Beauty in Natural Details: AIWA-SF Interview with Michael Aram
By: Christine Soussa
Beautiful designs by Michael Aram are in most homes, and most certainly in every Armenian homes. I (Christine Soussa) remember being drawn to the pieces when I was putting together my wedding registry. They evoke a sentimental emotion because of the effortless beauty. I was quite star-struck when I had the honor of interviewing Michael Aram, an award-winning designer, about his life, careers, and his perspective as an Armenian American. A copy of how their conversation transpired is below:
Tell us about you came to be where you are today in your life and in your career?
I like to say that I am a 28 year old success story that started at age 25. I love art and craft. Specifically, I was inspired by Alexander Calder, and artist who was making jewelry for his wife, toys for children, murals, sculptures – he was not impressed by labels – he was just making things, beautiful things.
I was drawn to this fluid process and so I traveled to India in 1988, where I had the opportunity to work with artists. I was so moved by their skills and humility. There I had no restrictions, the craft based design was very fluid and hands on. I discovered that people were willing to celebrate functional art for the home. It was spectacular, it was 1988 and people were very industrial, my pieces were all hand crafted and I would love, and still love to see a finger print on a piece. For me, it was the right place to be at the right time.
At the time, I resided in New York City, where most artists were frustrated: they worked 4 jobs and felt they were in “pigeon holes”, I remember my rebuttal, “Pigeon holes are for pigeons! You are not a pigeon!” I never had this feeling of the artists block. For me the process (of creating art) is fluid and creative. I never identified with nor had a sense of “snobby-ness” for me, I was making art. In that spirit, I didn’t label my work as fine art, or abstract art, etc.
Keep in mind, at that time, no one was in India and as an American, I couldn’t have a car, or bank account. Yet, at the age of 25, driven by passion and youthful curiosity, I emptied my bank account and went, while everyone thought I was crazy, imagine being a 25 year old Armenian who tells his parents he’s going to India, it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. As a result, every day at Michael Aram feels like the first day of the company.
Where do you gain your inspiration from and how do you translate that into expanding your brand and offerings?
It’s important to have brand DNA. I find inspiration everywhere especially from nature and the crafting process, we make all our products by hand. The fusion of organic elements and craft is a magical process. Marking pieces of nature by hand reflects humanity and it gives pause. It tells a story through its beauty and its symbolism. Our pieces are emotional and there is something behind them that sparks a thought, dream, discussion, this is something that makes our brand authentic, beautiful, and meaningful.
What advice do you have for young Armenian’s who look to you as a role model?
Be yourself. I know that sounds simple but it’s a struggle for many that I see regularly. Don’t be afraid and listen to yourself. There will always be naysayers saying you can’t do it or you aren’t good enough. Don’t be afraid of doing something because of its limits. Small is beautiful. Be sincere and pure.
Many define success using money as a motivator. For me, success comes from doing what I love and keeping it going. Keeping it fresh. When we think about success from money, we are putting a cart before the horse. When I started, I didn’t have a business plan, I didn’t do market opportunity analysis, I didn’t go into it saying I want to be a global brand and here is a business plan that’s going to get me there. I just wanted to make things and I wanted those things to come from the heart. I was simply myself and followed my passion.
Growing up, I was embarrassed to study art. Often times, there is a notion that artists aren’t business people. There is this phrase, the “revenge of the artist” or thoughts around the left side vs. the right side of the brain and their different capabilities. However, by definition creative people are problem solvers who create something out of nothing- and that’s also what business people are. The process of creating and problem solving is the same thing.
Don’t buy into the preconceived ideas of what works and what doesn’t.
If you were to pick 3 must have Michael Aram pieces for a new collector what would they be?
I love the olive branch nut bowl, it’s a sweet way to start a Michael Aram collection and one that will be enjoyed regularly. Additionally, the wheat bread plate from my new collection is my answer to “God Bless this house”. Finally, the cheese board.
These three items are must haves that make entertaining easy, beautiful and impactful.
