It’s always a pleasure when an opportunity comes across my desk to interview a person whose work I truly admire. It’s even more special when that person turns out to surpass all expectations upon meeting them. We’ve come to realize that you can often tell the thoughtfulness and genuine nature of a celebrity or well-known person when you sit down to speak with them and they’re equally interested in your life and your story as you are in theirs. Such was the case with designer and acclaimed artist, Michael Aram. We caught up with Michael during one of his recent personal appearances at Neiman Marcus, celebrating his 25th Anniversary Collection. Thirty seconds into our conversation it became overwhelmingly obvious that Michael truly is just a great guy, which only makes us love his work that much more! Here are the highlights from our conversation…
On visiting Chicago. I’m a creature of habit, so when I come to Chicago I like to stay downtown, usually at The Drake or somewhere else in this water tower neighborhood. I love old world! This time I’m staying at a fun hotel that just opened up, The Godfrey. I got in late last night and the weather wasn’t great so I thought do I stay in the room or do I venture out? So I went down to their terrace and it was really quite lovely! The staff, aside from being incredible organized, was very helpful.
On his love of India. I’m from New York, but I’ve spent most of my adult life in India. This year marks 25 years in business, and that’s 25 years I’ve been in India. I went over there when I was 25, so you can do the easy math. But India had played a very important role in my life, and more so my creative life. I was previously working in fine arts in New York, in painting, sculpture, but when I went to India the world opened up to me in terms of craft and making things. I very quickly opened a studio there and started making objects, and the objects I started making at that point, sort of subconsciously, were decorative functional objects. While I was working in craft, I realized that the pieces being made in craft were not fine art pieces, but rather functional objects. So my head went to that space of being in the craft tradition of decorative useful objects.
On working in New York vs. working in India. These days I’m not spending nearly as much time in India as I did in the past! My partner and I had twins [a boy and a girl] three years ago. So ever since the kids came into the picture my time is heavily weighted toward New York now. My ideal rhythm is five weeks here [New York] ten days there [India], five weeks here, ten days there. To balance it. I do have a studio in New York on 18th Street, right above our store. But there’s nothing like working side by side with the craftsmen in the same space. In New York it’s funny, because I’ll sketch something, I’ll sculpt it, I’ll have phone conferences with the Deli team, but when I’m there in India literally it’s draw it, sculpt it, cast it, finish it, file it, polish it… all in the same day! It’s magical! For anyone creative India is a dream. Especially making things like the large sculptural objects we have here at the store, which aren’t functional objects, they’re just purely decorative. To make pieces that large, that intricate, that scale in my studio has just been amazing.
On one of his 25th Anniversary Collection Sculptures. That particular piece was done after a very small mockett I had done years ago, which was funny, it was a little different back then, it was just a little desk piece which had a very tall pedestal and the egg was almost like it was falling off the pedestal with the wing like that [he sketches the object]. It looked like it was going to take off or fly off, right at the edge of the platform.
On designing for different generations. I hear time and time again that when a young woman, such as yourself, registers for her wedding she’ll register for a few of my pieces among other designers, but the older customers who are shopping for a gift, who are not my generation of customers, tend to give my pieces because it resonates with them. They look and say oh, it’s made by hand, it’s something she’ll have forever. It has personality and a sense of craftsmanship, which resonates across generations. I always say I design for grandmother and granddaughter. Celebrating nature in all it’s forms is something that can resonate with anybody.
On family heirlooms. The things all of us remember from growing up are family dinners, how your mother styled something, things that had importance to you. I remember things my parents had back in the day, and seeing them in their home now, or being gifted them now has such incredible power to it, that making things that can be part of a family’s history, used in traditions, used at Sunday night dinner… the spoon that your mom used, or the casserole that she may have used to serve your favorite whatever it may have been… they take on really important meanings for families.
On gift giving philosophies. I think thoughtfulness, and preparedness make the best gifts. I just had a customer take the snail bowl and put shredded grass in it with chocolate Easter eggs. [Michael shows a photo he had taken of the customer and her bowl on his cell phone] I love what I call combined gifts, a photo in a picture frame for example. I think those kind of gifts are wonderful. I think the gifts that seem kind of thoughtless or questionable like the bottle of wine that we wonder if it’s a re-gift, but to give that with a wine coaster, I always say is a gift to enjoy now and a gift to remember later. Those are gifts that are really well thought out. One of the things that I love to do, not that I have too much time on my hands, is to make something for a dinner and take it in a beautiful casserole dish, or arranged on a cake stand and then leave that piece behind at the end of the evening. It could even be as simple as arranging some nice cheese on a cheese board. You just have to put some thought into the gift giving. I also love sequential giving. Let’s say that I know that you love the black orchids so every time I give you something I keep that in mind. Maybe I start with the black orchid candle, and then follow it with the frame, or the catchall. Before long you can create a little trousseau or a bedside vignette in your room of this motif you love, but the gift is always a surprise. Another tip is that when you don’t know a person’s taste well, don’t be afraid to give something you love, that reflects your taste. At a family wedding we recently had a huge argument about giving money versus giving gifts. I’m of the generation that like to give gifts. I want to give that thing that they’ll look at and remember always, because that’s the way it goes. The money disappears, it evaporates, while gifts last generations. I remember growing up and being told so-and-so gave us these candlesticks.
On launching his first jewelery collection. Jewelery for me has been such an exciting extension of my work. I’ve always said jewelery is the holy grail! I love designing pieces that people use, I love designing pieces that mean something to people, I love designing pieces that people touch, and interact with everyday, and hand down to their children, so what could be more special than a piece of jewelery? What could be closer to your body? Something that you really caresse everyday, play with on your wrist, twirl around your finger. It’s usually given to you by someone who loves you, remembers you, cares about you, celebrates you. Or, perhaps bought for yourself on a special occasion, like my first paycheck. I hear so many stories from the women in my life about why they bought certain things, and the moments it marked for them. There are personal victories, or whatever it is- those pieces mean so much! It’s been amazing to design into that. Also to work with stones had been a wish for me. To work with diamonds and semiprecious stones, things that sparkle and have color, has added another dimension to my work that didn’t really exist before. In metal it’s more limited anyway, I’ve always liked to mix metals but now to be able to layer on purple, for instance, that’s not really possible solely in metal. I’m very proud to say that Neiman Marcus is launching the collection in fall, so it will hit stores come August. We’re so thrilled! The reality is just sinking in. For me to work on something of that scale with that sense of femininity and delicacy with my big hands has been a good challenge for me, there’s been a learning curve as jewelery incorporates so much movement and my larger pieces tend to be static. I’ve really wanted to jewelery line to incorporate movement, sparkle, that sense of sensuality, and again, femininity. That’s what it’s all about.
On what else is next. Well anytime I get to work in a new, what we call in the industry, “category” of products it’s exciting. We’re launching lighting- floor lamps, table lamps, soon. That’s all looking gorgeous! This coming fall we’ll also be launching quite a few furniture items, which is exciting because again the opportunity to work at the other end of the spectrum- large, chunky, massive, really more sculptural type accent pieces is so much fun. I’m having so much fun! There’s really something very liberating about doing something for such a long period of time, not only do you have the ability to do things that feel more personal, but also you have the relationships, and the support of wonderful stores like Neiman Marcus which is very encouraging. When they [Neiman Marcus] stand behind you it’s amazing!
Have a look behind the scenes at Michael Aram’s recent Neiman Marcus visit:
[Photos By Hallie Duesenberg]