Ron Arad has blurred the distinctions between design, architecture and art. Luxuryculture.com spoke to him ahead of his retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Ron Arad is one of today's most influential designers and architects. His innovative work has a distinct vocabulary that is characterized by experimenting with playful forms and advanced technologies. Luxuryculture.com spoke to him just before his retrospective opens at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Ron Arad famously defies classification. He embraces a transdisciplinary approach to design, architecture and art. His work has been exhibited in architecture biennales, design fairs and art galleries alike, and he is one of the most highly acclaimed creatives working today.
Born in 1951 in Tel Aviv, Arad has been based in London since his student days at the Architectural Association. When he started out 27 years ago, he founded a studio called "One Off Ltd" with his business partner Caroline Thorman in Covent Garden, where he made unique pieces from found objects. His first classic was the "Rover" chair, a readymade that was deconstructed from leather seats from Rover cars that he bought at a scrapyard, dismantled, upholstered and mounted on scaffolding. He sold the first six pieces to Jean-Paul Gaultier for £99.00 each. Now they are a collectible selling for thousands.
In 1989, Arad and Thorman founded Ron Arad Associates in Chalk Farm, north London, in the building that they still occupy today. It is a former shed that Arad transformed into a split-level site with a wave-like PVC roof. The architectural team is on the ground floor and the design team is on the first.
Ron Arad has been called the postmodern master of steel. His dynamic vocabulary is characterized by playful, curving, sculptural shapes and volumetric forms, the utilization of reflective, man-made materials, and the exploration of technological innovations. Working across the spectrum, Arad has made mass-produced pieces for the likes of Moroso, Alessi, Kartell and Vitra, in addition to very sophisticated, limited editions that are sold through Friedman Benda in New York, Galerie Downtown in Paris and Timothy Taylor Gallery in London. Timothy Taylor is holding its first solo show with Arad next spring. "Artists have been working in the field of modern design and functionality as part of their practice for a long time; we thought it was interesting to support a designer who is infiltrating the arena of art," says Emma Dexter, director of exhibitions at Timothy Taylor Gallery.
Arad's first commission was the Tel Aviv Opera House in 1994. Subsequent projects have included vertical parking facilities for the Vallarta Tower in Guadalajara in Mexico, Magis's headquarters in Treviso, the seventh floor of the Hotel Puerta America in Madrid, refurbishing the Hotel Duomo in Rimini, and Yohji Yamamoto's Y flagship store in Roppongi Hills in Tokyo. He's also designed the Hotel Swarovski Wattens, Austria, which – according to Arad – will be "spectacular". Situated next to Swarovski's Crystal World in the Alps, the seven-storey hotel is designed as a tall, narrow, flat screen. In keeping with Swarovski's dazzling style, the hotel will have a crystal façade and the windows will be glazed in a mirrored glass in a crystal formation, reflecting the sky, the Alps, the village, the factory and the fields.
Another of his commissions is the Design Museum in Holon, Jerusalem, currently under construction. It will resemble a red, twisted ampersand composed of five, sweeping bands of bronze-clad steel that will shelter two white rectangular galleries. "The city wanted an iconic building, whatever that means," says Arad. "They actually said that they wanted a building that they could put on a postal stamp! It's the Bilbao effect: every little city wants a little Bilbao. But the people who approach me know I'm not looking for an easy ride."
This November, Ron Arad's retrospective "No Discipline" opens at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and an exhibition of new work kicks off at Friedman Benda in New York. Luxuryculture.com spoke exclusively to the star designer to find out what makes him tick.
What was your upbringing in Tel Aviv like?
My mother was a painter and my father was a sculptor. I was totally spoilt and cultured. I grew up playing the guitar, listening to Bob Dylan and reading Art Forum every month. I grew up in a liberal, progressive, artistic, comfortable and modest environment. Either you live in a big, urban centre like New York, London or Paris or you live in city like Tel Aviv. When you live outside the major capitals, all the information you glean on art world events are magnified. What stimulates your imagination is far more intense, and seems far more important, than if you're in the thick of things. Perhaps that's the advantage of living on the periphery.
The first time you exhibited at Pompidou was in 1987 when you were invited to participate in "Nouvelles tendances. Les avant-gardes de la fin du XXème siècle", an exhibition on new trends at the end of the twentieth century. What did you present and how was it received?
I was the youngest exhibitor there. The exhibition was for the center's tenth anniversary and they decided to do this show on the different directions that design was taking. And for some reason they decided to include me. For them I represented "ruinism", which sort of coincided with some French observation of what I was doing.
The brief was to do something that had something to do with the future, and I maintained that I wasn't interested in predicting the future but that I could make it come a bit faster by getting rid of some of the past. I had a machine that got rid of chairs and I invited people to come to the Pompidou and place their chairs on the conveyor belt, and then they went into a scrap metal bailing machine. Then a wall would be made out of the compacted tubes that used to be the chairs. The machine ended up going to the Vitra Design Museum and actually traveled as a sort of performing sculpture.
Twenty-one years later, you've been invited back for a retrospective. How have you organized and curated it?
It's divided into three parts: architecture, industrial design and studio-gallery pieces – like one-off pieces or limited editions. We designed the exhibition and curated it with the team. There aren't any clear divisions though, they're more so osmotic. Although it's about one continuum in my work, it's true that some people will get more excited about architecture and others about industrial design or art.
You've titled the exhibition "No Discipline."