What advice would you give your younger self if you could?
Speak up more. As a child I was very shy.
As you raise your own children, how do you integrate your personal and professional responsibilities, what advice do you have for working parents?
I am fortunate to be able to integrate our children into my work. My kids come to the studio after school and together we draw. Kids take pride in what their parents do. There is something lovely about showing children what they can do as a result of exposing them to what their parents do. It’s sweet to make that part of your family discussion and talk about it. For example, recently my daughter has been inspired by shells and my son is interested in going to India soon.
Tell us a little bit about the piece you made for the Pope’s recent trip to Armenia?
That was an incredible honor and truly a historic moment! I was given a month, so not much time but it came together quickly and beautifully. The design was very intuitive and came very easily to me – it was just obvious that the sculpture had to be Noah’s Ark. Talking about the symbolism of Christianity, salvation, beauty after a hard time, refugee children. I wanted to touch on all of the elements in a beautiful and sentimental way.
When we were there presenting the piece to Pope Francis and Catholicos of All Armenians Garegin II, they surprised us with water, where they each emptied beautiful jugs of water into the arch. A beautiful symbol of new beginnings, I had goose bumps. It was incredible and at that movement it felt like everything stopped. I was standing next to Hranoush Hakobyan, who is on the National Assembly, I have her a huge hug, it was so moving and I felt like a dream, it truly was a historic moment and one I will always honor.
The piece is has a lot of symbolism including toufa stone base from Mount Ararat, the dove, the olive branch and of course the ark.
It took a lot out of me and my company to not post about the experience, but it wasn’t about me or the Michael Aram brand. This was a beautiful and sentimental historic moment. As an Armenian I felt so proud to see Pope Francis and Garegin II standing side by side in Armenia. When the Pope posted about it on Instagram, the emotion, beauty and heart of the experience was shared with the world.
What are the biggest challenges and opportunities you see for Armenians especially in the arts?
Our community has such strength and talent. I hope we will continue to reach out to each other, support each other and link to one another as a community to accomplish great things individually and together.
Can you address the importance of philanthropy in your personal and professional/creative spheres?
Philanthropy isn’t something I talk about often but I am deeply involved in it and very grateful for it. I am proud of our community and proud of all the connectivity. I support children, the elderly, HIV patients, and Armenian causes. I am involved in Armenian related causes out of a sense of connectedness to my heritage.
About Michael Aram:
Michael Aram creates beautiful and distinctive objects for the home. After taking what would later be a life-altering trip to India in 1989 where he discovered rich metalworking traditions, Aram turned his artistic vision towards craft based design, setting up a home and workshop in New Delhi. Although he is most recognized for his signature metal gift and tabletop offerings, he also designs large-scale sculptures, furniture, lighting, home fragrance, textiles, porcelain and fine jewelry. He has created two works of public art that celebrate his Armenian heritage: Migrations and Noah’s Ark. Migrations, a sculpture in remembrance of centennial of the Armenian Genocide, was constructed in 2015 and his displayed at St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral located in New York City. Earlier this year, the Armenian government invited Aram to create a sculpture for Pope Francis on behalf of the Armenian people. Aram chose to create Noah’s Ark because of its significance to the people of Armenia, and the sculpture will be permanently installed at the Vatican. Aram splits his time between his workshop in India and his New York City studio, and his work is sold in his Los Angeles and New York City retail stores. The brand is also available in over 60 countries through a network of specialty retailers and department stores such as Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s. For more information, please visit www.michaelaram.com.
The Armenian International Women’s Association is a dynamic global 501(c)3 dedicated to empowerment, education and enrichment. Through many projects and initiatives, AIWA is dedicated to enriching social, economic and personal advancement of Armenian women worldwide through educational and other community activities that promote gender equity, and emphasize our Armenian cultural heritage. To learn more about AIWA, please visit http://www.aiwainternational.org. To get involved with the AIWA-SF affiliate, please visit http://www.aiwasanfrancisco.com or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.