Another dimension

As a retrospective of Ron Arad’s work opens at the V&A, Hugh Pearman meets the man who is blurring the boundaries between art and design

For a man who used to bash metal more effectively than most, Ron Arad has made an amazingly smooth transition to the world of design-by-wire.

He can still wield a hammer with aplomb, but these days you’re as likely to find Arad at a keyboard. Specifically, the day we meet, the keyboard of his new Sony “mother of all mothers of laptops”, as he describes the machine on which his life’s work, including his movies and videos, is stored. On its screen he also summons forth the design for his show at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Before and After Now. It is a high-impact exhibition. Today, it is arguable that the V&A needs Arad more than Arad needs the V&A. That’s how far he has travelled since arriving in Britain as an architecture student in 1973.

I think of the times in the past when I have met Ron Arad. It was always the same Ron, successfully concealing his ambition and strength of purpose beneath a diffident and halting manner – and always doing something wholly different and unexpected. First, it was the man who invented creative salvage with his famous Rover chairs. Then came his foray into fashionable retailing with his One-Off shops in Covent Garden, complete with concrete hi-fi. Arad became so trendy at one point that there was a danger he could well have vanished with other names of the so-called “designer decade”. But Arad never sits still, always strikes out in new directions. He was always the real thing, was always going to rise to the surface.

While he was still firmly ensconced in London’s Covent Garden – in those days cheap places for workshops could still be found there – he started to reinvent the bookshelf. Particularly memorable was his so-called Bookend project, designed to hold a maximum of six paperbacks – because the seventh would slide down into a shredder. That way, you kept your library small, but perfect. I don’t think that ever existed except as a sketch, though its destructive qualities were re-used in the legendary chair-crushing machine he installed for his first important exhibition, Sticks and Stones, at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in1987. The point was that there were just too many chairs in the world. Later, of course, came the massively best-selling Bookworm – no need to worry about getting your shelves straight with that one – and, of course, shoals of new chairs.

Wanting to crush chairs in 1987 never stopped Arad from designing new ones. As he points out, “We need new chairs like we need new clothes or new books.” And images of two brand new ones flash up on the laptop – for Cassina and Kartell – which he is launching at the V&A exhibition.

Arad – for all that he is an architect, and a designer of much else besides, even whisky bottles – cannot escape the chair. For Cassina, with its daunting back catalogue of heavyweight design names, Arad felt he had to do something “important” – unlike some other, more fashion-based furniture companies where he can indulge his wit more openly. “Look,” he says as he opens the image of the earliest design for Cassina. “You can see it’s important. Go on, tell me it’s important.” What he originally designed was a deceptively simple rectangular timber table with what appears to be drawers. The drawers pulled right out and opened up to form chairs – but chairs which clearly retained the memory of being drawers. In other words, Arad was primarily designing a table, not a chair.

But as the design process went on, and Cassina suggested ways in which the chairs could be made to work better – and not only fold, but also stack – and then stack flat as well as fully opened – Arad found that he ended up designing something very different. Not a timber table with drawer-chairs at all, but a glass table with foldable, stackable plastic chairs that can, indeed, be stored beneath the table, but which do not derive their being from the table. Chairs that contain a lot of design work, for instance in their ingenious cam-assisted auto-locking mechanisms. Arad tells the story to illustrate a point: “So the chair won, in the end.”

Then, he says, another of his clients, Kartell (it does his Fantastic Plastic Elastic chair, Bookworm, and so on), got upset that he’d designed a plastic chair for another manufacturer – ironically, in view of the fact that he had at first envisaged the Cassina group in timber. But Arad can find ways round such trade jealousies. By then he had another idea for a plastic chair – so he offered that one to Kartell as a peace offering. It is utterly different: a folding chair, made in the first instance from composite materials, that in its collapsed state is only 8mm thick. The chairs snuggle together like Pringles crisps, so a complete conference room’s worth of 200 of them would make, Arad says with precision, a pile just 1.6m high. Made in composites, this is not exactly mass-market. But it wants to be. If a chair stacks, the implication is that it is cheap. Arad’s most successful chairs can and do make the transition from high to lower (though never dirt cheap) price bands. The famous Tom Vac chair began in vacuum-formed aluminium, then went to glass fibre and resin, and finally hit mass production with Vitra in injection-moulded plastic. Arad reckons that the (working title) Flat Stack chair for Kartell will eventually emerge in some form of fibre-strengthened plastic.