Yes, it refers to having no single profession, and not taking rules and conventions too seriously. As far as I am concerned, there are interesting things and thrilling things and tedious things. And I don't need to report to myself, "What drawer or what compartment do I put this in?" All the elements and all the ideas and all the emotions are here, or not here, regardless of how it's classified. And you'll find that designers will look at it and say, "This is art." And you'll find that artists will look at it and say, "This is design." Sometimes it's dismissed as art and sometimes as design. You're free to decide if something is a sculpture or a piece of furniture. But I'm too busy for that.
What inspired you to include an identical reproduction of the entrance hall to the Tel Aviv Opera that you realized in 1994?
The first idea was to show that it's very difficult in architectural exhibitions to show architecture itself; you're mostly showing representations of it, such as models and films, but it's not the same thing because of the obvious issue of scale. So I decided to reproduce this entrance hall. It is – at the same time – an exhibit and part of my career. There are also lots of films and videos, but I wanted to have one project that is represented on a one-to-one scale and the space is big enough to contain that.
What else are you working on?
Lots and lots of different things. After the Pompidou, the exhibition is traveling to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in June 2009 and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 2010. I'm having a solo show next March with Timothy Taylor Gallery in London. It's an art gallery; if it was "design art", I probably wouldn't be doing it. We're always doing new stuff to get excited about. That's the main thing in life: doing stuff that you can get excited about.
What do you think of the expression "design art" and the market that this has spawned?
I don't like this word "design art", just like Cindy Sherman wouldn't like "photography art". It creates a big bubble for a lot of bandwagon work and is the result of the art world being like Bolsheviks about words that suggest functioning and the old-fashioned idea that art excludes function. The art world should be grown up enough to know what to include or not. But I'm not going to point my finger at anyone, or undermine anyone, because everyone needs to make a living.
I heard that you have redesigned the Rover chair for Vitra.
Absolutely. The Rover chair was the first piece of furniture that I came up with and after 26 years, I thought, "Let's do a new version." It's just like how Mini looked at their old Mini and relaunched it. This time, though, the Rover chair isn't relying on found objects but has all the attributes of the old ones. On first glance it looks like the old one, and on second glance you see that it is mass-manufactured. It's funny because I didn't want to become a designer when I made it, and now that's what I am! So it's a demonstrator of changes and processes.
It's interesting because the UK program "Top Gear" uses fake Rover chairs. And the funny thing is that the program "Dead Ringers" is doing a repro of "Top Gear" in which they're using real Rover chairs! You can still buy the original Rover chair here and there in auctions. Phillips de Pury sold some in September this year.
You're known for experimenting with new technologies. How do you approach this?
I use all the materials and technologies available today. There are two ways to create: either you discover a material or a manufacturing process and ask yourself what you can do with it. Or you have a precise idea and look at what material or manufacturing process would enable you to make it. I'll give you an example: when I discovered that you could hollow out aluminum forms, I wondered how I could use this incredible technology. Then I designed the "Tom Vac" chair. At other times, the drawing precedes the research for materials and technology. Take my piece "Even the Odd Balls?" [two chairs in mirror-polished stainless steel conceived for Sotheby's "Beyond Limits" selling exhibition at Chatsworth]. It was completely imagined on the computer. Before being developed in the atelier, it involved a huge amount of technological, numerical work. Technology moves at an amazing speed. But it's still not moving fast enough.
How would you describe the different considerations between creating a limited edition piece for a gallery and something that will be mass-manufactured?
When you make something industrial, the aim is to sell it as much as possible. So you have to be pay close attention to production costs and negotiate with manufacturers. But it's normal because they invest stacks of money to make the necessary tool to develop the piece. But with a gallery you are totally free to do what you want. The cost and the time that it takes to realize something are not primordial. You don't negotiate anything with anyone. We have two ateliers: on near Como in Italy and one in Maastricht in the Netherlands. Nothing is made in London.
I read that you had found out about a factory in China which was making counterfeits of your products, and that you were thinking of working with this factory in order to produce original works. What's happening with that?
It takes time to organize, and it's one thing I want to do. I spoke to Moroso and Vitra, and we're talking about ways of joining them, rather than fighting them.
Are you still collaborating with Dolce & Gabbana?
I wouldn't call it collaborating. I exhibited in their wonderful Metropol theater in the center of Milan two years ago, and I've also designed some things for the reception of their headquarters and a sculpture for the atrium. The exhibition in Milan inspired the name of my "Bodyguards" collection, which is a very important one and the name is excellent for it. Most of the work is reflective so you could see the bodyguards reflected in it [The Bodyguards collection comprises mirror-polished aluminum chairs, chaise-longues and sculptures.]
How was the experience of working with Yohji Yamamoto on designing the Y's flagship store in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo?
The day after the opening, there was a series of interviews and the first question was, "How was it to work together?" And I thought of saying, "He was more present in his absence." But I didn't need to say anything. Yohji answered before I had the chance: "Oh, we didn't work together. I chose Ron and let him do what he wanted." That's an ideal client. Other clients take all the credit.
What advice do you give your students at the Royal College of Art, where you are Professor of Product Design?
It's not to try to join anything but to create themselves, and to see what it is that they want to do, and to do it. And not just join a religion or become a part of anything. That's like my hero, Bob Dylan. He's somebody that didn't allow anybody or anything to claim him. He's amazing: reinventing himself and us together with him. I think the same. It's about not being claimed or attached yourself too much to everything. It's up to me what direction each project takes.
"Ron Arad: No Discipline" is at the Centre Pompidou in Paris from November 19, 2008, through January 26, 2009. www.cnac-gp.fr
"Ron Arad: Guarded Thoughts" is at Friedman Benda in New York from November 7 through December 20, 2008. www.friedmanbenda.com
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