Mixing commerce and creativity works best

Ron Arad has been much in evidence over the past few days. First, there was the Pentagram soirée, then, for me, came the chance to sample BBC Bristol’s forthcoming TV exposé of the Royal College of Art.

Ron Arad has been much in evidence over the past few days. First, there was the Pentagram soirée where he shared some of his thinking; then, for me, came the chance to sample BBC Bristol’s forthcoming TV exposé of the Royal College of Art where he heads the industrial design and furniture courses (see “The Week Ahead” ).

Arad is acknowledged internationally as an artist and innovator. As such, he’s well placed at the RCA to inspire the 70 or so MA students who come under his wing. But he also runs a busy London studio, and has persuaded some of the world’s top furniture firms to take on radical ideas. These have not just created showstopping icons that find their way into design museums, but have led to products that sell because of their universal appeal. Take the curvy Bookworm plastics shelving, for example.

One of the great joys of the Bookworm – and, indeed, all of Arad’s work – is the concern not just with form, but with materials and movement. Much of the work, largely in metal or plastics, is “alive” in that it changes its configuration with use, usually by springing. How many other designers look to materials and processes for inspiration rather than as merely a medium for realising their ideas?

But one of the Bookworm’s most appealing features is its success. Manufacturer Kartell has sold hundreds of metres of the shelving, and, while not mass market, prices are competitive. Arad is clearly chuffed by this and his students would do well to heed his pleasure.

Even more encouraging is his view that commercial constraints put upon him by the furniture giants like Kartell and Cassina have driven him to create an even better design. And we’re not talking here of a man given to compromise in his pursuit of what he believes is the best.

The RCA documentary, meanwhile, indicates the way the college is going – towards design and keen commercial thinking. Even applied arts students traditionally destined to create limited edition “craft” pieces are looking to mass production, while printmakers give sound commercial reasons for their choice of medium. Here are some of our best young talents, creatively gifted, yet hell bent on making a good living out of their “art”.

Commercialism for its own sake doesn’t tend to lead to great design. But when the two come together, with creativity as the driver, magic can happen. It’s in Arad’s work, but he’s not alone. Terence Conran, Philippe Starck, Vivienne Westwood – the roll call of design visionaries who mix commerce with creativity goes on. What’s wrong with that?

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