But let’s flash back a moment – something it is very easy to do, aided by Arad’s wonder-laptop. As the 1980s became the 1990s, he finally left Covent Garden and built his Baroque scrapyard of a studio in Chalk Farm, with its billowing floor and use of low-grade materials such as expanded metal and industrial transparent plastic sheeting. From being a curiosity on the fringes of the London design scene, he moved to centre stage as an international name, always the toast of the Milan Fair, with offerings from his immense Big Easy welded-metal chairs to his rapid-prototyped vases and lampshades. Then – he is, after all, an architect – he started to do serious buildings, such as the foyers of the Tel Aviv Opera House, at the time assisted by architect Alison Brooks. For a while the studio had architects upstairs and a workshop downstairs, with Arad flitting between the two.

He is cautious when talking about this period – on the whole it was good, he believes, apart from the fact that at times there appeared to be a division between white-collar workers upstairs and blue-collar types downstairs. Then Brooks went solo, and Arad reverted to what seems his natural, holistic, way of working – where he and his eight staff may work one day on a vase, the next on a building, with no distinction between architects and designers. With his workmanlike clothes (and, at least in cold weather, his trademark black Brueghelesque hat) and willingness to get his hands dirty, you sense that Arad’s leanings were always towards the blue-collar anyway. I’ve never met anyone who talks less like a poncy designer.

You still find him in the same studio, down an alley next to a Majestic Wine Warehouse. Apart from being painted royal blue, the building, with its rickety iron staircase, looks like any other old workshop. Indeed, the last time I was here, the downstairs was still a factory, where Arad made his one-off pieces. No more. Production has moved elsewhere, apart from the occasional working model. Where previously I encountered cheery welders, now I find Arad’s staff sitting at tables with computers. The atmosphere, curiously, is pretty much the same as it used to be; perhaps because as the technology has advanced, the condition of the building has deteriorated. It was never pristine – that was not its style of architecture – but a decade on, it is starting to look a bit flaky.

But don’t be fooled: Ron Arad Associates is, these days, the hub of an international enterprise. Art collectors buy Arad’s work in special editions or commission one-offs – such as a pair of blown-aluminium fireplaces he did for Janice and David Blackburn, the one being the obverse of the other. His early pieces fetch very high prices at design auctions. As we have seen, international manufacturers fall over themselves to commission him. While we talk, his partner Caroline Thorman discreetly moves to and fro with queries about the material being gathered for the V&A show. The phone goes: it is Alexander von Vegesack of the Vitra Design Museum. He wants to transport the London exhibition lock, stock, and barrel to the new Vitra Museum in Berlin. Arad points out that many items are lent by their owners, who want to see them back sometime, but promises to help. Later, the phone rings again and it turns out to be the architect Arata Isosaki, in London. An appointment is made for the afternoon. Some collaborative project is in the offing.

Indeed, there is a wide variety of projects in the offing. Architecture commissions are starting to flow. First of all, of course, came the foyers for the Tel Aviv Opera House – the sweeping shapes created, amazingly, before Arad had mastered the use of computers. The drawings tell you that this is no jumped-up designer pretending to be an architect: again, it is the real thing. Then came the famous house in Hampstead that never got built because of the outcry from wealthy neighbours. There was another house, in Germany, that always looked promising, but never got built. Now there are more, firmer, projects: in London, where he is making a London base for Broomhill Opera out of the old Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End: in Paris, where another kind of auditorium building (secret at present) is to be built, plus some interiors and other pending schemes. “We are going to have to get quite a bit bigger, quite quickly,” observes Arad.

