A source of illumination

At a loss when it comes to street lamp history? Unsure about where to turn for the best in inventive design? Try lunching with Zeev Aram, says Hugh Pearman

Somehow, over lunch with Zeev Aram, we had got to talking about street lamps – a particular design of street lamp, in fact/ the Wornum. You see them all over central Westminster, and nowhere else. First designed in 1951, the Wornum is a street lamp peculiar to just this one borough. But Aram knew more.

I’d met Aram – founder of the eponymous Aram store which he runs with his offspring Daniel and Ruth – because, well, everyone needs to meet him from time to time, because it’s fun and you always learn something. At his invitation I’d called in to see his exhibition of Jair Straschnow furniture prototypes on the top floor of his store. And when Aram says something’s worth seeing, you’d better believe it.

Grassworks was the name of the exhibition. Everything was made in sheet bamboo laminates – the stuff you normally find used in eco-conscious flooring.

Lovingly crafted by Israeli-born, Dutch-based Straschnow as to make maximum use of the structural and flexible qualities of the material, here was hands-on design at its best – inventive, beautiful, useful, even witty. There were various tables and trestles, bookshelves, chairs and an asymmetric see-saw allowing an adult to balance a child, all designed to be assembled from flat-pack components requiring minimal metal fastenings. Dovetail joints were designed so that it was impossible to assemble the pieces in the wrong way.

This is what real design should be about: inquiring, logical, true to its materials. There’s something of the Eameses and of Arne Jacobsen about his work, which still manages to be very different in feel from either.

So Aram had shown me a rare new talent, and will be developing at least one of the pieces for production. And then we went to lunch, and that’s when the talk moved on to the Wornum street lamps.

Let me explain. Grey Wornum was a lesser-known architect of the early to mid-20th century, best-known for ocean-liner interiors and his competition-winning 1934 headquarters of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He even won the commission for the street decorations for the coronation of Edward VIII. Whoops, that king abdicated before coronation day.

In 1951, Wornum remodelled Parliament Square and, as part of the commission, designed a street lamp that was modern and electric, but supposedly influenced by the old gas lamps then common in Westminster.

All this time later, the lamps, in two sizes, are the default choice for historic central Westminster. There can be no other Festival of Britain-era piece of street furniture still in everyday use in this way.

I was puzzled, though. All the gas lamps I had seen in London were your standard angular Dickensian-lantern model, not a hanging circular object like the Wornum. What had he based his design on? At this, Aram pricked up his ears. He knew. ‘They’re in Kean Street, outside my building,’ he said. ‘I’m fighting to save them.’

Of course, I hadn’t noticed. So we went back to the street and there they were, a few battered remaining examples/ beautiful, massive cast-iron stems erupting into curvy gas luminaires at the top – vplus one on a building that Aram wants to adopt. And alongside them were a few small electric Wornums in similar style.

More than a century of street-furniture design history there in Aram’s manor. I can’t imagine a more appropriate place.

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From 20-23 September, London’s Designjunction takes place on the South of the River Thames, and will see installations, exhibitions, talks and its well-known fair spread across three venues including Doon