear in Armenia, but they were so cool and comfortable and I was just like, I’m going to wear them.” He chose church as the place to debut his new style.
Wisteria vase: $129.
“I was ushered out of the church so fast. They must have thought I was this crazy person, ‘He’s wearing his underwear in church!’”
When he came to India, he vowed not to repeat the same mistake. “My paranoia was, if I don’t understand this, I’m not going to do this.” Today, Aram laughs at his attitude then: “I’m like, you know, I can own that. It’s been half my life and of course, of course it’s influenced me, even if I don’t realize that!”
To celebrate the Indian half of his life, he’s coming out with a 20th anniversary collection dubbed Mughal Garden, featuring botanical motifs and inlaid marble detailing.
There have been difficult periods during Aram’s 20-year stint. In 2005, an article in the Tehelka magazine published grainy black and white photos of Aram’s factory and accused him of running a sweatshop. At the time, a small number of the workmen were protesting outside the factory, as their salaries had stopped suddenly.
Aram does not want to dwell on the incident. He says the issues arose from a dispute with his Indian business partner and that “it was a horrible, horrible time. It was the most horrendous moment of my life”. He says the same men who protested now work with him at a new company he created, independent of his former partner, and the Indian courts eventually sided with Aram.
Despite that dispute, he says, “I’ve never had a problem with the craftsmen— ever.” And he and the craftsmen have developed a strong bond even though, “in the old days, they really had no idea what I was doing”.
Twigware: $82.50 for a set of 5 pieces.
At one point, he found some “lovely south Indian bowls” that he asked his employees to polish; he then served food in them. Nobody ate from them. Finally a friend admitted why: They were kolambi (bedpans). “As an outsider you get excited about everything: look what I found!” But though his employees didn’t question polishing the bedpans, they do question many other design choices. “It’s a real tug-and-pull.”
But the craftsmen may have exerted more influence on Aram than he on them. He started as a fine arts painter, but since “they were making functional objects, my head went right to functional objects. I said, ‘Oh, if you’re making a bucket, you could make a bowl’.”
He says what finally gave him the confidence to forgo painting was an exhibit of Alexander Calder’s work at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York. “I discovered Calder’s universe. Everything was done in the same breath—whether it was a carpert or an airplane or an ashtray or a toy or a spoon in the kitchen. It was all done with the same expression. I think for me that was very liberating… I think design and art is about taking nothing and making something. If we can broaden our definition of what creation is, whether you’re binding a book, or refinishing an antique or making a Christmas card, it’s all the same act.”
Mughal tea set: $2,970.
Aram’s pieces cost $29-2,800 (around Rs1,360-1.31 lakh) and can be purchased directly from his site www.michaelaram.com