Already we can see how he can span the disciplines of design and architecture. What is just as interesting is the way he crosses over from both design and architecture to sculpture. His commissions at Canary Wharf – the Windwand and Big Blue – are artworks. (He grumbles that the Windwand was meant to go right in front of the Canary Wharf tower, where instead they put Constantin Grcic’s clock-installation). Plenty of his one-off furniture pieces – particularly those in welded steel and blow-formed aluminium – aspire to the condition of sculpture. And memorably, he can use his own chairs to make a different kind of sculpture, as with the 10m high Totem of Tom Vac chairs he made for Domus in Milan in 1997. Somehow, there is something very Architectural Association about that project – you can imagine it outside the AA building in London’s Bedford Square – a reminder, perhaps, of the influence of Arad’s alma mater.

But while he does architecture and veers towards sculpture, he is also obsessed with the techniques he is now deploying of “rapid prototyping”. He does his best to explain to me how this works – layers of resin are built up in some kind of tank, the computer-guided laser following your designs exactly – but I don’t follow it, even when he shows me a computer animation of the process taking place. So he simplifies for me: “You send off an e-mail with the design to a company in Europe. Let’s say Belgium, or Luxembourg, or Andorra. The next day, a man in a uniform from DHL arrives with a box. Inside the box is the product.” This is 21st century magic.

The key thing is that you can make a whole number of individually unique objects. Freeze one frame and press the button, and that design is made. Stretch the image a little and freeze that, and you have another, faithfully made by an electronic robot. You can see the attraction to Arad, a man famous for one-offs. But there is nothing wrong with the old hand-crafted method, he observes, any more than there is anything necessarily wrong with mass-produced identical objects. “The only thing that matters is that it should be good.”

Of course, the prior design work takes a bit of time, but it needn’t. Arad shows me a design for a vase which took, he says, three minutes. Then he says ten minutes. “No, let’s be truthful: 15 minutes,” he finally admits. Another bit of uncategorisable design was the three-dimensional rendering of his own handwriting – using the same ineffable computerised techniques – to make the title piece for his Milan show this year: “Not made by hand, not made in China”. The tweaked scrawl was duly fired off by e-mail and came back as a satisfyingly bizarre object. It seems almost too easy – like David Hockney’s Polaroids and faxes – but as with those, it’s the idea behind the technology that counts.

Pride of place in Arad’s studio is given to a large, highly-decorated pink rabbit made by his younger daughter, Dara (a palindrome: Dara Arad is the same back-to-front). Some of the unearthly music accompanying his computer animations of his springy vases and lampshades is made on Dara’s toy plastic plunger-flute. Our Ron is clearly a doting father – he is proud of the fact that Dara’s rabbit is a piece of design work that he could not possibly compete with – but the toy-flute-music tells us also that he is able to derive inspiration from anything, anywhere.

Arad reflects that designing products is not seen as being as serious as architecture – that architecture is given the highbrow culture treatment in the quality newspapers, while chairs, say, are mostly confined to the homes-and-gardens editors. This bothers him a bit. “But I don’t think it’s right to stop doing furniture in order to do architecture,” he says. “Everyone here loves the fact that they can work for a while on industrial design, then for a while on a house, say. Mostly, we are happy.”

After three years as a professor at the Royal College of Art, Arad is now mentoring a crop of promising graduates, some showing signs of his noted lateral-thinking abilities, who are starting to show up on awards shortlists. At the college he has introduced a less pressured way of doing things – rather than leave everything until the final show, Arad now encourages first-year students to display their work in progress. This is for the thoroughly “Aradian” reason that evolving ideas can be as interesting as the final, polished presentation designs.

Now, Ron and his team have a very high profile outing at the V&A – not tucked away in a corner somewhere, but in pole position, leading 100m into the heart of the museum from the entrance. Set on a shiny metallic foam-filled plinth incorporating graphics by Tomato, the show is an active summary of an extraordinary career so far – 20 years of surprises, including his latest Victoria & Albert seating for Moroso. It is good that this exhibition is taking place in mainstream South Kensington rather than at the Design Museum or a trade fair such as Milan. It ought to boost the museum’s attendances – already starting to look perky again thanks to the success of the Art Nouveau exhibition. And somehow – why is this? – Ron Arad in the same building as the Art Nouveau blockbuster seems positively serendipitous, a century after that movement was at its peak. See them both together, and you’ll see what I mean.

Before and After Now is on at the V&A Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 from 12 June to 1 October

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