Artist and Designer
Michael Aram Inc.
While best known for his coveted metalware designs, artist and sculptor Michael Aram is a true renaissance man, designing luxe giftware, home accessories, furniture and more under his own eponymous label, in addition to collaborating on a line with Waterford. This May, Aram added luggage design to his long list of skills, pairing up with classic American brand Hartmann for a collection called The Naturalist. Elite Traveler caught up with the globetrotting designer right before he departed for India—where he has had a home and workshop for the past 20 years—to steal his top tips on travel, entertaining and home décor.
ET: How did the collaboration with Hartmann come about?
Michael Aram: It’s a little bit “all in the family.” I’ve been doing this for 21 years and have been lucky enough to work with some amazing people. I was at Waterford and [then-CEO] Peter Cameron bought Hartmann and brought me along with him. It was a bit of a natural fit, because I travel so much and have opinions on what to carry.
ET: Was it a big departure for you to go from designing gifts and home goods to designing luggage? How was the process different?
Michael Aram: The difference for any licensed product is that it’s liberating for me—I can get a little bit out of my head and “cross-pollinate,” if you will, with the DNA of the brand. It’s all about seeing how we can merge my design aesthetic with the design aesthetic of the brand. I approach it with a sense of excitement and a sense of learning. I also had a lot of support from the Hartmann team in Tennessee—I met with people there who have been stitching bags for decades. I look at them as handmade bags, since there’s still a sort of handmade process involved.
ET: What were some of your must-haves for the collection?
Michael Aram: Hartmann had parameters which were hugely important to them—for them it’s about the bags being indestructible and standing up to rigorous testing. For me, it was about getting a fabric with ballistic qualities to feel natural, and to feel good next to your body. The last thing I wanted was a tweed suitcase, because I travel to so many hot countries. And I didn’t want the designs to be limiting: I wanted the collection to have a non-sex-specific quality to it, so I designed pieces that could work for both men and women. I also wanted a “handmade” element. I didn’t want the pieces to scream, but I didn’t want them to look like every black suitcase out there.
ET: What makes the pieces in the Michael Aram for Hartmann collection so great for travelers?
Michael Aram: Number one—they’re lightweight. That was something that was very difficult to achieve, because the construction also had to be really solid. It was important to me, with today’s travel and weight restrictions, that the bags be lightweight, and it was hugely important for Hartmann because historically they are known for heavy bags. The second thing for me was, “how do I get my signature on the bags?” I did this by incorporating cast-metal hardware and some of the nature-inspired elements that are very iconic of my designs.
ET: Do you have any travel tips for our readers as a frequent traveler yourself?
Michael Aram: I’m a little bit of a unique traveler in that I travel so much that I don’t really freak out about trips. I may not pack until that morning—I have a lackadaisical approach, which I think helps. But it’s always important to have some kind of mental checklist. I do that every time I leave my house. I repeat the basics to myself: Keys, passport, money. I know that sounds really simple, but I cannot tell you how many stories I hear about people who have forgotten their passports. The one thing you do not want to be wondering as you’re running off to the airport is where your passport is. I also look at my travels as real downtime. I look out the window when we’re taking off and I see everything getting smaller and smaller, and I leave it all behind. And because India’s so far, I shower in between flights on my layover. I arrive in Frankfurt and before my next ten hour flight to Delhi or Hong Kong or wherever, it’s so good to just jump in the shower, shave and put new clothes on—it makes you feel like you’re starting the day off fresh.
ET: A trip to India inspired you to start working with metals—do your travels still inspire your designs?
Michael Aram: The trip I just took to Vietnam was purely an inspiration trip. I was inspired not only by the culture there, but by the local techniques. It’s amazing how many different craft techniques there are. I saw people in Vietnam doing the most incredible lacquer work. I’m also inspired by how they entertain—I’m always curious how weather affects different entertaining styles.
ET: Besides travel, what else inspires you when you’re designing a new collection?
Michael Aram: I’m really into flea marketing. I’m always of the belief that you never know what you’ll find at a garage sale. For me, it’s not about the pedigree, it’s about finding things that strike you. I’m forever in museums and galleries, and I’m always open to different cuisines and entertaining styles. And of course, just looking through books. Home renovations and historic preservation always inspire me—though mostly selfishly (laughs).
ET: From tableware to furniture to holiday ornaments, you design everything you need to make a beautiful home. Do you have any top decorating tips?
Michael Aram: I am a very object-driven person. The way I approach my interiors is to collect things that I find utterly beautiful from anywhere around the world. It’s just about the interest of the object: A wooden ladder from northeast India, Paris flea market finds, things that inspire me, feed me or excite me on some level. I use them in my interior spaces as the focal points. For me it’s about keeping objects large and few for a sense of drama and openness—I don’t like a lot of clutter, I like when objects have some breathing room around them. I think you should live with art objects in a way that’s very natural—art need not be hidden away.
ET: You also make amazing cocktail accessories—what are some of your must-haves for entertaining?
Michael Aram: In India there’s always a lot more time for entertaining, and much more of an inclination to entertain. In New York, it’s more about cocktail hour and hors d’oeuvres and keeping it very easy. My designs are perfect for that moment of cocktails, entertaining, wine and cheese. My approach to entertaining is that it need not be overly complicated. It’s important to have beautiful objects because it heightens the experience and shows your guests that you care about them and care about the experience. One of the amazing things about living in New York City is that you can just run out and make an amazing table. I think you should take care in how you present things—while it’s true that we lead very busy lives and can;t always make a 10-course dinner, if you present things with beauty and care it means a lot to your guests. A lot of New Yorkers are scared of entertaining and think it’s complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. In India there’s always that sense of warmth and hospitality, that “come one, come all” mentality.
ET: What are some of your favorite places to visit, and what are some of your favorite hotels to stay in when you travel?
Michael Aram: I do a wide range of travel. Italy is always memorable for me, since I studied in Italy when I was younger and could never get enough. I was recently in the Amalfi Coast. I like Kashmir because it’s off the beaten track—it’s just the most enchanting spot. I stay in the Clermont houseboats. There are just three of them on a garden away from everything, but everyone from the Beatles to Henry Kissinger has stayed there. The owner is the sweetest man: He’ll bring down freshly made donuts and light a fire for you upon arrival if it’s cold. In terms of Southeast Asia, the Bombay Oberoi is magnificent. There’s also a tented camp in Ranthambhore called Sher Bagh, the tiger garden. It’s inside a tiger reserve. I’m a big India person, so anything there is so thrilling, so personal and just utterly luxurious. And I love Chicago—it’s close to home but just fun. I love The Drake hotel. I love a lot of old hotels, the old-world grandeur.
ET: What’s next for Michael Aram?
Michael Aram: We are working now on new collections for Hartmann, for Waterford and for my own brand. I’m working on furniture, and I’m working on a jewelry collection as well. The jewelry will be based on a lot of motifs in my other works: Very nature-inspired, very narrative, very hand-made. The materials will include gold, silver, enamel, precious and semi-precious stones—really, it’s about the design and the quality of materials and the craftsmanship. It should be in stores next spring. I’ve been working on it for a long time, so I want to make sure that when it hits it’s ready.