PQ Eyewear is a new optical brand from uber-designer Ron Arad that uses innovative mechanics and radical styling to put other glasses in the shade. The Israel-born, London-based designer talks with us about his new type of frame.
“New ideas are important. Most trousers look like trousers, most sweaters look like sweaters, most glasses look like glasses,” says the superstar designer Ron Arad. “But there is room for something new as well. That’s what PQ is here to do.”
PQ is Arad’s first foray into eyewear, a whole new optical brand that is designed by the Israel-born, London-based designer. And what is new about his glasses ranges from a frame that replaces a traditional pin hinge with a folding mechanism based on animal vertebrae to another model that allows the wearer to adjust the position of the lenses relative to the nose. Of the latter innovation in the A-Frame, Arad comments: “You decide what kind of look you want rather than let a glasses manufacturer decide.”
Indeed, radical styling is another of Arad’s contributions to eyewear. “When you look at glasses from another era you can see they had amazing aesthetics and innovations that put today’s glasses to shame,” says Arad. “Now everything is retro and sometimes even a retro of retro. Of course there are one or two new ideas, but not enough.” Arad’s response to the state of optical design: frames constructed from unusual combinations of wire that are bug eyed and striking in their use of bright colours and animal-like stripes.
Breaking the mould (sometimes literally) is an Arad signature that can be seen in both his architecture and design-art for which he is best known. And there is a relationship between his iconic chairs and the sunglasses of PQ: “With the family that’s called Corbs after Corbusier’s glasses, we wanted to do the same thing that we did once with big chairs that are made of carved layers. If you cut a three-dimensional volume out of this you get a monolithic volume where the layers are expressing themselves. You get contour-like lines. It’s all one part. Instead of hinge we came up with a device to make the temples flexible. They can fold in but when you open them they come to a stop because of the geometry.”
Yet high minded innovation isn’t Arad’s only motivation when designing frames that put others in the shade: “We want people’s glasses to get noticed,” he says frankly. “We want for other people to say ‘you know, those glasses look great and you look great in those glasses.’”
Ron Arad’s definition of luxury:
Everything that is not required for your survival. When you’re warm, have shelter and have something to eat, everything else is luxury. There’s a spectrum of luxury. For me, luxury is what I’m doing – to go to work and not suffer. To design eyewear is a luxury. You don’t need to design eyewear. The world can survive without my humble contribution. But the fact that I can do it is a luxury.
You’re an architect and designer known for your furniture. Why move into eyewear?
I didn’t choose, it chose me. A very energetic guy took a long time to convince us to get involved. He was absolutely right but we were also right to hesitate because if we open the door to our studio, it takes so much attention and time. It’s endless. It’s not a project that you do and finish. It’s a contract for life if it’s successful.
You’re well known for your unusual chairs, which are often cited as one of the most difficult objects to design. Are sunglasses a similar test of a good designer?
I don’t know who’s testing me. When you look at the industry, you can see that there’s so much room for new ideas that you’re almost surprised. Things that for me that are elementary, like the fact that you can very easily control the distance between the two lenses or the width of the nose pads, surprisingly had not been done before. The whole A-Frame is based on that idea. Then you look at hinges which are sort of pedestrian. Why don’t they do like a segmented temple that can gently fold inwards but not give outwards? For me, to design is to do something that didn’t exist before I designed it. The nice thing about glasses, like chairs, is that we know what it has to do and how it has to perform. We almost know what it looks like. And yet there is room for genuine newness. That’s why we’re in it.
You’ve talked about the ubiquity of retro references. Do you think this is a problem in fashion and design in general?
I think it’s both. It’s a foundation – everything we do has to refer to things done before. That’s true about literature, language, poetry, music. But there are always those people who have an inexplicable urge to do new things. I’m part of that. You look at the jeans industry and they all look like the same jeans. But then there are some people who are able to take that form and introduce something new in it. Not many, but some do.
How would you describe the relationship between PQ frames and the rest of your body of work?
The approach is similar. I can point at similarities between models in the Corbs line and show how it relates to some pieces that I did before in furniture. Anyone with a sharp eye that knows the reference can see the repeats in what we do.
They’re new, and they’re great looking. But they’re also striking. Do you like the idea of the wearer being noticed?
I’m not making Elton John sunglasses! It’s not a Lady Gaga product, although I’m sure she’ll be converted when she sees them. It’s never the intention to shock and attract attention. The task is to do new and better glasses. They’re small innovations, they’re not great innovations. They’re still frames holding lenses to protect us from the sun and to improve sight. They’re not masks. Glasses are personal. I can say ‘take a seat’, and you’ll use a chair whether it suits your personality or not because it’s there. I can’t say ‘take a frame’ because frames are chosen by people that use them. They think it’s an extension of what they transmit to the world about their look, about who they are. It does fall into the world of – and I hesitate using the word – fashion.
What sunglasses did you wear before you created PQ? Were you inspired by any iconic frames?
I’m talking to you from Camden and about 150m from here there is an amazing vintage eyewear shop called Arckiv. I can see things that make me jealous there. Unfortunately I can go into a room and I can identify the brands. I met Miuccia Prada and I told her that I’m doing eyewear. She said, ‘Don’t show me, I don’t want to see because I don’t want to copy!’ For me, it’s the other way round: if you show me something, that’s like a guarantee that I wont do it.
Do you see this product as something more accessible, brining your design to more people?
The Piccadilly line of frames is going to be made of silicone. We want it to be the most accessible in terms of price so that kids won’t think twice about buying them. There are other elements other than cost that make them more accessible: the fact that you can easily tweak with them and make your own look because the lens is the only thing that’s hard in the glasses, everything else is soft. The lenses are interchangeable. You can sit on them and they won’t break. They’re almost toys.
“A-Frame is a simple name for new kind of glasses idea that puts an A-shaped wire structure into the middle of the frame. Raise or lower the bar than runs across the centre of the A and you can move the two lenses and their frames closer together or further away.
Why? No two heads are the same size and shape, no two noses are the same size and shape, and sometimes noses grow over time. The A-frame allows you to adjust your frame to make it fit your particular head or particular nose perfectly.
The wire that forms the A shape also forms the hinges. We took the idea of wound wire cording from the temples of very old glasses. The hinges are sprung so that, when you take your glasses off your face, they close naturally. Also, the wire that makes the A continues to other side of the lenses creating the sense of a frame made from metallic limbs with wire bones running through them.”
“Sculpted from a single block, Corbs is a frame that has a very strong look, but the look is only a small part of the story.
The main story of Corbs is a new hinge idea. We wanted to make a hinge that worked differently to the usual pin and socket hinge because sometimes the pins come loose and get lost. We thought that a one-piece frame gave us the chance to have no pin at all.
So we spent some time looking at the vertebrae in animals we created a hinge idea that was flat on the outside but slatted on the inside so that the arms could bend inwards without bending outwards.
When you have an innovation like this, it is important that you let it be the main innovation so that is why it felt right to put it on a frame shape that was a little less new and a little more generic. That is why we chose the Corbs shape, from Le Corbusier, although of course we could not resist paraphrasing a little, and tweaking it a little. The lenses are actually at the back of the frame, drawing more attention to the substantial single piece form.”